I’ve never been the victim of racism but have sadly witnessed it and its impact all too often over the years. For over a decade I was involved in delivering programmes of learning and development for organisations and their staff on the issues of equality and diversity. With the distance of time, I often reflect on that experience which frequently felt as if I was pushing a boulder up a steep hill. Often when I was delivering a training course the first period of time involved me engaging in what felt like an evangelical argument to convince folks that what they were about to experience was not the latest fad, was not a tick box exercise and was not pandering to ‘political correctness’ whatever that was understood as meaning. In other words, it was important, meaningful and that it mattered just as much as Health and Safety to Child Protection training. On occasion I had to engage in a more robust and strident defence and set of arguments on how understanding the way you relate to people who might be different to you, whose behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes you may disagree with – was a fundamental part of working in a modern public facing service and indeed being a part of contemporary society. Whether it was a training course delivered to the police or social workers, to a charity or private business, the challenge and resistance to race equality training was almost predictable and sadly familiarly frequent.
These memories often come to the surface when I consider annual events like Race Relations Week which this year runs from the 6th to 10th February. It is a week which ‘unites employees, focuses senior leaders and encourages them to continue their activity and drive race equality all year long.’ It aims to be ‘a catalyst for ongoing change’ in order to ‘galvanise and maximise impact through a nationwide collaboration for real change.’
In the world of social care, the dynamics of race are significant and important. On the one hand social care as a sector whether in care home or homecare employs and attracts more people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as an overall proportion of the workforce than many other sectors in Scotland. On the other hand, the sector has frequently struggled with the issues of racism that beset the rest of the population. That is both in terms of direct service experience for worker and resident/service user and the paucity of distinctive provision for minority groups as a report by Rohini Sharma Joshi for Scottish Care argued just before the pandemic.
When I trained people in equality and diversity starting three decades ago, I often used to say that over time the knee-jerk resistance to learning about race or disability, sexual orientation or belief would change naturally and progressively – I really believed that as people encountered difference more often, as fears were allayed, as generations changed then behaviour and attitudes would become more inclusive, non-discriminatory, and mature.
I disappointingly must admit that such optimism was misplaced because sadly I feel the challenge of racism is in some senses as acute in some parts of Scotland today as it has been in the past. It is undeniably true that incidents of overt race hate have become less common, that people who are victims have marginally become more confident in reporting, that previously accepted societal and group racist behaviours and so-called humour are now more likely to be challenged or whispered – and yet there is almost now a subtle underground pervasiveness of outdated attitudes to ethnicity even amongst the young. Racism has become more subtle and calculating but no less dangerous and damaging. And at the same time as I think racism has become more hidden in plain sight the focus of learning, development and challenge has become less critical and much less well-resourced and prioritised by both organisations and government.
That is not to deny or ignore for instance that there have been some good pieces of research and reports in the recent past exploring the disproportionately negative experiences of the Covid pandemic upon the BAME population as a whole and upon health and social care staff in particular. This work should be welcomed advocating as it does for politicians, policy makers, organisations, and leaders to address the inequity of treatment, discrimination in resource allocation and bias within organisations and systems. But I think as well as tackling endemic racism at that macro level as individuals and communities we need to do a whole lot more in terms of personal attitudes and behaviours.
The recent well publicised experience of the acting colleagues of the Scottish actor James McAvoy who experienced direct racism in the streets of Glasgow should shame anyone who cares about that city and its reputation. But the sad truth is – no matter how many carpets we choose to brush reality under – that there are daily experiences of direct racist incidents being perpetrated upon both Scots of long lineage and more recent arrivals every day.
I spoke to a social care provider in the west of Scotland just a few weeks ago – they had successfully recruited staff from Africa and had supported their arrival and transition really well. Yet these young women and men recounted tale upon tale of negative experience – at the hands of the public – bananas thrown at one person on the bus; at the hands of service users – someone point blankly refusing to be supported and cared for by a ‘black woman’ and even incidents where colleagues had ignored or demeaned them. Despite all the support and the best endeavours of managers and supervisors this new workforce were now reporting to peers back home the reality of not being welcomed.
I’ve equally lost count of the number of workers in both clinical and care settings who have recounted to me incidents of subtle and significant racist behaviour both at the hands of patients or residents and from peers and colleagues.
We need to call out racism wherever it exists and to challenge the perfidious nature of it at the hands of those who care and in environments where people should be having their humanity affirmed not demeaned.
It is simply not acceptable to say things are better than they were because they are still not as they should be. As a society as we rightly seek to address and challenge other inequities and disadvantages let us in the week ahead also continue to renew our efforts to challenge hatred and discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity. The job is only half done. It is time to care about racism.
The amazing Jackie Kay one of the greatest living poets in Scotland at the current time brilliantly captures the reality of racism in Scotland in her poem, ‘In My Country.’
walking by the waters,
down where an honest river
shakes hands with the sea,
a woman passed round me
in a slow, watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;
or the worst dregs of her imagination,
so when she finally spoke her words spliced into bars
of an old wheel. A segment of air.
Where do you come from?
‘Here,’ I said, ‘Here. These parts.’