Scotland ‘decades behind in attitudes to race’ warns national poet

Scotland’s attitudes to race is decades behind England’s, our national poet has warned.

Scots Makar Jackie Kay. Picture: Mary McCartney
Scots Makar Jackie Kay. Picture: Mary McCartney

Makar Jackie Kay said the country had to “grow up” and take more responsibility for the treatment of black and ethnic minorities.

She said it was unacceptable to ask black people where they were from in Scotland in 2019, when the same question would not be asked of someone in Liverpool, Birmingham or London.

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Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Kay revealed she had been verbally abused at a Burns Supper in the city two years ago and told to “get out” of the event, despite being a guest speaker.

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Kay, who was born to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother in Edinburgh, said Scottish culture and broadcasting had failed to reflect the changes in the country’s population or in its education system. She said more action was needed to ensure that Scotland’s modern-day diverse population was reflected in public attitudes about “what it means to be Scottish”.

She suggested not enough was known in Scotland about its past links with the slave trade, which she said Glasgow, where she lives, was “founded on”.

She said it was “extraordinary” that Glasgow University recently agreed to pay £20 million in reparations because someone had asked “a simple question” about how much it had benefited from the proceeds of slavery.

Kay said: “Scotland is different in so many ways to when I was growing up. It’s apparently the most gay-friendly country in Europe now.

“ As far as race goes, there are many, many more people of different backgrounds living in Scotland than when I was growing up.

“But I don’t think Scotland has changed enough as far as race goes. I don’t think we reflect that in our culture, in our television or news programmes, how we think of ourselves and in what we teach about history in schools.

“The average Scottish child won’t know that Glasgow was founded on money from the slave trade, that a slave owner put the Gallery of Modern Art building there, why Jamaica Street is called Jamaica Street and why Virginia Street is called Virginia Street.

“They won’t know any of these things in the way that Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester and London have all started to come to terms with their histories. We just don’t talk about it.

“We like to think of ourselves as a country that is hard done to by England, which we certainly are at the moment, but that’s not our only story.

“But if we’re going to grow up as a country, and we really need to, we’ve got to take some responsibility for our attitudes to race in this country.

“It seems acceptable to keep on asking people where they are from in the way that you just don’t do with a black Liverpudlian, a black Brummie or a black Londoner. You can’t accept that now, in 2019.

“I’m talking about cities and their identities being inter-woved and multi-layered, and people having a communal sense of identity.

“I think Scotland is behind. Any Scottish city is at least 30 or 40 years behind Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and London. That’s just the truth. We need to find ways of changing that. It’s not just about people being there and a diverse population, it’s about how we actually change our image of ourselves when we think of what it means to be Scottish.”

Recalling her ordeal at an Edinburgh Burns Society event she was invited to speak at, Kay said: “I was asked to do the Toast to the Laddies. I asked to do the Toast to the Lassies, but they said no.

“I decided I would write quite a radical speech, a #MeToo generation Toast to the Laddies, which was done with a lot of affection and humour.

“As soon as I started up, one of the men who had actually invited me started heckling me and kept going throughout my address.

“He later told me: ‘This is our club. You don’t belong here. Get out.’ It was deeply shocking and upsetting.”

Kay’s book festival appearance came days after the launch of a stage adaptation of her acclaimed memoir Red Dust Road at the Edinburgh International Festival, which recalls the racism she encountered growing up in Scotland.

Playwright Tanika Gupta, who adapted the book, appeared alongside Kay at the book festival and suggested it was odd that Scotland’s theatre scene had failed to reflect its racial diversity.