It’s a debate that has raged for well over a year. Men and women from across Scotland, seemingly from a variety of backgrounds, have been furiously discussing a grotesque question to which any decent adult should already know the answer.
Like most group arguments played out on the poorly moderated social media platforms that have come to dominate our lives, it has centred on a few ill-defined concepts that can be twisted to suit all tastes. Freedom of speech – that rallying cry beloved by loudmouths the world over – is one. More curiously, the culture of Scotland is another.
Like the proverbial dog who bites a man, people spouting racist views on the internet is not news. But this particular racist debate has been going on for months with no end in sight. It concerns the Chinese community in Scotland and a derogatory term that is still routinely used to describe its members.
I will not repeat the insult.
Given its widespread usage, I believe most readers will not require me to spell it out for them. Those of you who are unaware should know it derives from a seemingly innocuous word that has mutated into a thoroughly nasty term. If you’re still struggling, look up the apology Scottish Labour MP Hugh Gaffney made in February this year following a Burns Night speech in Edinburgh.
Mr Gaffney, the honourable member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, is among many Scots who, at one time or another, for a variety of reasons, have seen no harm in uttering the term. At least the MP has apologised for saying it and we can trust he won’t do so again. Many others – many of them hiding behind anonymous profiles – refuse to say sorry and seem to take a perverse pride in shouting the word at any given opportunity.
Don’t take my word for it. If you require evidence try entering the offensive term, alongside the word ‘Scottish,’ into Twitter’s search bar. Be warned: you will be confronted with dozens of messages arguing for, and against, this vile term’s continual usage. No matter how often reasonable people call for it to stop, along comes someone else to reveal their ignorance. Let’s take a couple of recent examples. A young man, in a widely shared message on a public forum, asked why he was being branded a racist after repeatedly using a racist term to describe Chinese people. He boldly declared he saw nothing offensive in using “shortened versions of words referring to race”. With startling logic, he concluded: “If people see that as racist, then they’re the ones with racist mindsets”.
To make such a point requires you to deliberately ignore the numerous Scots who will gladly explain, in no uncertain terms, why there is a very real problem with “shortened words”. Particularly when they are spat in the faces of people in an aggressive manner, or doled out with supposed jocular humour by people whose confidence rests upon knowing they are in the majority.
It should not need to be said, but it’s worth repeating all the same. People of Chinese heritage who choose to live in Scotland are as much Scots as you or I. The same goes for Japanese, Vietnamese or anyone else who has to endure their ethnicity being dismissed with sweeping bigotry.
There are many decent people who do take issue with the term’s repeated use. One women from Edinburgh asked how this young man could decide what is offensive to people and what is not. She did not receive an answer.
What makes this strand of racism so strange is its refusal to die. There are numerous hateful words that have largely vanished from public debate. Yet this anti-Chinese terminology continues.
Arguments on social media reflect what’s happening away from our smartphones on the streets. Chinese people across the UK already experience higher levels of racial harassment than any other ethnic group, a landmark report by the University of Essex found last year.
Yet we still find people who breezily declare it’s “Scottish culture” to use the hateful term in question. One woman told her online detractors she couldn’t be racist as all of her pals said the same thing.
There are some aspects of Scottish culture that may seem unattractive to others but are still worth defending. Casual racism is not one of them. If you were to question me on Scotland’s problematic history with alcohol I would broadly argue it should be the responsibility of an adult to moderate their individual intake. I would not claim we should give every braggart a pass for their bigotry because his friends say worse.
We all know many Scots drink too much and too often. Having stacked the shelves in supermarket booze aisles in a previous working life, I used to routinely see the men with shaking hands and filthy raincoats who bought cheap, premium strength bottles of cider each morning.
It’s possible to protect the most vulnerable in society while also acknowledging cultural norms. Robert Burns was not toasting his friends with bottles of cider containing 22.5 units of alcohol purchased for the equivalent of pennies. Minimum pricing was a policy that made sense. Drinking plays an undeniable part in Scottish culture. Racism does not. If civic nationalism is to mean anything it must be inclusive. It must welcome anyone who chooses to live in the northern part of this island on the edge of the Atlantic.
If we agree our culture is to be inclusive, then we must welcome the Chinese community and acknowledge all it has brought to Scotland. We could start by stamping out the racism it has endured for so long.