Racism in arts world puts spotlight on Scotland’s claims to be inclusive – Brian Ferguson

Scotland's Makar Jackie Kay has been one of a number of people to speak out about racism in Scotland in recent weeks (Picture: Toby Williams)
Scotland's Makar Jackie Kay has been one of a number of people to speak out about racism in Scotland in recent weeks (Picture: Toby Williams)
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In just two months, there have been multiple accounts that challenge the idea modern Scotland is as inclusive, open and tolerant as it likes to think, writes Brian Ferguson.

Of the many Netflix shows that have had me glued to my TV since I succumbed two years ago, one has been a clear stand-out. And, since its launch in January, comedy-drama Sex Education has been watched more than 40 million times with the hilarious-yet-touching tales of teenage traumas and rocky relationships turning the largely unknown lead actors Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey into stars.

Gatwa plays the flamboyant and outrageously funny gay best friend of Butterfield’s character Otis, the son of Gillian Anderson’s sex therapist, who starts a similar business at school.

So it was something of a surprise and delight to discover that Gutwa is partly Scottish. Born in Rwanda, he was brought up in both Edinburgh and Fife, before studying drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

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BBC Scotland highlighted Gutwa’s Scottish heritage in a series of excellent documentaries for its new channel. Gatwa was among those featured in film-maker Stewart Kyasimire’s exploration of what it means to different generations to be black and Scottish.

Now 26, the actor moved to Scotland with his family in 1994, but has recalled how “normal” it was for him to face racist abuse at school in Dunfermline.

‘Scared to say I’m Scottish’

He told the “Black and Scottish” documentary, which aired last night: “I’ve always been a bit scared to say that I’m Scottish because it’s almost as if people wouldn’t believe me. I felt like I was the only black person in the world.”

Gatwa’s experiences would be alarming and depressing enough on their own. But it seems to be no coincidence that his views have emerged against a noticeably growing backdrop of discussion and debate in Scottish culture about the experiences of people of colour and how tolerant the country really is.

It is two months since I spent a Monday afternoon at the Edinburgh International Festival mulling over a workshopped performance of a new play inspired by the case of Sheku Bayoh, the Fife father-of-two who died in police custody in 2015.

Its writer, Hannah Lavery, who later told me of her “quite explicit and common memories“ of racism growing up in Scotland, has since been touring around the country with her autobiographical spoken-word show The Drift, which recalls her experiences as a mixed-race child in Scotland.

The Scots Makar, Jackie Kay, spoke out at the book festival about her own recent experiences of racism at a Burns Supper she was asked to speak at and her belief that Scotland was decades behind other parts of the UK over attitudes to race.

Jessica Brough, the founder of the Fringe of Colour initiative, told me of “lingering” racism in Edinburgh that intensifies in August due to the influx of visitors from outwith the country. She said people of colour in the city still faced “constant questioning” about where they were from. Allegations of racism have also been raised amid controversy over the management of the Scottish Poetry Library. There no shortages of politicians ready to declare how tolerant, inclusive and all-embracing modern Scotland is. But if all of the above is a mere snapshot of just two months across the Scottish cultural scene, it does beg the question of what the harsh reality for many still is.

The views that have been aired in recent weeks have undoubtedly been uncomfortable reading and listening for those charged with promoting Scotland’s image to the rest of the world.

But it also strikes me that it is long overdue for those who have spoken out to have their say.