Black History Month: 'I never knew what racism was until I moved to Scotland'

Glasgow rapper Bemz never really knew what racism was until he moved to Scotland.

Born in Nigeria, he grew up in London and moved to Stranraer to live with an aunt when he was 14. It was not long before he was called a monkey, and then other names that are hard to repeat. The mum of his friend was spat on in the face and told to leave the country.

In London, he recalled, people disliked you because of the way you acted or because of your postcode – but never because of your race. In Scotland, as Bemz moved from living in the majority to a minority, the opposite was true.

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Bemz, 27, whose real name is Jubemi Iyiku, said: “I never really experienced racism until I came to Stranraer. I can laugh at it now because it was so horrible but going from being the majority to the minority was very, very tough.

Scots Nigerian rapper Bemz says he never experienced racism until he moved to Scotland and says he fears for the future treatment of his baby daughter. PIC: Andy Low.

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“People needed something to annoy me with but I have got a really, really thick skin. They knew they could attack me using the colour of my skin.

"I am not going to say that Stranraer was a really bad place, but it was where I noticed racism first hand for the first time.”

That was in the early 2000s, but Bemz says racism is still out there, although people are more subtle about it. He heard it on the bus to a Celtic match when he was called Bobo Baldé – a French Guinean footballer who played for the club - or at the Riverside Festival this summer, when he wore a Nigerian poncho and someone called him Joe Aribo, a Nigerian national who plays for Rangers.

Dr Ima Jackson, senior lecturer in the Department for Health and Life Sciences, at Glasgow Caledonian University

One afternoon in Ayr, he was walking home with a pint of milk when police stopped to search him following reports of drug dealing in the area. The search never went ahead after Bemz said he was going home to put his milk in the fridge unless they could come up with good a reason why he was stopped.

At a nightclub in the town, people thought the toilet attendant must have been his dad because the man was black.

He says racism has affected him subconsciously and he will not go to certain places or areas. But, after becoming a father to a baby daughter, racism now keeps him awake at night.

He said: "I just know her life is going to be hell. Her mum is Irish Catholic and I just know there are going to be people who are going to make her feel that she doesn’t belong in any space. That’s the only thing that kind of gets to me. I’d take racism every single day of the week if it means she didn’t have to deal with it.”

Race equality campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer says he feels "optimistic" about the changes being made to address racism and inequalities in Scotland. PIC: Phil Wilkinson

Bemz found out he was going to be a father the day before he attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Glasgow, organised as part of the global response to the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in June 2020.

He said: “It was a tough one for me. I had just found out I was going to be a dad but I still had to be there. Afterwards I came away and I just felt that I had a lot of work to do myself and that the community also had a lot of work to do.

"Listening to people who had been through the same experiences, I was like ‘holy crap’. There was a sense of unity but also a sense of disgust that I wasn't the only one."

Black Lives Matter protests unfolded across Scotland, from Orkney, to Oban, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee. Race equality chiefs in Scotland said they had never seen anything like the level of interest in anti-racism that was triggered by the killing of George Floyd.

How that momentum maintains itself is of great interest. At least 65 public organisations and institutions in Scotland, from universities to local authorities, made public anti-racism statements and pledges to act to improve diversity in the wake of the response. The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) is monitoring progress.

The rise of Black Lives Matter came as some of these same institutions faced up to their own historic links to racism and oppression as Scotland's significant role in the Transatlantic slave trade became abundantly clear.

Among them was Glasgow University, who financially benefited from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries by between £16.7m and £198m in today’s money. The university has now set up a programme of restorative justice and will spend around £20m on a joint centre for research and development with University of the West Indies.

In November 2020, the university named its new £90m learning hub after James McCune Smith, who was born into slavery and became the first African American to be awarded a medical degree graduating from Glasgow. Twenty scholarships are now awarded in his name.

Others have followed in their reckoning. National Trust for Scotland promised to review its properties and collections linked to slavery, from Culzean Castle to Glenfinnan Monument. Historic Environment Scotland will do the same. The public is being asked how it wants Scotland’s colonial and slavery past represented in the country’s museums.

Reviews into monuments linked to slavery in Inverclyde and South Ayrshire are underway. In Edinburgh an investigation continues into the city’s statues, monuments, street and building names with links to slavery and colonialism.

Today, a plaque now sits at the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square, which honours Scottish political heavyweight and first Lord of the Admiralty Henry Dundas, which was vandalised several times during the Black Lives Matter protests.

The plaque, which will be made permanent, details Dundas’ role in deferring abolition of the slave trade and is dedicated to the “memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’ actions”.

Descendants of Dundas have described the plaque as misleading, with historian Sir Tom Devine describing it as “bad history” given the wider factors surrounding the delay to abolition.

Race equality campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer, who is leading the Edinburgh review and who for several years served on a separate group to get the Dundas plaque in place, said the Black Lives Matter movement had forced change.

Sir Geoff, who said the evidence against Dundas was unequivocal, said he was optimistic about the response.

He said: "Nothing like this has happened before.

"People are now aware that Black lives do matter. It is those people who push this whole idea that one race is inferior to another that now have a problem.

“We have a plaque on the Dundas statue that is now going to be permanent. When has that happened before?

"When has a university like Glasgow, which benefited from slavery and is now going to set up educational links and scholarships in the Caribbean, named the building after a black person who is not a politician?

"And even if nothing else happens, some things have happened that are not reversible.”

***

Around four per cent of Scotland’s population is from ethnic minority backgrounds. The last census in 2011 recorded 141,000 people of Asian background and 36,000 identifying as African, Caribbean or Black. A further 34,000 were recorded as mixed, multiple or other ethnicities.

But moving the highly visible Black Lives Matter response to one side, deep seated inequalities in these communities in Scotland persist. Those of a BME (Black and Ethnic Minority) are twice as likely to experience poverty as someone from a white Scottish or British background.

The employment gap with white people sits at over 16 per cent, according to research by CRER and educational attainment by those in the BME communities is less likely to translate into the jobs market.

Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of race hate crimes – around 4,000 are reported a year – counted victims from a non-white ethnic group, despite making up only 4 per cent of the population.

Pressing work to address racism is ongoing at the Scottish Government, in particular systematic racism embedded into organisations and administrations. There is an acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter has helped to highlight the issue.

Last month, Christina McKelvie MSP, Minister for Equalities and Older People, gave an update on the government’s immediate priorities on race equality.

She said: “It is clear that it is not enough to simply “not be racist”, in order to truly take down the structural and institutional inequalities that make minority ethnic peoples’ lives worse in Scotland we need to have an actively anti-racist approach in everything we do.

"Anti-racism – that is, seeing racism as a structural issue – must be firmly embedded in organisational culture and practice in order to start tackling the roots of racism

She added: “A challenge for us is how we are going to build systems and structures in Scotland that work against structural and systemic racism, and how we ensure that our policies translate to real, improved outcomes for minority ethnic people in Scotland.

"We recognise the need for deep and lasting change – Scotland does not and cannot claim to be free from racism.”

A government-led group, co-chaired by Dr Ima Jackson, senior lecturer in the School of Health and Life Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, is examining the health inequalities experienced by ethnic minority communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

People from South Asian backgrounds in Scotland were almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 with separate research finding ethnic minority communities feeling the economic effects of the crisis harder.

In immediate response, sustenance payments totalling around £700,000 were paid to minority ethnic communities impacted by the pandemic which covered mental health support, funded digital devices to allow people to stay connected and supported frontline support to access food and medical supplies. Multi-lingual advice on the vaccination programme was also created.

Dr Jackson said the group was set up because the health data on ethnicity in Scotland was so poor that the picture being reported both in England and the rest of the world could not be investigated here. Improving ethnicity data on health – including at GP level and at the stage of hospital admissions - is now a critical task.

On housing, work continues to tackle poor accommodation or overcrowding in some minority ethnic groups, such as migrant workers and asylum seekers.

In schools, the role of Scotland and the UK in colonial history and slavery and the impact it has on the modern world will be embedded into the curriculum with resources now distributed to classrooms. There is a drive to increase the number of ethnic minority teachers, who represent around just one per cent of the workforce when eight per cent of pupils come from BME communities. The figure rises to 25 per cent in Glasgow, it is understood.

Jatin Haria, executive director of CRER, said “some good things were happening” but warned of the risks of losing momentum.

He added: "Meaningful change is not going to happen within a few months or even a few years. It’s a long-term thing.

"I think racial equality is still relatively high on the agenda, I don’t think it has been totally forgotten about following Black Lives Matter.

"We did worry that it might blow over in a few days or week. There is always a risk that it could disappear at any time and people could move on to something else

"But people are still talking about race in a way that they never used to.”

He added: "There are some good things happening but these things can be cyclical. People do things for a short while and then it is dropped. We never move forward enough, we are always dropping it and then going back to the beginning, starting again at zero.

“We really need to make sure that is not allowed to happen and I think there is enough momentum now to make sure that won’t be the case.”

For Bemz, as he watches his eight-month daughter grow, time for change is tight.

He said: “Black Lives Matter put pressure on people to do things but I found myself doubting their intentions. Why weren’t they doing that 10 or 15 years ago?

"We can sit here and celebrate the small things that people have done but for me we won’t know if there has been real change, lasting change, for another 10 years or so. We won’t know until then if people held on to that energy they had when Black Lives Matter came to the forefront.

He added: "Slow progress to me isn’t progress. It doesn’t matter if we make progress when we are 30, 50, 100 years behind.”

Black History Month runs during October

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