History's forgotten sins

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Scots have been brought up to believe in a myth of acceptance and tolerance of other cultures but the hidden truth is less flattering

October is past and so is another "Black History" month. Oh? You didn't know? In Scotland at least, you could be forgiven. Apart from a launch by the Celtic player Bobo Baldi, a series on BBC Radio Scotland and the occasional feature in the press, it has registered the same response as the proverbial small earthquake in Peru. So much for "one Scotland, many cultures".

So what? This is Scotland after all. No racist problems here. A man's a man for a that? Yeah and the rest.

I have a personal measure of progress in such matters. Some 15 years ago, my use of the word "monkee" during a Higher, yes Higher, lesson made two girls snigger. I realised to my utter horror that the reason for this was the presence of an Asian girl in the class. My racist pupils (nowadays probably themselves parents) were clearly familiar with the word as a term of abuse and found it amusing that a teacher should accidentally use the word in the presence of one of its victims.

Recently, forgetting for a moment my previous resolution to avoid the word altogether, I used it again in an S4 Standard grade class, again in a perfectly innocent context and again in the presence of a single Asian student. This time there was no giggling. Only a very uncomfortable silence. So what progress have we made then? By this admittedly crude measure, not much.

A Scottish journalist recently discovered that some (English) police officers are racist. Perhaps the television company should undertake a similar exercise with a black or Asian journalist from England, posing as a supply teacher in Scottish schools?

The fundamental problem is that Scots have been educated and, unfortunately, continue to be educated to believe a myth. It is a myth of Scottish acceptance and tolerance of other cultures. Like most mythology, it does possess a grain of truth. The Scots are a nation of emigrants and expatriates and they have become adept at absorbing the cultures and values of those predominantly white societies into which they have migrated.

Conversely, some individual Scots, often products of Scotland's special blend of advanced education and evangelical religion, have become celebrated for their acceptance of or even obsession with "alien" cultures.

Thus, Robert Louis Stevenson's face adorns banknotes pinned behind the cash registers of pubs from Tientsin (Tianjin) to Tierra del Fuego.

The hidden truth is less flattering to the Scots and to their understanding of their own history. We know, via the works of Tom Devine and others, that Scottish society was transformed by the fruits of union and empire. Much of Scotland's 19th century economy benefited directly from the exploitation of black slaves in the Caribbean or the southern United States. Scottish regiments also helped to police the Empire, quaffing their Indian pale ale and kicking the punkah-wallah.

Racism is therefore not an unfortunate recent development due to a perceived inrush of asylum-seekers. It is at the very core of our nation and its culture. No amount of dressing up and lighting candles in religious and moral education (RME) classes will offer redress until this historical thesis is openly debated. And not in academic circles or in the quality press, but in every Scottish school. The Scottish Executive must address the issue by expanding significantly the profile of black history in Scottish schools with a view to using it to examine the mote in Scotland's own eye.

Nor is this a mere academic debate. It is fundamental to our progress in the 21st century. The global economy in which we now find ourselves is transforming itself into an almost exact mirror image of that in which our nation once thrived. Whatever slogans may be dreamt up by the media agencies, Scotland will become Europe's "Deep North" - an economic and cultural backwater - unless we confront and exorcise these ghosts from our past.

That process must begin in our classrooms and in the hearts and minds of our children.

The author teaches in a central Scotland secondary school.

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