Saying their names: how can we change the narrative of institutionalised racism in Scotland?

Written by: Emer McGinnity, Community Links Practitioner, the ALLIANCE
and Sairah Qureshi, Community Links Practitioner, the ALLIANCE
and Abelomai Luncheon, Community Links Practitioner, the ALLIANCE

Published: 15/06/2020

Emer reflects on the Black Lives Matter movement and healthcare inequalities. Based on discussions with Abelomai and Sairah.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to wreak havoc in the lives of many people in Scotland, it is crucial to reflect on the fact that BAME populations have been disproportionately affected and that a disproportionate number of the deaths due to coronavirus have been of BAME people.

While it is not yet known exactly why this is case, health inequality is likely to be playing a significant factor. Lots of the reasons for the wildly disparate healthcare experiences of people in Scotland are concrete, things that we can map and track and measure.

However, the tools, language, and institutions that furnish us with these crunchable numbers are built on tradition. These institutions have been preserved by people in power who are unlikely to have contended with racial inequalities in their healthcare, and whose methods and knowledge have often been used to compound the marginalisation of BAME people in this country.

Science and the media, as much as history, once the enclave of people born into circumstances that were conducive to them achieving prominence, are not what they used to be. The albeit distorted democracy of social media shape and reflect public opinion as much as the men in the offices used to, and Audré Lorde’s meditation that “The master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house” has been punctuating the stream of language of well-thumbed newsfeeds for several weeks now. This piece is tuned exclusively to the voices of people who have experienced racism in healthcare.

Health inequality is a complex matrix of interactions between multiple factors, ranging from state policy to how the unconscious bias of the person on the other end of the phone perceives your name, that impact how easy it is for you to get adequate and timely care.

One of the respondents to our survey reflected that when her mother, who speaks English with “a strong Asian accent”, phones her GP surgery for an appointment, “the appointment won’t be for at least 2-3 weeks regardless of complaint. I will phone on my mother’s behalf and (I believe) due to my Scottish accent can get an appointment within 1 week max”.

Insidious discriminatory practices such as these, operating on a daily basis, have been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, and the NHS’s diversity and equalities training is not sufficient as a preventative or reflective measure. Without consciously and consistently excavating one’s own automatic internal stereotypes and prejudices, these painful microaggressions that spell out to BAME people that they are “less than” are destined to be repeated.

The process of examining how we react to people and events that have caused pain is not an easy task. “I think this would be a great time for the people of Glasgow who feel like it isn’t an issue to learn about the issues and educate themselves, see how they become a positive force and see themselves as a force of change”, said Barrington Reeves, the organiser of the compliant and well-attended Black Lives Matter rally in Glasgow Green on 7th June.

Speaking to the crowd, he drew attention to the simultaneous power and inadequacy of language in engaging with race. He recounted how people often comment on how “posh” his name is, and that his response, presumably seldom verbalised, is that his name is that of the slaveowners of his ancestors.

Access to care as a white supremacist issue was more starkly rendered by another example from a respondent, in which she recounted her ex-husband presenting to A&E with a head injury after falling on a night out, “he was sent home as a “drunk,” even though we attended a&e [sic] 24 hours after the night out. Within a day he had had a massive seizure and required life saving [sic] brain surgery”.

The phenomenon of BAME peoples’ pain being taken less seriously than their white counterparts costs lives. Reading this heart-breaking story, I was reminded of the “All Lives Matter” hashtag that has been used on social media in recent weeks. If all lives mattered, and if every person’s pain was responded to with equal care and concern in Scotland and the UK, the preventable deaths of BAME people that seek medical treatment would not be occurring.

Coronavirus has shone a light on this issue, but it would be remiss to see this as a singular or new example of institutionalised racism. Another response told how an abscess “was misdiagnosed for 10 months due to the consultant’s insistence that it was a keloid scar which was “common in dark skin tones” even when it was leaking pus, painful, inflamed and obviously infected. Eventually I had to perform excision surgery on myself on my bathroom floor”.

Choosing not to listen to BAME people when they speak about their experiences is the default position in a white supremacist society, and those in positions of power are less likely to be challenged on their prejudices.

One respondent recounted how a man “mocked my head covering (hijab) saying why I was wearing that [sic] cloth on my head – is it because my dad or husband force me to wear it”. This attitude can be contextualised in feminism’s history of synonymising racial oppression with gender-based discrimination, which can be traced as far back as the suffragettes’ bid for enfranchisement.

“Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism”, bell hooks’ 1981 exploration of the relationship between racism and sexism in America takes its name from a speech given by Sojourner Truth, whose very presence at emancipation rallies were met with protests, boycotts, and racial abuse. hooks’ masterful treatise dispels the oft-touted myth of solidarity between white women and black people, and details the mistreatment of Truth and other black women activists’ from the inception of the feminist movement.

Attempts to detract attention from long overdue conversations about race under the guise of preventing the erasure of any other human rights issue fail to acknowledge that BAME communities disproportionately experience sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” brilliantly exposits the recent development of identity politics/intersectional feminism, deftly handling the white fragility that underlies the almost self-parodying cries of “political correctness gone mad” that often dominate conversations about changes to the status quo that aim to prevent harm to people.

Two respondents wrote laconically of being exposed to racism in the workplace in the healthcare environment. One reported experiencing “Bullying and Harassment from a Senior Manager (white collar)”, the other responded that the racism in healthcare has been experienced “Within the workplace”.

One of the biggest messages that has emerged from the current surge in the number of people active in the Black Lives Matter movement is that it is not enough to not be racist. “Silence is violence”, what Arthur Jafa might call a “microwave epiphany” is being typed and chanted across the globe, and is therefore losing meaning.

Upon reading about both of these people’s experiences of racist bullying in the workplace, I thought of how differently I think and feel and behave when I am at work versus when I am brandishing a placard in a swell of people speaking as one. I thought of the invisible structures that shape my actions when I am at work in the GP surgery, of how important it is for me to show deference to my superiors, and of how hard I work to maintain my work persona of being helpful and pleasant to be around.

I thought of the pain imbibed in so few words, and the skills and resources that I will need to use in future to challenge incidents of racism in my own workplace.

The books we read, the films we watch, the poems and the speeches that we listen to in this flurry of emotion and information are touching us deeply, going to the core of what connects us all as humans. We must ensure that we maintain this depth of feeling and conviction as we return to all of our roles and personas, and let it over-ride our socialised instincts to find reasons to stay quiet when we see racism our daily lives.

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