Racism and respect: we should embrace the different cultures when visitors return to the Highlands

The blackout image has symbolised support for the Black Lives Matter campaign

By John White

Last Tuesday many people blacked out their profile pictures on social media in solidarity with the “BlackLivesMatter” campaign and in outrage at the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A police officer had held him down with his knee on his neck for over eight minutes.

Black Lives Matter as an organisation wasn’t created in response to this incident but has been around for seven years, originating after the killing of a black teenager in Florida.

Discussing racism is often difficult, it is easy to black out our pictures, write suitably appropriate sentences showing our abhorrence at brutality, and adding liberal and rational support to communities on the other side of the world.

But actually discussing, trying to understand and reason why; is difficult, because it questions humanity, culture and even our own place and identity.

One of my friends was complaining, understandably, about nearly being knocked off his bicycle by two cars.

He added that they were “full of Asians” driving erratically.

His point was actually the slipping of lockdown and the onset of visitors, and not I believe the race of those visitors, but their colour was an identifying feature, and he made comment.

Penjor decorations in Bali

We often find ourselves using race and colour in this way, similarly I might mention Asians who stayed in our wigwam cabins, but if it is related to something negative, I confess to sometimes feeling uncomfortable if I find myself mentioning race as I speak, and wondering if I am sounding racist, or if I am just being too sensitive to some politically correct protocol.

People look different, and much of it is accidental and geographical.

If you were born in Bagdad or Delhi you would probably have browner skin than if you were born in Uig, and possibly a lighter skin colour than should you have been born in Nairobi.

It is all an accident of birth, and is to do with the amount of melanin in the body, which protects against harmful ultra violet sunlight.

The culture people are born into is also accidental.

Again, if you were born in Baghdad, then you are likely to be Arabic and Islamic. If born in Delhi then you might be Hindi or Sikh.

Kenyans are more likely to be Christian.

In Scotland, your type of Christianity might also depend on location; catholics and protestants coming from fairly well-defined geographical areas.

Of course, culture is more than religion, but even for non-adherents and atheists, it is often a significant part of the richness of the societies we live in.

I was in Bali, Indonesia earlier this year during the festival of Galungan.

The place was literally dripping with decorations.

Ornate and huge ‘penjor’ lined the roads and adorned buildings, taller than telegraph poles and more prevalent, they were beautifully twisted and plaited from palm fronds.

Shrines and offerings were everywhere. It was vibrant, colourful and beautiful. It was a religious festival, but totally embedded in the culture of the Balinese, in the way Christmas is in Scotland.

Balinese people are among the friendliest I have come across in all my travels, a genuine and warmth in their demeanour.

Balinese folk are brown in colour, because it is very sunny in Indonesia; they have evolved to have more melanin, and therefore more protection against the sun.

We don’t choose the colour of our skin, or the culture we are born into, but what we do with our lot is a product of our upbringing, our wider society experience and everything that has happened to us.

Most of our behaviour is due to nurture not nature, and is down to choice.

Our values and empathies lie in our reaction to our experience and learning from consequence. The problem stems in that much of that experience lies out with our control.

If we are black, poor and have been persecuted by institutional society since birth, we might take to the streets.

When pepper sprayed, or met with water canon, rubber bullet or tear gas, we might resort to throwing rocks, petrol bombs.

Windows might be broken, we might loot.

If our role model father figure was a gun toting white supremacist, we might believe ourselves to have a greater entitlement than those of a different colour.

We would be wrong.

These are extreme examples – rationalising and trying to understand the actions of others is fraught with generalisation and perhaps cliché.

We can never know what makes a person act the way they do, and we can only imagine being in their shoes, and seeing through the lens of their eyes.

What is as tragic as a police officer killing another human being in a slow, seemingly deliberate fashion, is that a society, a culture and its institution can produce someone capable and accepting of such an action.

I hope the killer will be brought to justice, and that a grieving family can find peace and forgiveness, but more importantly can we heal the society that produces this behaviour.

Most of the ills are due to poverty, deprivation, and the inequality of opportunity.

Fear and ignorance is layered on top, with greed and entitlement. Power normally resides with the rich, who want to stay rich.

The cry is that we are all the same underneath, black, white, brown yellow, and yet we are all different, unique, products of vastly different culture, geography, upbringing, beliefs and experience.

We are both the same and both different, and this confusing contradiction should be embraced, celebrated and above all respected.

Scotland is known for celebrating diversity, but it is more than the music, the festivals, the ceremonies and the food, it is the people and their attitudes and their experience we should celebrate.

It may be sometime before visitors from other continents arrive back to the Highlands in any number, but our communities as hosts are in a perfect situation to embrace the cultures brought and above all respect both differences and similarities.