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"You shouldn't be here"

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Local academics share their experience of racism.

The recent anti-racist protests and rioting sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of white policemen have shaken our world. No, the threat of Covid-19 has not gone away – to make way for this latest crisis. Life is not like that.

Angry protesters have gone ahead with their plans, seemingly not bothered about social distancing. And Mr. Floyd’s funeral was attended by some 500 people, despite the guidelines prohibiting or discouraging large gatherings due to the pandemic. Leaders and health officials suggested the protests be postponed until the virus was no longer an issue. But you can’t tell a volcano when to erupt.

The fact that the outcry has been international, not just limited to the States, points to the fact that racism is a worldwide problem. And yet there are many who refuse to accept this. Some prefer to gloss over what happened in Minneapolis with comments such as, “Of course, there are a few bad cops”. Many take offence at the slogan “Black lives matter”, believing it fights against the idea that “All lives matter”. And the term “white privilege” is greatly disputed, especially by whites who have had hard lives.

Throughout my life I have had a number of friends who are people of colour. And every one of those I asked about it could describe incidents where they were the victims of racism. I find it hard to understand how anyone can deny it is ingrained in our culture.

Dr Reginald Agu
Dr Reginald Agu

I asked Dr. Reginald Agu, who lives in Wester Hailes and is a Nigerian who came to Edinburgh in 1994 to complete his PhD programme, to tell me about his experiences of being treated differently due to his skin colour.

“My first experience of racism in Edinburgh was in 1996 when my family joined me from Nigeria. As I was making my way to a nearby shopping centre, a young man confronted me and said, ‘You shouldn’t be here’. When I approached him for an explanation, he moved away.”

Reginald says his children, who were between the ages of one and eight when they arrived in Edinburgh, were discriminated against while at the playground. “Some of the other children made racist comments,” he remembers, “and they were very nasty.

“But my greatest shock was the reaction of a lady who had walked into a shop ahead of me. Her young daughter, who was about six years old, ran ahead of the mother to hold the door for her. She was still holding the door when some white people went through. But as I approached, the mother came back and pulled her daughter away with such force that she released the door and it closed in my face.”

As he pursued his PhD at Heriot Watt University, Reginald worked with Professor Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor. Professor Palmer came to the UK from Jamaica in 1955. His mother had emigrated to London in 1951, and when he was one month away from turning 15, she paid the £86 necessary to bring him over. “Years later, whenever my mum and I argued, she’d say she wanted her £86 back,” he jokes.

Professor Geoff Palmer
Professor Geoff Palmer

Years later, when he’d accepted a position at Heriot Watt University and bought a house for his family in Penicuik, a little neighbour child told him, “My Dad says house prices around here will go down because you’ve moved in.”

Another racist incident happened as recently as last year. “I was to give a lecture at the Edinburgh Festival, and when I arrived at the venue the attendant asked me what I wanted. I replied that I was giving a lecture at 2.00. She said, ‘You can’t be – that lecture is being given by a Professor Geoff Palmer!’”

“My Dad says house prices around here will go down because you’ve moved in.”

“Injustice feeds on prejudice,” says Professor Palmer, “and prejudice is that wicked lie through which people distort the truth. It is also a dreadful disease caught in childhood that fosters hate, damages compassion and distorts the mind. Rules can control minds. Prejudice and counter-prejudice solve nothing. Surely, true redemption from prejudice does not come from rules, it comes from education or a sudden moral shock that changes human beings for the better”.

Reginald Agu says that the “sudden shock” Professor Palmer refers to could be something such as police officers, who are supposed to protect lives, taking a life due to racism. “The international protests that followed George Floyd’s killing could be the tipping point,” he says, “from which our society changes for the better.”

Reginald Agu and Geoff Palmer
Reginald and Geoff

Published in Konect July 2020

Author: Suzanne Green

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