Celebrated Filmmaker Talks about Growing up Black in Scotland
In this week’s episode of Our Voices, we hear a story of isolation and betrayal. We also learn how Stewart has taken motivation from experiencing racism at work and at home to try to create a better world for his children.
Black and Scottish
Stewart is a black, Bafta-nominated director, who recently directed the film “Black and Scottish”. The film is very personal to his own experiences as he moved to Scotland at the age of two after being born in Kenya. In the film, he focuses on the experience of growing up black in Scotland.
Growing up black in Scotland
Stewart grew up in a suburb of Glasgow, which he compares to a popular British soap opera in the 1980s and ‘90s called “Brookside”. One of the similarities between Brookside and Stewart’s area of Glasgow is that there were very few black people present. Despite this, Stewart says that, while growing up black in Scotland, he “was just a young happy kid”. With no initial sense of being different to anyone else in the neighbourhood.
A changing atmosphere
Something changed as Stewart got older, however. At the age of eight, Stewart went to Port Glasgow to spend time with his cousins. “I didn’t like it because that was a time when I felt different. I knew I was black a lot more in Port Glasgow.” In spite of his misgivings, Stewart was able to find enjoyment in his new surroundings. He made friends with some of the white kids there and bonded with them over a shared enjoyment of sport.
Being the butt of racist jokes
Growing up black in Scotland was about to become much more of a challenge. Although Stewart thought he was fitting in, he realised that this was not the case when a new group of kids came over to join him and his friends one day. Stewart knew immediately that they were looking for confrontation.
They began by asking if they could join in the game and then they proceeded to become abusive making racist jokes and slurs which were directed at Stewart. The new group of boys then started laughing at each other’s ignorant comments. Stewart looked to his friends, hoping, praying that they would support him. Instead, their reaction was to join in the laughter. “I look around, and my so-called friends are laughing along with them. So the whole group of boys, let’s say 10, kids are all laughing at me.”
The feeling of betrayal
One can only imagine the humiliation a young boy would feel under those circumstances. But Stewart also felt another palpable emotion: “I was really angry at the time, really angry. Not even at the kids that said it, more so at the friends that I thought I had, because they betrayed me.” Stewart left the group and walked back up the hill to his cousin’s house.
The impact of this experience stayed with him and made him wonder whether he was going to be subjected to this treatment for the rest of his life simply as a result of growing up black in Scotland.
Further experiences of racism and racist jokes
Stewart had to deal with similar experiences at primary school, where he was also insulted and verbally abused. He describes finding it difficult to navigate his place in the world due to his contrasting cultural environments. “You’re 11 years old, you have this accent, but as soon as you leave the house, you’re in Scotland… I had an African upbringing in the UK… That was two different worlds.”
A different world
Everything would change, however, when Stewart found himself back in Kenya for his secondary schooling. He had got a place in a fancy boarding school in the capital city. The idea of leaving Scotland terrified him at first. When he got to Kenya, he saw for himself how different life was compared to everything he had become used to.
He describes his feelings upon arriving in his dormitory in Nairobi and seeing that his whole world had changed: “I remember just laying on the bed just crying my heart out. And just, oh my god, where the hell am I?” He was quickly comforted by another child who would go on to become a good friend of Stewart’s. He would also be Stewart’s roommate for the next three years
An environment of inclusivity
In spite of Stewart’s initial reservations, he went on to fall in love with his new environment. All of the teachers were white but the students came from all sorts of racial backgrounds. Stewart says that the school was like “a family” and that there wasn’t “one bit of racism from any white person.” This was quite a different experience to the one Stewart had had growing up black in Scotland.
Returning to Scotland
It was upon Stewart’s return to Scotland that he would experience racism again. This time he would experience racism at work. Stewart had started to make serious progress in his career as a digital designer.
He bagged the role of the lead designer in a new team. Most of the team were welcoming; however, there were a few members who seemed anything but. They were big, burly men who were looking at him with an expression which said “we don’t know who you are and what are you doing here?”.
Racism at work
As time went on, the relationship between Stewart and these men got worse. They would dismiss his instructions and sometimes purposefully do the opposite to what he had asked. On one particular occasion, Stewart found himself in an extremely embarrassing situation when a file he had prepared for a meeting with a client inexplicably disappeared.
He came to the meeting sweating and had to admit to his superior that the file was lost. The meeting had to be cancelled and Stewart’s reputation was damaged. Stewart describes how the men were grinning and flashing him looks once what had happened became known throughout the office. “I know that it was them that got rid of the files… As a boss, you’re just trying to deliver, you want to impress, but you can’t, because some people in your team don’t want to listen to you.”
Stewart has had to deal with countless experiences of this sort of “covert racism” where people make remarks just out of earshot and show antagonism in more subtle ways. But each time he experiences this racism at work, it reminds him of how he felt as an eight-year-old child.
Finding an outlet
However, Stewart has taken a stand against racism at work and racism in Scotland more generally through his creativity. By making films such as “Black and Scottish” Stewart has been able to tell a positive and open story about growing up black in Scotland. This is already having a positive impact even within his own family.
Describing his daughter, Niamh, he says “She wants her hair out in an afro. She’s like: Daddy, I’m really proud to be black and Scottish.”
This isn’t something that his eldest daughter has said, so he’s glad to see that his recent work is helping to change the experience of what it is like growing up black in Scotland.
His ambition is “to be a role model for young people out there just to let them know that you can actually achieve your goals through hard work and just never stop, and let your experiences in life guide you.”