In today’s episode of Our Voices, we hear about Graham Campbell’s battles with racism in Scotland and England. We’re forced to reflect on how much has really changed over recent decades and how to challenge racism in the 21st century.
Graham is a veteran campaigner and activist, he is also Glasgow Council’s first-ever Afro-Caribbean councillor. He was born in London to a Jamaican father and a Granadian mother and he is a Rastafarian. He also has Scottish ancestry, which explains his love for Celtic Football Club.
A cosmopolitan upbringing
Unlike some of the other people interviewed for this series, Graham had the fortune of going to a multicultural school in which there were children from many different racial backgrounds. This meant that, although there were racist incidents that occurred, Graham mostly felt safe in this environment.
He says that the teachers were anti-racist and liberal-minded and knew how to challenge racism, which no doubt would have created an environment of openness and inclusion.
Developing a strong sense of identity
Growing up in such an open environment helped Graham develop a confident sense of his own identity. Until this time, Graham never really saw the realities of racism in Scotland, especially in Glasgow.
“I hung on to the idea that I have a right to express myself culturally. I’ve a right to be who I am and I have a right to not take nonsense when it’s unfair and unjust”.
He also came from a background where standing up to discrimination was actively encouraged. “My dad told me how he had had to fight back. They protected themselves and Jamaicans got a big reputation for fighting back. And so I lived up to that”.
Learning how to challenge racism
One instance of Graham’s need to combat unfairness occurred when he was just 10 years old. It was 1977 and Graham was visiting a friend when a local woman screamed racist abuse at him. A week later, the same woman organised a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee and she banned all non-white residents. As a result, Graham and his friend could not join in the celebrations.
This experience stayed with Graham. Later that year, he was involved in a reading competition. The prize for the winner was a silver Jubilee coin. Despite being the best reader in his class, Graham refused to read. He remembered his exclusion from the Jubilee celebrations and he used his refusal to express his frustration at having to suffer racist abuse.
“That was probably the first time I publicly showed my distress at experiencing racism”.
Racism in Scotland
Yet Graham’s battles with racism are not confined to childhood. Last September he suffered racism in Scotland. Graham was on a train. It was a weekday afternoon during half-term and a group of teenage girls poured into an almost empty carriage.
They began talking loudly and soon Graham became the topic of conversation.
“Oh, look, look at that guy! And they’re meaning me and they’re talking at me like I’m an inanimate object, and I can’t hear what they’re saying. And this gets to the point where they decide they’re going to take a photo of themselves with me”.
The way the girls were othering and treating Graham as if he were some sort of exhibition was clearly a form of mockery and discrimination. Needless to say, Graham knew how to challenge racism and had no particular desire to have his photo taken with the girls. However, the girls did not take his refusal well.
“It was a really appalling barrage of racist abuse telling me to “fuck up”, saying who the fuck are you, it’s not even your country anyway blah blah blah, all of that stuff. N-words, curse words, B words…And it was just horrible”.
It is horrific to see how quickly certain groups of people will revert to racist abuse. It shows how the old familiar attitudes and views often exist just below the surface. 21st-century racism in Scotland was not so different to the racism of the previous century.
Racism in Scotland and support by a white couple
Graham was naturally shocked at experiencing such verbal violence but he was determined to stand his ground. “I could have got up and walked away, I suppose. But I didn’t like the idea of doing that. The main reason was: I’m not going to run from racists”.
However, he was also an elected official, so he had to be especially mindful of his public conduct. So he attempted to stay calm and polite and explained to the girls
“This is unacceptable behaviour, you cannot speak to people like that, especially not in a public place”. But the girls continued with their torrents of abuse. One of the girls even started filming their own racist hate crime. The abuse continued for 3-4 minutes. There were about six other people in the carriage and not a single person said anything.
Graham started to wonder where the situation was going to lead. Would the group of girls start to attack him physically? Eventually, a couple in their 30s came over and confronted the girls. They told them how unacceptable their behaviour was and the girls eventually backed down. Graham is fully aware of how the identity of the couple played a significant role.
“They did respect this couple; when they realised, ah a Scottish white couple is telling me I’m wrong, then I must be wrong.”
Having a white face is clearly important when combatting racism in Scotland.
Trying to educate the next generation
Graham and the girls got off the train at the same station and he attempted to educate them on the unacceptability of their behaviour. Since the incident, he has also spent time using his position at the council to try to train teachers in anti-racist behaviour and anti-racist practice in order to help them learn how to challenge racism.
“There’s still a lot of progress to make because it’s pretty clear that those girls’ schooling did not prepare them, today in 21st century Scotland, for how you should behave in public, and, also, how you should behave towards non-white people”.
Ensuring that people know how to challenge racism is vitally important as incidents such as these only serve to make non-white people feel less safe. “I’m a 55-year-old man, I’m having to think about my personal safety and security on trains now”. Graham then goes on to make a chilling observation:
Obviously, for younger black people, that must be what they’re experiencing. If they’re having to go to school with kids like that… then, in many ways, my experience in the 1970s from 50 years ago is still very relevant to what’s happening to kids now”.
The all-too-familiar struggle of Racism in Scotland
This sad incident of racism in Scotland forces us to ask ourselves: how much progress have we made? And, if we have made progress, how close are we to all of that progress being undone? One thing we all must do in order to protect those experiencing discrimination is to stand up to it. This can simply involve filming incidents of discrimination when they arise.
A racist abuser is much less likely to attack someone from a minority if they know someone is filming them. What is essential, though, is that good people do not sit idly by and do nothing. We all have the power to combat abuse and we must use it.