It’s been a strange few days. Bizarre attacks from the Labour conference and some money pages (who seem to believe that the Pound plunging is to do with a vague possibility of Indyref2 rather than the actual statements that people will begin to be deported from the UK within weeks, and Freedom of Movement is over), and we’re a bit raw. However, I think that the current target
of ire doesn’t deserve what has headed her way.
Unfortunately, by now, I think that Claire Heuchan has probably had every dire belief about Scottish nationalists confirmed by the extremist wing of Twitter, who cannot find it in themselves to respond thoughtfully to any perceived slight, real or conspiracy theory. I fear that even the more measured among us will respond with hurt and anger to her piece, rather than looking at it for what it is.
For full disclosure, I think there are certain key aspects that she has wrong. I’ll get to them, but first I want to say this:
Racism in Scotland still has to be among our top priorities – especially countering the ubiquitous type of racism borne out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of structural privilege. Most people still labour under the illusion that we are not an inherently racist society because most of us don’t know anyone who would ever use the n-word or other such racial slurs. So I fully back her assertions that we (as all progressive white people) can be self-congratulatory because we don’t know the extent of our own biases. I just don’t think that has anything to do with civic nationalism – I think it’s entirely to do with white people who haven’t learned about structural racism and inherent bias. That takes time. But I am almost entirely certain that, while the UK slides backwards towards glorying in the Empire, the Scottish nationalist movement I’ve been part of for the last few years will continue to try to be better than it was yesterday. Not everyone, and not always, and we’ll mess up a bunch of times on the way, but we are trying.
Of course, I’m also sadly certain that the writer will now be faced with some of the worst people on our side, and so it’s unlikely that she will see this side of it. Yes, unionist tweeters are just as horrific, but that doesn’t in any way make our lot doing it ok. She is a black woman who has experienced racism in Scotland. If we really want to be better, it’s up to us to run interference between her and the people who will react to her article with slurs and vitriol. That’s where I’ve been, trying to counter the people leading charges against the Guardian and Ms. Heuchan herself. I understand the frustration people have with the continual misrepresentation of civic nationalism as analogous to ethnic nationalism, but if we truly want to see the Scotland we strive for, we should be listening to the BME members of our communities who speak up about racism in Scotland, in whatever form. We might disagree with some of her conclusions, but we should disagree with them after actually considering them and checking that we’re not rejecting a useful insight out of hand because of our own biases.
As for where I disagree or want to give additional context:
Scotland exists in a bizarre overlap; we are both colonised and coloniser. Our culture, history and languages were crushed and erased until there was only the barest few stereotypes surviving, and they were defanged and stripped of political meaning. It is only in the last couple of decades that the long centuries of people trying to keep the shreds of our identity together have been vindicated in any way, by a restoration of our history and the recognition of our languages. But all this effort is met with resistance and the cry that to teach Scottish history in Scotland instead of exclusively English history is ‘the politics of grievance’, as if there is no political element to learning the history of feudalism and kings and 1066 et al, but spending a day or so on the Clearances or the clan system or the Convenanters is ‘Salmond’s attempts at brainwashing children to hate England’ (a quote from a person I met while campaigning for the Referendum).
But yes, we have erased our history of slave-owning and union-busting and racism, and our part in the Empire. It could be argued that, by the time those things were common in Scotland, we were entirely the Union’s, and so our erasure matches the erasure of the crimes of the Empire et al from the general education of British people. But yes, we absolutely do need to face the fact that Empire wasn’t only the tool of England and that we have slavers’ blood in our veins too. It was deeply complicated, with forced migrations from Scotland, but it happened.
And we are no idyllic, racism-free society. I don’t know many people who would claim that, but I know there are plenty of racists in our country, and that our institutions are still inherently racist at their heart, just as they are also still misogynist. Society itself is still racist. We are not immune from that. There are vast swathes of people across the world who believe that being the victim of one type of oppression means they cannot be complicit in the oppression of other people. See: transphobic gay men, disabled people who believe immigrants are why our services are being cut, white feminists who think we understand the totality of the experience of sexism. This is why intersectionality theory exists, and why it is so crucial to understanding the world. Scots who feel oppressed by the Westminster government are still fully capable of being part of the structural oppression of other marginalised groups, whether they are conscious of it or not. So when it’s pointed out, we have to listen, or we are lost.
But this is where I part ways with Ms Heuchan – exceptionalism isn’t the issue. We don’t believe we are naturally, inherently better than England. We do not believe that Scotland is a utopia of equality and diversity. Where the difference lies, and what makes the heart of civic nationalism beat, is the desire to be better than we have been. To do better. To be fairer, more open, more equal. If we were mired in exceptionalism, we would believe that the work was already done, that we have no need of investigation or policy to address these issues, because we would believe ourselves to already be free and meritocratic. But we know we are not.
We know that we are rebuilding our identity from the shreds of history which survived, and we are trying to build it to be better than it was, than it is right now. We have made long strides away from our history of both colonisation and imperialism, but we bear the scars still. We don’t always succeed, but we try to look at our society straight on, and figure out what we can do better, which is why the Yes campaign had so many subgroups made up of people from different marginalised communities, and so many groups for people of different ethnic origins. We all worked together, and we try (not always successfully) to address our own biases when we organise. There are still too many people in Scotland who believe we already live in a meritocracy, but there are so many people in government and in our society who know that we don’t, and are trying to fix that.
So no, I don’t think there is an equivalence to make between racism and civic nationalism. I think her admittance that she doesn’t understand why we want independence from the Union while seeking to stay in the EU reveals how little she understands about why we want to leave the UK. We don’t want to be dragged backwards, away from the progress we’ve made. We may still have a long way to go, but I genuinely don’t understand how she could believe that we are not further on than England.
I wish that I could have this discussion with Ms Heuchan herself, but I think she’ll probably have had enough of us nationalists by now, and understandably so. If I could, I would say to her – Thank you for your insight, and I hope that Scotland does continue to fight for equality and fairness. I hope that we continue to look at ourselves to see where we can do better. I hope that we can teach our society to see its own biases and accept its own history, and from there accept responsibility for where we are today.
Civic nationalism is a double-edged sword. It means you get to be proud of what the country achieves because you have played a part in it, but it also means taking responsibility for the things which need to change, because you play a part in how things are right now.
I hope that some of the people reading this who might have reacted with anger might react with a little more nuance. I’m going back to Twitter to try to calm the flames a little, because it’s our responsibility to deal with the people on our own side.