Comment: I'm done with polite optimism when it comes to Scotland's approach to racism
Has there ever been a more grotesque display of institutional racism than the image of a 15-year-old black girl being strip-searched by police officers in a school while on her period?
Must it really take the horrendous details of Child Q, bent over with her legs spread and clutching hold of her sanitary towel, to elicit the necessary disgust and outrage to confirm that people of colour cannot trust this country’s established institutions to keep them safe?
The apology from the Metropolitan Police lacked sincerity given its record. The policing minister’s reticence to act decisively until after a formal investigation had concluded was too little, too late. And all begged the question of how could this happen?
In Hackney, where Child Q is from, 60 per cent of the children strip-searched in the past five years were black. What more do you need to know to understand what’s going on here?
Girl Q is 15 years old. She is a minor. She was taken out of an exam from a classroom under escort and taken to the school’s medical room where she was strip-searched by two female police officers apparently searching for drugs. Her intimate body parts were exposed. She was made to remove her clothing, underwear and even her sanitary towel. She was on her period. She was told to spread her buttocks and cough. Her teachers remained outside, no other adults were present, and her parents weren’t informed.
No drugs were found.
Her mother and aunt say the incident has changed her. She is no longer the happy-go-lucky girl she once was and they say she now self-harms and screams in her sleep.
And, yes, everyone is sorry. It shouldn’t have happened. Procedures will improve. But predictable expressions of regret are the sticking plaster that is always conveniently placed over the gaping wound of institutional racism that runs so deep across British society whenever it is so graphically exposed. But nothing is then done to make it really heal.
Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who tabled an urgent question in parliament on the incident, described it as a “perverse racist degradation of this child”.
Fellow Labour MP Florence Eshalomi used the debate to tell Child Q and “every other little black girl” in the country that “they do matter”.
But do they, really? The facts here speak for themselves.
After 45 years in the Scottish education system as a pupil, a parent and as a teacher, I refuse to be fooled by the tokenistic gestures and the anti-racism policies that just scratch the surface.
How can I not question that gap between our reality as people of colour and our white leaders’ perceptions when, growing up in the 90s, I witnessed deep divisions bubbling to the surface, classrooms and playgrounds racially segregated, fights breaking out and overt racism a daily occurrence?
Remembering the menacing tone of the headteacher, leaning into my mother and without reason saying he’d seen me talking to a disreputable boy and that she needed to keep an eye on me, presumably knowing full well that comment could have changed the course of a Muslim girl’s life. Witnessing my sister getting spat at and being called a “black bitch”.
Schools responded to those harrowing times by organising ‘Asian nights’ where we ate samosas, donned sarees, and pirouetted around assembly halls to Bob Marley. It was farcical.
So, when in 1998 a group of knife-wielding white youths clashed violently with a group of Asian boys armed with bottles and belts and I woke up to the devastating news that 16-year-old Colin Gilmour had plunged a knife into 15-year-old Imran Khan’s back four times, I wasn’t surprised.
Khan died eight days later. Both were pupils at my former school and when the judge ruled that there wasn’t a racial element to the killing, I learned that denial of the problem would become as familiar to me as the validation when I assimilated and the othering when I didn’t.
It was a refusal by the state to accept any responsibility and a clear message that these institutions did not want to see or hear people of colour.
It wasn’t until after years of relentless campaigning for justice by the parents of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was killed in an unprovoked racist attack in 1993, that the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 came into force, placing a new duty on public bodies to eliminate discrimination and promote racial equality. And Scotland was also pushed into action.
I had just qualified as a teacher and there was momentum I hadn’t witnessed before. Teacher training included mandatory lectures on equality and discrimination, a Black Teachers Forum was set up, there was a mandatory in-service day for anti-racism training for all teachers.
I am angry because I’m done with the façade of polite optimism
As a race equality trainer, I witnessed the defensiveness from education staff, but the conversations were happening and that gave me hope.
But on 15 March 2004, Kriss Donald, a 15-year-old white pupil at Bellahouston Academy, Glasgow, was kidnapped by a gang of Asian men, stabbed, doused in petrol, and set alight while he bled to death. Three of the attackers were given life sentences for racially aggravated murder.
The BNP arrived to exploit the situation and calls for calm were issued by community leaders and Kriss’s mother.
Fast forward to 2007, just three years later, and I received a letter from my son’s school. A school in the same catchment area that Kriss’s school was, it stated that an anonymous letter had been sent to them that included my son’s name.
He had been cited as a gang member who was ransacking the neighbourhood. We were told that, as his parents, we should be extra vigilant of his activities. It was signed by the headteacher.
So, I found myself then, at 39, a parent and furious.
Are we really back there again? The stereotypes, the abuse of power and a headteacher who is completely ignorant of the overt racism he has just responded to. The very same assumptions that led to a number of Muslim teachers from Birmingham facing disciplinary proceedings – which were later dropped – in 2015 when an anonymous letter was sent to the council alleging that Islamic extremists were taking control of the city’s schools.
The letter turned out to be a hoax only after investigations were ordered by then education secretary Michael Gove. No evidence was found of radicalisation. The so-called Trojan Horse Affair had a devastating impact on community relations and stoked the fire for even deeper division.
The letter sent to my son’s school was also a hoax. It could have been the BNP for all we knew, but the fact that racist bias seemed to instantly override sensible judgement by white leaders is terrifying for a parent.
It was the late Paul Freire, the Brazilian philosopher and educationalist, who said, “education doesn’t change society – education changes people and people change society”. And if society is a barometer to judge how well we are doing then little has changed
George Floyd’s murder in 2020 should have been the point of no return. That video of a pleading six-foot black man bolted down by a police officer’s knee till every last breath was snuffed out of him reignited our demands for justice. Derek Chauvin’s prison sentence was a small reprieve for the thousands of black men killed in police custody and Scotland was also bound to the shackles of those shameful injustices.
In Kirkcaldy, May 2015, Sheku Bayoh, 31, a father of two sons, died in custody after being detained by nine police officers. His death, overlooked, ignored, neglected by politicians at the time, has been left to the tireless campaigning of a grieving family to highlight.
No police officer has been held responsible for Sheku’s death, though an inquiry into what happened is now taking place. Two decades on from Imran Khan’s death, the resistance to systemic change in holding institutions like the police to account remains Scotland’s reality.
I am angry because I’m done with the façade of polite optimism.
It has been a lifetime of protesting on the streets to no avail, pushing the anti-racism agenda to leaders who remain indifferent; frustration listening to BAME teaching colleagues too frightened to speak about racist bullying because it’s “career suicide”; despair that young talented BAME teachers are walking out of the profession (including my daughter) due to lack of support, feeling invisible and isolated; exasperation when I listen to microaggressions from staff that I actually like; upset when a male black colleague lowers his voice and stands back in case he is seen as aggressive; infuriated, when pupils are called racist names and it’s treated as an individual case and not a catalyst to review the school’s anti-racism ethos; and depressed at watching my own children facing the same racism time and time again.
The Scottish Government’s Race Equality Anti-Racism Education Programme, which has been set up in response to the increase in reported racist incidents on the street and in schools, must be sustained, developed, and driven forward with accountability otherwise, like the hopeful government initiatives of the past, it is just another misleading ploy.
I became a grandmother for the first time last year. She is my joy. When I hold her in my arms there is one thing I know for sure that has changed: she will not tolerate in silence the racism that her grandmother endured.
Child Q is suing the Met and her school in Hackney over the incident, “to obtain cast-iron commitments to ensure this never happens again to any other child”. It is in that courage and strength where the hope lies but should not rest on the shoulders of a child. This is our national shame.
Zamard Zahid is a former teacher and an anti-racism campaigner. She is taking part in the Pass the Mic initiative to see more women of colour commentators in the media.