Zandra Yeaman, Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights talks about how we must engage with anti-racism in our understanding of Scotland’s past


In October 2001, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights ( curated the first co-ordinated programme of events for Black History Month in Scotland.  A key part of the programme was a Black History walking tour around Glasgow. It was an opportunity to learn about our built heritage but most importantly to enable discussion about the legacy of empire, slavery, colonialism and migration.

In Scotland, people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent have very specific historical contexts linking to empire, transatlantic slavery, colonialism and migration, each of which have an extensive impact on Scotland’s economic, demographic, environmental, cultural and social development. In the present day, the histories of these communities are not acknowledged and represented as well as they could be within history, heritage, arts and culture work in Scotland.

20 years after the first tour we find ourselves having further discussions about our built environment. Should statues stay or go? Should we be renaming our streets and building? Why do we not learn about this in school?  These debates are welcome and there is no doubt this has brought much of Scotland’s history and links to empire and slavery into wider public recognition. However the real work is not more symbolism but actually addressing the legacy.

One of the ways forward is to ensure that everyone understands what we mean by ‘legacy’. To do this we need to acknowledge that the concept of different ‘races’ and ‘racial groups’ and the false notions of racial superiority developed during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century were ideologies created to justify the buying and selling of human beings, genocides, looting and plundering. These ideologies also developed and influenced the social attitudes of the time.

These are not attitudes that have been left in the past. In the  present day, these notions still have an influence in all areas of life in Scotland to some degree, from social attitudes to the way organisations are run, continuing inequalities for Black and minority ethnic people over generations. This is known as ‘structural racism’. It can be seen on a personal level in people’s attitudes and behaviours; on a social level in how people talk to each other and make decisions; and at an institutional level in how organisations conduct their business (‘institutional racism’).

While most people recognise that racist attitudes and language is unacceptable, it is only now that  our cultural heritage sector is finally recognising that for years it has set a comfortable narrative that has omitted Scotland’s complicity and direct involvement in slavery and colonialism.

‘Addressing the legacy’ is therefore not just debating what we do with the statues honouring the people who perpetuated a racist ideology nor is it redecorating the structures built from the proceeds of the transatlantic and empire trades. Addressing the legacy is dismantling the structural (and institutional) racism that is perpetuated today and transforming the narrative to include the uncomfortable unvarnished truth.

Projects such as Managing Imperial Legacies will not change things overnight. What we need to do is work with academics, heritage institutions, heritage professionals, anti-racist activists and communities to find a way to build a bridge of trust that is strong enough to bear the weight of the truth we are trying to deliver.