Sheku Bayoh and the subtlety of Scottish racism
Illustration by Nicola March

Sheku Bayoh did not die recently. His story has regained relevance – a remit of his death inquiry was announced in May – but considering his passing in 2015, his name should have been imprinted in our collective conscience long ago. Bayoh was 31 and a father of two when he was killed in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, by police officers.

Around 7:20am, after receiving reports of an intoxicated black male carrying a knife, nine white police officers came to arrest him. Bayoh was unarmed, but regardless, he was beaten, pepper sprayed, and ultimately knelt on by six officers until he fell unconscious in the street and died in custody. Police told his sister that a member of public had found him dead at the hands of two unknown attackers; police questioned his partner without informing her of his passing; after a week, not one of the officers involved had been suspended or even interviewed by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner for the death of an unarmed citizen.

An innocent black man’s existence being suspicious enough to report to the police, crushed to death by people employed to protect, and the officers in question facing minimal, delayed consequences – by now, the story is all too familiar. This is a typically American narrative – however, it is set in Scotland. A nation that prides itself on equality and liberalism has the disregarded blood of this young black father on its hands.

I, like many others, first heard his name at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Dundee, my hometown. It was the first of its kind, and was therefore incredibly important to me that I went. Dundee has many activists, but many racists – and many, many more who tend to remain silent when it matters.

Through my and my family’s experiences in Dundee, one can see a microcosm of the way racism functions in Scotland. For the most part, it’s been subtle. Job vacancies that remained closed to me but blatantly open to my white, equally qualified peers. The same adults never bothering to learn my name, or the names of brown friends, over the course of a decade. Being frequently degraded, never explicitly for my skin colour so much as for my predominantly South Asian traits – body hair, big eyebrows, hyperpigmentation. Strangers inexplicably treating me worse than they treated other white people, terrorist jokes from the age of six, being called aggressive or pushy when talking about race; the list goes on.

They are motivated by the same racist impulses that lead to Sheku Bayoh’s death

None of these are quite murder, but the truth is that regardless of external dynamics, all of these are rooted in racism. Nothing of this kind happened to my white peers; none of these would have happened to me if I had been ethnically Scottish instead of ethnically Pakistani. They are motivated by the same racist impulses that lead to Sheku Bayoh’s death. The defining catch to all of this, though, is that if explicitly challenged, every perpetrator would have plausible deniability that much, if any, of this had to do with race. Maybe I just was being a little abrasive when arguing about my right to exist safely. Perhaps the jobs just happened to be closed whenever I applied for them (though conveniently not when friends applied a week later). “Racism is a very serious accusation to just be throwing around. Prove it.”

Of course, all of this went unchecked. It always does. These are not just my anecdotes; they’re common amongst BAME Scottish youth. Resultantly, my parents remained stoic and unsurprised when it got more serious. When my brother was spat on and called ‘Paki’ on the bus, he was 12. It was the same year that a teacher told him he just ‘had to get along’ with a boy who hit him and called him the N word. It is the same racism as the nondescript prejudice that’s just a part of life for Scottish minorities.

Racism in Scotland seldom takes such open, aggressive forms. It is subtle, and therefore defensible by design. It’s easy to perpetuate and immensely difficult to call out. Outright cases of racially charged violence are deemed overt and rare, but when covert racism is normalised, it makes the pursuit of justice so much harder. The rise of Black Lives Matter was met with vehement denial – “racism isn’t a thing in Scotland.” Sheku Bayoh’s murder is a prime example of the opposite. White supremacy remains interwoven with this nation. Cities like Glasgow are built on African slavery. “Paki shop” and “ch!nky” are an everyday part of Scottish vernacular. The six people who knelt on an unarmed black father until he died walk free.

I wish I had heard Sheku’s name earlier. I wish his name had emblazoned headlines across the country, had infiltrated discourse in homes and workplaces and classrooms, and had become the source of national outrage that it absolutely should have been. I wish there had been justice for this man, for his children, for his partner and his family and his friends, and for the minority communities across Scotland who live constantly on edge with defensiveness and fear. But it’s not surprising that there has not been justice for Sheku Bayoh when people of colour across Scotland are not listened to or treated with respect.

Racism in Scotland seldom takes such open, aggressive forms. It is subtle, and therefore defensible by design

BAME Scots made up 4% of her population as of 2011; Kirkcaldy’s residents are 97% white and 1% black. It immediately becomes easier to miss or discount racial prejudice as an issue in Scotland when the groups in question are this small. Contrarily, it should make this issue even more urgent – groups this size rely on external support. The idea that BAME Scots “don’t mix” is a harmful, often weaponised stereotype, but there is a grain of truth to the idea that minorities, such as Muslims, tend to stick within their communities. With racism flying so easily under the radar, we seldom have anywhere else to turn. Resultantly, awareness and support are not perpetuated. Covert acts of racism become normalised, overt acts of racism go unpunished. The cycle continues.

In a subtly racist society, hiring bias is commonplace. Most of us have a story where someone has spat abuse at us on a bus. And the name of an innocent black man who died five years ago in police custody requires a global movement to resurface. Scotland must act more and accept less. We owe it to the memory of Sheku, and to the safety and the livelihoods of BAME Scots like him.

Donate to Sheku Bayoh’s justice fund here: