The Herald

Slave trade isn’t history... that legacy is still all around us

Challengin­g racism is about making sure talented black people get a seat at the table, writes Dr Helen Minnis


IWAS sad not to be out in Glasgow Green on the Black Lives Matter protest. All week I weighed the risk to Scotland of a carefully socially distanced demonstrat­ion, against the risk of people NOT making a strong show that could reduce deaths from brutality against Black people. What tipped the balance for me was hearing that nine out of 10 doctors who’ve died from Covid-19 have been black. I’m a black doctor in my 50s and don’t want to be another statistic.

As a Scottish black woman married to Steve, a white American man, I am under no delusions. This brutality against black people has been present ever since the transatlan­tic slave trade which, historical­ly speaking, only ended the day before yesterday.

In 1995, Steve and I were leaving his sister’s wedding reception in Ohio so that Steve (still in his tux) could drive me (now in my street clothes) to the airport. I had a job interview the next day in London. Steve had never been stopped by the police before, yet we were stopped three times before we reached the limits of his five mile radius mid-western home town, nearly causing me to miss my plane and my interview. Steve’s interpreta­tion of this stressful series of events was that any US police officer seeing a well-dressed white man driving with a casually dressed black woman would assume her to be a prostitute and him to be a drunk.

Scottish racism can also be brutal and intrusive, but is often of a more subtle variety. We Scots pride ourselves on inclusiven­ess and openness, so sometimes only our unconsciou­s bias remains, which is much harder to tackle.

When I became a professor, back in 2015, I was invited to a lunch to welcome new professors. The lunch was planned for the end of a Senior Management Group meeting and I happened to be the first of the new professors to arrive. One of the SMG, a teaching professor I knew who had graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow at a similar time as me, greeted me as I walked in saying “Hi Helen. What are you doing here? I mean … what are you being promoted to?”. I quickly swallowed the temptation to say “Well this is a lunch for new professors, so it should be obvious!” and, instead, politely said “Professor”. He countered with “Really?!? Gosh, Helen, I thought you were just a young girl!”. I’m sure he intended to be sweet, so it was pointless to try and point out his massive faux pas. His own sense of white privilege, of being entitled to sit at the professori­al table, made it impossible for him to see me in that role. I had been shocked to discover, when appointed, that I was only the 18th black female professor in the UK – out of over 20,000 professors in total. This incident made me see that I should not have been surprised.

This week, a Royal College of Nursing survey found that many black and minority ethnic nurses believe they have been put at risk from Covid-19 because of structural racism in the NHS – which makes them more likely to be in more junior posts and to feel pressure to take on high risk tasks. This structural inequality exists not only because of unconsciou­s bias at interview panels, but also because of our own low expectatio­ns, as black and minority ethnic profession­als. I was lucky to grow up in Glasgow at a time when the few black people were nearly all doctors and PHD students so it didn’t occur to me that anyone would think I wasn’t clever. It has only been since talking about race with young black English scientists that I have become aware of how toxic those low expectatio­ns can be: for example, the black PHD student in physics at Imperial College who told me he’d never thought of himself as being very good at maths.

I’m proud to be a professor at the first UK University to acknowledg­e its role in the transatlan­tic slave trade that has tried to account for what it gained financiall­y from that trade and is trying to make reparation­s. I’m a proud member of the University of Glasgow History of Slavery Committee that drives that work– but it’s crucial we all realise that the transatlan­tic slave tade is not really history.

It has skewed the distributi­on of global wealth towards WEIRD (white educated industrial­ized rich democratic) countries. It has driven the exponentia­l rise in consumptio­n that has caused our climate crisis. We are, all of us, living in the long tail of that skewed distributi­on.the low expectatio­ns of black people, worldwide, and the brutality against them, are modern versions of the slave owner’s chains and the overseer’s whip.

If we are lucky, some of the world’s most talented young black people may be attracted to come study in Glasgow when they hear of the opening of the James Mccune Smith building in honour of one of the University of Glasgow’s most notable alumni – the first African American doctor. Because these young people have not experience­d the straitjack­et of entitlemen­t, they could become some of our most innovative thinkers and our most enlightene­d is the job of all of us to welcome them to Glasgow and ensure that – young, gifted and Black – they get an equal chance to sit at our world-changing table, so that none of us are coerced into mediocrity.

Scottish racism can also be brutal and intrusive, but is often of a more subtle variety

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