‘Men with bats shouted the N-word’: Gary Younge on racism in Scotland

SCOTLAND taught Gary Younge hard truths about racism. Now, though, it’s time for Younge to school Scotland.

Today, aged 54, Younge is one of Britain’s most celebrated journalists and a professor of sociology. He was Britain’s first black newspaper columnist, renowned for his work with The Guardian. Younge’s new book, Dispatches From The Diaspora, investigates what it means to be black today. However, it was in Scotland where Younge learned many of the lessons which shaped his view of how black people are treated in predominantly white societies.

As a student in 1980s Edinburgh, he faced violence on the streets and casual racism at university. “Scotland taught me a lot about race,” he says. Shortly after Younge arrived from England to study at Heriot-Watt university, there was a killing which shone a light on race hate in Scotland. Axmed Sheikh, a Somali refugee, was stabbed to death outside a pub after being racially abused by a gang of far-right football hooligans in Edinburgh.

“Not long after he was killed,” says Younge, “I was chased up Lothian Road by two men with baseball bats shouting the N-word.” The attack happened after the men tried to knock Younge down with their car. “I turned around and gave them the finger. One got out, went to the boot and got a baseball bat. I started running.” The men chased him but Younge escaped.

Younge later attended a meeting in Edinburgh where activists were debating “the conspiracy of silence” around the killing of Axmed Sheikh. “I remember seeing the headline ‘Has Scotland caught the English disease?’. There was this sense that racism was this English thing and as Scots were an oppressed group, racism just wouldn’t occur to them.”


Younge spoke to a prominent SNP student campaigner and told him about the attack he had faced. “He said, ‘were they English?’. There was this bizarre notion that English dominance somehow inoculated Scotland from any sense of racism – which was not my experience.” Scotland, Younge says, tries to “demand a kind of absolution” from Britain’s imperial past.

Younge points out that his name is a reminder of Scotland’s involvement in slavery. “The slave owner from whom I inherited my name was a Scotsman.”

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On another occasion, a “group of neds” threatened Younge at Haymarket station. Younge experienced what he calls “exoticisation” in Scotland as he wore his hair in plaits. “I certainly wouldn’t have got that in London, or probably nowhere outside the shires.”

Younge also sat on his university’s court as a student representative. Another court member once asked him where he was born. “I said ‘Stevenage’. Then he said, ‘no, before then?’. I said ‘there was no before then’. He said ‘well, where are your parents from?’. I said Barbados, and he said, ‘oh, you’re from Barbados’. I said, ‘no’. Then he says ‘I was in Ghana’. I was like, ‘dude, that’s a long way from Barbados, what are you telling me here?’.”


YOUNGE’S assessment of Scotland and race isn’t all damning though. “Racism is a language with several dialects. Scotland’s relationship to race was different. There was more opportunity for solidarity than you would find in most of England. There was more potential, but I never experienced it as there not being an issue [with race].”

There is a failure by many in white society to face up to the past, Younge reckons. “People will say ‘we won the war’ even though they weren’t born then, and didn’t fight. But when it comes to slavery and colonialism, they say ‘I wasn’t there, I wasn’t born’. Power has many parents, but the brutality it takes to acquire it is always an orphan. I found it particularly orphaned in Scotland, with this sense of ‘it’s nothing to do with us’.”

Younge thinks this flaw is linked to Scotland’s sense of self-image. “So long as Scotland isn’t allowed to be a country by itself, Scotland can imagine itself as a sort of southwest Scandinavia. Every now and then you see if acting more like northwest Poland – church-led, reactionary.”

However, he deliberately seeks balance, weighting criticism of Scotland’s attitudes to race with praise for progress made. “There’s a moment that exists now when lots of Scottish people, not all of them, are imagining what an independent Scotland looks like – which takes race and sees the potential to be different, more progressive. I do see potential there in a way I rarely see in England.”

HeraldScotland: The Kenmure Street protest in 2021 saw the local community come together to prevent immigration officers from removing asylum seekers from a propertyThe Kenmure Street protest in 2021 saw the local community come together to prevent immigration officers from removing asylum seekers from a property (Image: PA)


THE national conversation about race and empire is less prevalent in Scotland than in England, Younge feels. “There’s issues you can avoid in Scotland that you can’t avoid in certain areas of England … In terms of the conversations you butt up against as a regular part of the day, [the legacy of empire] is a more common element of English life.”

There has been a backlash in Scotland against anti-racist campaigners demanding the country faces up to its historic involvement in slavery and active participation in empire and colonialism as a partner with England.

However, Younge again reaches for balance, and turns to the Kenmure Street protest in Glasgow when locals stopped an immigration raid. “Look at the people who prevented the expulsion of asylum seekers. I find that people in Scotland who are inclined to ‘get it’ are inclined to get much more of it.”

Balance and nuance is at the heart of his book. The intention, he says, was to show that when it comes to race “we’re not where we were, but we aren’t close to where we need to be”. Progress has been made, but it’s far from enough. Dispatches From The Diaspora features Younge’s reporting from South Africa to America, covering Nelson Mandela’s presidential campaign and Barack Obama’s election victory. Along the way he gets drunk with writer Maya Angelou and hangs out with Stormzy.


THE book also puts Black Lives Matter in an historic context. It struck him that young British people today would have no memory of Mandela’s imprisonment, or the Macpherson report which damned the Metropolitan Police as “institutionally racist”. “Black Lives Matter didn’t come from nowhere,” he says.

However, there’s also “a real danger that people think nothing has been achieved. An awful lot of people sacrificed an awful lot. Look at the number of black people in Parliament”. When he was a student, “the idea of a non-white SNP person would have appeared bizarre, certainly south of the Border. Now Humza Yousaf is standing [for leader].” When Younge was growing up there were no black players in the England football team – now they take the knee. “It’s important to recognise that.”

However, he warns: “Some people take that and say ‘everything’s solved. We’re doing okay’. We aren’t doing okay. If there’s anything more remarkable than how far we’ve come, it’s how much is still the same.” Just look at the figures around race and stop and search, imprisonment and school exclusion, Younge says. “You need to keep two things in your head at the same time. It doesn’t have to be that Obama’s election means ‘everything’, in order for us to think that it also means ‘something’.”


YOUNGE warns that today “fascism is a mainstream electoral ideology in Europe”. He points to the rise of the far right in France, Italy, Hungary and Germany. There are also neo-Nazis on Britain’s streets targeting refugee hotels.

“Just as racism has many dialects, so does fascism,” says Younge, who has reported extensively on European extremism. Modern fascism, he says, doesn’t “look like it used to”. Metaphorically, it dresses in different clothes, “coheres around culture and Christianity, against Islam, and migration. It isn’t purely around race. They’re less likely to talk about repatriation”.

He adds: “When I grew up there was this dominant notion that Britain was a white country, that black people were just visiting. So, the insult would be ‘go back to where you came from’ … Those days are essentially behind us. I don’t think fascists would try to galvanise on the basis of making Britain only white. But they’ll go for Christianity.”


SO much is shot through with racism today. Younge refers to the barrage of racist hate unleashed when three black English players missed penalties in the Euro final.

The Windrush scandal, which saw members of the Afro-Caribbean community who were born British citizens face deportation, underscored the sense that black people are never quite British enough. “That’s what made it a scandal,” says Younge. “It showed that your right to be here was tenuous. Its was out of whack with how Britain understood itself. Go back to the 2012 Olympic ceremony and the notion that blackness and Britishness aren’t in contradiction. Then you’ve this obscene [Windrush scandal]. It wasn’t a glitch in the system, it was the system working as it was supposed to. A hostile environment is a hostile environment.”

Younge blames his own profession, journalism, for many of Britain’s problems around race. “Growing up, the kinds of things people assumed they knew about me, they must have got from somewhere. I never told them I smoked weed, was a great dancer, spoke patois, did funny handshakes. When you look at some reporting from the 1970s and 80s, it’s shocking.” He highlighted historic reports in The Express referring to Notting Hill as “like a scene from Zulu. The press has a lot to answer for”.

There are still few prominent black voices in the media but it wasn’t until 1999 that Younge became Britain’s first black national newspaper columnist at The Guardian. “And that’s the most liberal paper,” he adds.

HeraldScotland: Younge shows solidarity with the Windrush generation and their families at a protest held in Windrush Square, BrixtonYounge shows solidarity with the Windrush generation and their families at a protest held in Windrush Square, Brixton (Image: Getty)


HE feels the right-wing press now treats refugees in much the same way they treated black people decades ago. “It’s a group easy to demonise,” he says. “The media could choose to either challenge or indulge [racism], for the most part it indulges it.”

Although black culture remains under fire, with scaremongering around drill music (just as there was previously scaremongering around black music like jazz and hip hop), sneering at calls for a black James Bond, and attacks on teaching critical race theory in British universities, Younge says that “when it comes to culture wars” Muslims now make easier targets due to dress and religion.

“When it comes to framing blackness as problematic, it’s around criminal behaviour, school exclusions, talk of victim culture,” he says.

Younge isn’t surprised at the anti-immigrant policies adopted by Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel, and Suella Braverman. “There’s a tradition of people pulling up the ladder after them.”

Younge lived in America when Obama ran for president. His son had just been born. Friends told him “this will be great for your son. I said ‘Why? Will it stop him getting shot, going to jail, increase the likelihood of him doing well at school and going to university? Because if not, [Obama] isn’t much use to me’. They would say ‘but just to have him as a figurehead’. I’d say ‘would you feel the same if Condoleezza Rice [a right-wing Republican who was the first female African-American US Secretary of State] was running?’ They’d say ‘of course not’. So, it’s not just that Obama is black, we need something more than that’.”

Diversity doesn’t mean much if it “brings no change”, he says. “If a system looks different but acts the same then we’ve got a problem.”


TORY politicians such as Sunak and Bravermann are “acting on a set of class interests. Black people have every right to be as wrong-headed and awful as anyone else”. With the exception of Sajid Javid, Younge says, most Conservative politicians from an ethnic minority background “come from a certain class”.

Kwasi Kwarteng, chancellor under Liz Truss, went to Eton, Younge adds. “Even if you’ve brown hands on a system, so long as the system is operating it will operate against black people.”

The police officers who killed the young black man Tyre Nichols in Memphis recently were black themselves, Young points out.

Class is inextricably linked to race. “Your race doesn’t define your class, but if you’re black you’re more likely to be poor.”

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Brexit revealed much about Britain and race, he feels. Firstly, as a “former empire”, we refused for years to have “an intelligent conversation about immigration and our needs as an ageing country”. Instead, the conversation became one about “culture, race, invasions, being swamped by alien tides”. The left feared challenging such rhetoric, he believes.

“There’s a saying: you can’t fatten a pig on market day. So come Brexit time, even if we wanted to have a debate about immigration it was too late. Now the government has launched its ‘stop the boats’ policy and it took Gary Lineker to say something. And we’re surprised when something like Brexit happens?”

Brexit unleashed xenophobia, Younge adds. “Suddenly women were having their hijabs pulled off. But nobody seriously thinks these women were coming from Poland or Romania. There was licence given to that behaviour.”

He’s interviewed Eastern Europeans who stopped speaking their native languages in public as they felt “vulnerable”. A Polish migrant, Arkadiusz Jozwik, was killed following Brexit, Younge notes. Some linked his death to rising xenophobia.

The treatment of white Ukrainian refugees clashes with the treatment of non-white refugees from other wars. “Ukraine illustrates that we can understand people are refugees through no fault of their own, that it’s possible to extend humanity. Let’s hold that thought.”


OBAMA’S presidency, he says, “drove a lot of white Americans crazy. It wasn’t just his race, he was also the son of a non-practising Muslim when they were losing wars to Muslim countries. He embodied cosmopolitanism. That was more than they could bear at a time when white America was set to become a minority within a generation”.

Trump – “the embodiment of parochialism” – capitalised on white fears, and “you had the most brazen expression of American racism from the highest office in the land”. Trump revealed a “determined desire to cling on to whatever racial advantage” some in white America believed they had. Now race is the “fulcrum point” for Republicans.

“It doesn’t heat your house, or cope with the rising cost of living, but it makes a group of people feel better about the cold lives they live. It’s ‘at least I’m not that person’.”

America, Younge believes, hasn’t really “finished” the Civil War. Black Lives Matter is a “catch-up from the Civil Rights Movement”.

Protests in the 1960s “gave people the right to eat in any restaurant they chose, but they couldn’t afford to pay for what was on the menu. A black man is Washington has a lower life expectancy than a man on the Gaza Strip”.

The storming of the Capitol Building was “an attempt at a fascist putsch”. Matters are so “desperate” on the American right that “they’ve created an alternative world – QAnon”: the conspiracy that Democrats are involved in a murderous paedophile cabal, and Trump is sent by God to save America.


ONE place which seems more hopeful is the Caribbean, Younge feels, where former British colonies like Barbados are building strong post-imperial identities and connecting with African nations. The next century may be “the African century”, he hopes.

Younge’s Barbadian mother was only 44 when she died in Britain. He says the way racism touched the lives of his mother, himself and his children is profoundly different. His mother experienced racism “almost at arm’s length,” he says, “as this isn’t the place where she grew up. She always called home somewhere else: Barbados.

“I’m born here but people don’t accept that I’m from here, and for a long time I don’t consider myself from here. “It’s not until I’m 18 that I start describing myself as British, and my sense of attachment to Britain is very contingent, somewhat tenuous.”

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The gains that anti-racist protesters made in British society, however, allowed Younge, he explains, to seize opportunities offered in education and change the class he was born into.

His children are middle class and “cosmopolitan”: born in America and raised in Britain. “Multiracial life is banal” to them, Younge says. They had black head teachers while he only had white teachers.

“They see no contradiction between being British and American and being black. Their sense of what’s possible is shaped largely by class.”

However, it would be “deluded” to think that his children won’t face racism, Younge adds. “If I’m still challenged by it, then I find it difficult to believe they won’t be.”

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