A second-year student has shared her journey of growing up mixed race in an all-white family, in a majority-white nation.
Maya Priestley, 21, was born in Scotland’s multicultural capital city of Edinburgh. She was raised there for most of her life.
As the child of a white Scottish mother and a black father from Liberia, who has never been on the scene, Maya has always been in the minority. After previously being home-schooled, she entered the Scottish public education system at the age of 11.
Describing the experience as a massive culture shock, Maya said: “My idea of life in high school was that it would be like High School Musical.”
According to the 2011 Scottish Census, African, Caribbean or Black groups make up only one per cent of the country’s population.
With not a lot of black or mixed-race students in her high school, Maya had little to no perception of what it meant to be mixed race.
And with only white family members, she felt that it was difficult for them to relate to her. Not because they were unwilling to, but because they did not understand.
Maya said: “My mum and gran are extremely liberal. My family are as comforting and as reassuring as possible.
“However, it wasn’t until last year when my Mum called me up and apologised for not creating a space for me to explore the other side of my heritage.
“She just didn’t think about it, whereas it was always something on my mind growing up. Now, it’s a lot better because she’s really into tackling racism.
“Sometimes, she’s more educated on certain topics than I am. But growing up, it wasn’t like that.
Thinking back to her childhood, she admitted: “I felt that white people thought I was too black and black people thought I was too white.
Vividly recalling her first experience of racism in Scotland, when she was just six years old, Maya said: “I was walking to the shops with my friends, and these boys who were older than me were shouting at me, calling me a monkey.
“I remember turning around and impersonating one, because I loved monkeys. It was my white friends that were older than me who told me they were being racist.”
These types of subtle microaggressions were a recurring theme throughout Maya’s high school years.
She added: “There were lots of things at the time that I didn’t realise were racist but looking back now with the knowledge that I have, most definitely are.
“Small things like people coming up to me and saying, ‘Look Maya, I’m so tanned I’m almost the same colour as you now’ or ‘you can’t tan, you’re black.’”
“I find that harder to deal with than when someone is being blatantly racist; at least then, you know where you stand.
“You know their opinion of you but when there are so many microaggressions, I was constantly questioning if certain things were being said because of the colour of my skin.
“It makes you doubt and second guess yourself. That, on top of high school, was difficult to endure.”
Coming to the University of Stirling, Maya has been fortunate enough to find a safe place in the university’s African Caribbean society. Here, she has finally found people who are in similar circumstances.
She said: “Until then I didn’t understand where my place was. It was so confusing.
“My mum, being white, didn’t have the resources that she would have been able to give me in terms of understanding my own culture and racism.
“It’s been a journey of trying to find people who are in similar circumstances and learning from each other – that’s the most natural way.
“It’s a safe medium for people to do that without discrimination or fear of judgement.
“Loads of my white friends understand racism and they want to help me in any way they can, but they can’t.
“It’s been a process of learning when to use my voice, and how to use my voice to speak out about different subjects that may affect me or other people. It’s been a journey.”
Although universities are widely regarded as one of society’s more liberal leaning bubbles, Maya has still experienced racism in Stirling, both on campus and in the wider community.
She remembers having a frustrating discussion with one of her first-year flatmates, who did not believe in white privilege.
And when out and about in Stirling, she has been asked the age-old question, “but where are you really from?”
“I see what they’re trying to get at because I don’t look like I should belong here”, she says.
“One time I was on the phone to my best friend, who is also mixed race, as she was walking through Stirling city centre.
Some local boys around our age shouted the N-word at her. She was so ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated in public. Instead of retaliating, she just burst into tears.
“That incident definitely made me aware that Stirling is not a completely inclusive city to live in.
“I once asked my Grandmother: “How do we disrupt ignorance. How do we get people to change?”
“Her answer has always stuck with me. She said: “Be the change you want to see.”
“At the end of the day, you can’t force someone to change their opinions and beliefs and the way that they were brought up, although that is no justification for acting a certain way.
“It’s not just people of colour’s responsibility. It’s a global challenge for everyone to face.
“In Scotland, we have come along way but we’re nowhere close to equality. There’s never going to be a society where everyone harmoniously gets on and we’re always going to have different views.
“But within the [African Carribean] society, one of the things we’re trying to show is that things can change for the better. By putting on all these events, and being as inclusive as possible, we are highlighting that things can be done differently.”