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Subtle racism from childhood to university

6 mins read
The African Carribean society has helped Maya find her place. Credit: Maya Priestley (Facebook)

Too black for white people and too white for blacks, growing up in overwhelmingly white Edinburgh was a constant identity struggle for a mixed-race girl like Maya Priestley.

Maya, 21, was born in Scotland’s ‘multicultural’ capital city, and was raised there for most of her childhood.

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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 began attending St. Thomas of Acquin’s High School at the age of 11.

Vividly recalling her first experience of racism in Scotland when she was around 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 aggressive, racist remarks 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, they 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 struggling to identify with family members, was difficult to endure.”

Think of a famous Black Scot in sport, politics or television.  It’s nearly impossible.

According to the 2011 Scottish Census, African, Caribbean or Black groups make up only one per cent of the country’s population.

With only a palmful 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 went through an identity crisis, struggling to find her place.

She felt that it was difficult for them to relate to her. Not because they were unwilling to, but because they simply could not understand.

Maya said: “My mum and gran are extremely liberal. They are as comforting and as reassuring as possible.

“However, it wasn’t until last year that 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.”

Moving to Stirling, Maya has been fortunate enough to find a place in the African Caribbean society at the university. 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 to give me in terms of understanding my own culture and racism.

“Although my white family members and friends understand racism and want to help me in any way they can, 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 subjects that affect me.”

Maya still experiences racism in Stirling, both on the university campus and in the wider community.

She recalls having a frustrating discussion with one of her flatmates earlier this year, who did not believe in white privilege, and asked her the age-old question, “but where are you really from?”

She added: “I see what they’re trying to get at because I don’t look like I should belong here.

“And with an all-white family, I sometimes even questioned whether I belonged with them.

“My grandmother once told me that the best way to disrupt ignorance and get people to change, was to ‘be the change you want to see,’ similar to Ghandi’s sentiments.”

“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.

“You can only try and show people that things can be done differently.”

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