An island lesson in racial harmony

While I was doing my bit for the war-effort between 1940 and 1945 we lived ‘in the town’ in rooms at the corner of Stornoway’s Castle Street and Point Street.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 12:00 am

Across the road was a merchant’s depot at which horse-drawn carts regularly pulled up to disgorge vast quantities of curers’ salt.

A minute’s walk along Point Street would bring you past Dan Dougal’s dairy, the same Dan Dougal’s butcher-shop, Jimmy ’Clean’s bike repair-shop, another butcher’s shop (‘Am Buidsear Ruadh’), and, finally, Calum Sgiathanach’s high-class grocery-cum-bakery. There, in my early years, my lawful journeys ended.

But then, directly below us, was Butha nan Daoine Dubha, owned and run by men of dark complexion: Pakistanis, as I know now.

They had come to Lewis some time in the thirties, and their shop didn’t sell anything of interest to little warriors, but it certainly provided a service to the cailleachs of all ages who were looking for fashionable hats for the Orduighean.

The shop-owners were doubtless quietly amused that Christians depended on them, Muslims, for appropriate attire for church-going, but the Christians didn’t give it a thought, and there wasn’t even a whisper of disapproval. That would have been reserved for any cailleach who turned up in church without a hat.

After the War others began to join the original cohort from Pakistan and established flourishing and valued businesses not only in Stornoway, but also in Tarbert, Harris. These were not, however, the only visitors from the Indian sub-continent.

Others, distinctly more scary, began to appear, wearing long beards and turbans. They were Sikhs I think, but however scary they might be to wee boys who had never seen either a beard or a turban in their whole lives, they carried no fears for the local housewives. They warmly welcomed exotic visitors who came bearing irresistible bargains in gigantic suitcases as well stocked as a Glasgow department store.

There was never any tension between the native community and these incomers of different colour and different religions; and that harmony still prevails today, when the people of the Western Isles have welcomed into their midst (at a quick count) not only Pakistanis, but Indians, Syrians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Africans.

This shouldn’t be noteworthy: it should be the norm, but what makes it notable is the racism that plagues much of modern Britain.

For years, right-wing movements such as the National Front have peddled their abhorrent message; Labour under Jeremy Corbyn failed to deal robustly with the anti-Semitism which had infiltrated it; ethnic minority priests have complained of racist abuse in the Church of England; professional footballers are regularly taunted both on-field and in the social media; and in the wider community there are daily reports of racial discrimination in housing, employment, education and, above all, in policing.

The result has been twofold. On the one hand, people of colour, including even the Duchess of Sussex, now define themselves as victims; on the other, the anger of ethnic minorities has reached dangerously high levels of concentration in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.

Behind our racism there lies a peculiar theory: the racial superiority of white Europeans. History offers little to justify it. After all, it was white Europeans who perpetrated the Holocaust; and it was white Europeans who for two centuries built their prosperity on the slave-trade, trafficking in humans as if they were cattle, flogging them at will, and shooting them without either compunction or accountability.

It was easy, then, to speak of the black races as ‘degraded’. After all, you met them only as slaves. But they were not degraded by their racial origin. They had been ‘de-graded’ by cruelty and abuse, and by a culture which denied them education, a family life, or any space to make their own life-choices. White Europeans had stripped them of all dignity.

Yet, even amid such horrors, they created their own soul-stirring music, blending their African heritage with the darkness of their American experience; and, when liberation came, they showed that as a race they had their full share of physical prowess, moral courage, intellectual acuity and artistic genius.

No sportsmen are more renowned than Pelé, Mohammed Ali, and Usain Bolt; no leaders are more honoured than Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela; and here in Britain, the descendants of immigrants, men and women, have risen to political eminence, senior positions in the NHS, and prominence in the struggle against Covid-19. These are not signs of racial inferiority.

Both the Bible and pseudo-science have been pressed into the service of perverse racial theory, and there are still, clearly, heads in which such a theory can find a home. But the true biblical picture, and the authentic voice of science, is to be heard in the stirring opening line of the American Declaration of Independence, ‘All men are created equal’.

We have one Maker, we share a common ancestry, we come from the same gene-pool; and, above all, each one of us bears the image of God, albeit that image shone more brightly in the slave who suffered under the lash than in the ‘superior’ slave-owner who flogged her.

And precisely because all are created equal, every human being, of whatever race, colour, or gender, has an inalienable right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. These are ‘human rights,’ but not rights conferred by any human Charter or Declaration. They come, as President John Kennedy put it in his Inaugural Address in 1961, ‘not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.’

For anyone, in any position, to be complicit in violating them, is therefore the height of wickedness.