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What the death of Mercy Baguma reveals about Scottish exceptionalism

Vaishnavi Ramu

My father came to England in 1981, before moving to Scotland ten years later. When I asked him whether he preferred Scotland to England, he simply answered with this: “I was in England for ten years, and I’ve been in Scotland for over 20. What do you think?” I would love to think that every person coming to live in this country had the same sentiment, however I hardly think that Mercy Baguma’s final hours were spent thinking how lucky she was to be north of the border.

Mercy Baguma was found dead in her flat on Saturday 22nd of August. As an asylum seeker, Mercy was struggling to make ends-meet before she finally lost her job, due to her ‘indefinite leave to remain’ expiring. She then relied on donations from charities, family and friends. Tragically, it wasn’t enough to keep her alive. Her son of just a year old was found wailing beside her.

The very idea of poverty is something the west often like to attribute to the Global South. We consume the poverty porn given to us by charities such as Water Aid, Save the Children or Unicef. We see celebrities, such as Euan McGregor, trying to convince us to donate money every month so a child can have access to clean water and food. These ads, often showing footage of people of colour in poor conditions, do a number of things wrong, yet arguably their most dangerous outcome is this: it ‘others’ the problem, creating the impression that issues of poverty and hunger are not “really an issue” in the first world; when in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I wonder if celebrities such as Euan McGregor, however well-intentioned they may be, would do the same advert for a homeless person on the streets of Edinburgh.

It was my father’s answer to my rather loaded question, along with an innate rivalry cultivated in every Scot since birth against their southern neighbours, that had me convinced that Scotland was just “better” than England in every area. Passionate, slightly misguided patriotism aside, Scotland does make a strong case for providing a better quality of life; after all, it has a number of advantages such as free tuition and free prescriptions. Politically, we have a strong first minister and an amplified voice in Westminster, the former bombarding us with statistics favouring Scotland over England, the latter seeing Angus Robertson hold the Tory government accountable for anything that is a reserved matter. In short, Scotland was, and still is, sold to us as the best part of Britain.

It is this vision that has allowed Scots, including white and many non-black people of colour, to become complacent at our lowest points. Since I started university, I’ve been a strong vocal opponent of racism, yet even I had fallen into the trap of sub-consciously thinking Scotland wasn’t “as bad” as other places. Perhaps it was a way for me to cope, but either way, I was far from right.

The murder of George Floyd caused a ripple effect across the world in the discussions of race and racism, and I woke up from my delusions. Before, I had only been aware acutely of my privilege as a non-Black person of colour, particularly being of Indian origin from a Hindu family. It was no surprise learning about being a model minority, but there were gaps in my knowledge. I educated myself, and in no time was surrounded by stories coming not only from the USA or England, but Scotland too: from Glasgow to Edinburgh and finally, my own home of the Scottish Borders. I learnt not only about racism, but anti-blackness, a term rarely discussed until now. However, there was still one term that I had never come across before: Scottish exceptionalism.

Scottish exceptionalism is the idea that as a country, Scotland is less xenophobic, homophobic, racist; a utopia where tolerance is the norm. From white Scots telling me they’ve faced “racism from English people” to being told I was “lucky” to be here (in my own country), the gaps in racial literacy here are astonishing. Scotland, as a country, arguably benefited more from colonialism than England did; Scotland owned nearly 30 per cent of Jamaican estates as early as 1796; Glasgow was famously the 'second city' of the British empire and Edinburgh’s links to the slave trade have also recently come under scrutiny. For white Scots to tell Scots of colour that they’re “lucky” is nothing but blatant ignorance.

This ignorance, and subsequent apathy, stem from a lack of education and conversation tackling the nuances of Scottish politics and history. This has led to idealistic, and often misleading, portrayals of Scotland in the media, that ignore the deeply ingrained institutional racism embedded in this country. In other words: people either don’t know, or don’t want to know.

It is this same system of institutional racism that initially made it difficult, but eventually did allow, my father to stay in Scotland. My father is an accountant of Indian origin, and thus fits the mould of a perfect immigrant by having a middle-class job; South Asians, time and time again, have been used as the ethnic minority who “made it”. If they could, why can’t other minorities do the same? Yet, for people like Mercy, a Ugandan asylum seeker, this mould did not fit; and therefore the system punished her. The same immigration system that helped my father is the same one that killed Mercy Baguma. No one summed this up better than Mercy’s own sister, who said that she died “over a piece of paper”.

Immigration is not a devolved power, and to credit the SNP, they did apply for a separate visa system for Scotland earlier this year, a proposal that got shut down quickly by Westminster. However, the Scottish government can, and must, do better with the powers they do have. It is Scottish social services that failed not only Mercy, but her distressed one year old baby boy, by failing to provide the adequate support they both needed. that failed Sheku Bayoh, a black man who died in police custody. It is Scottish education teaching pupils of battles with the English, but refusing to acknowledge its own brutal role in colonialism.

Scotland excels in many areas, and I would be the first to argue that the British government has its failures. Yet, by continuously blaming Westminster for issues that the Scottish government can take action on, they begin to conveniently escape their accountability; and as much as I enjoy a witty comeback from Nicola Sturgeon, the issue of racism and anti-Blackness prevails beyond political rivalries and national borders.

Mercy was a mother, daughter and a sister. She was a student, a waitress and a volunteer. She was, and still is, more than her final hours. We must learn from her life the kindness we are capable of; and from her death the true dangers of Scottish exceptionalism.

Cover image: via NewsBreak

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