Let's make history and name a new Edinburgh school after a black migrant woman, my mother - Vineet Lal
As a BAME person, though, I have to say I’m not particularly surprised, given my own life experience. And particularly given a current campaign that has, in its own way, generated a passionate debate in Edinburgh’s leafy suburb of Morningside.
Let’s rewind slightly. My late mother, Saroj Lal (1937-2020), was a remarkable woman. One of a kind. In many ways, a woman ahead of her time. She was a pioneering educator, activist and campaigner in Scottish race relations during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
She challenged perceptions and stereotypes throughout her life, leading Edinburgh’s crusade against racism, injustice and discrimination.
A brand-new primary school is being built on Canaan Lane in Morningside. One of the two current Council-proposed options for its name is ‘Saroj Lal Primary School’. (The other is simply ‘Canaan Lane Primary School’.) The final decision is to be made by the pupils of the four existing primary schools in the area after the summer break.
My campaign to support the proposal has undoubtedly captured the public imagination in South Edinburgh, and momentum is clearly building, hour by hour. We are, I know, within touching distance of success. But the tsunami of positivity has swept along in its wake little flashes of a darker side – a side that both I and Humza Yousaf have been forced to confront this week.
The very thought that a school in Morningside might potentially be named after a black migrant woman has provoked opinions from a (tiny) minority that seem quite extraordinary: ‘At a time when our history is being eroded, the name of Saroj Lal just isn’t Scottish, is it?’. Or: ‘What a disgrace. Let’s name it after a famous Edinburgher’. Or even: ‘The legacy of colonialism wasn’t all bad’. Indeed.
Saroj dedicated herself to improving life for communities in Scotland’s capital, but clearly the colour of her skin still prevents her from being accepted as an ‘Edinburgher’. Perhaps Humza Yousaf and I should just pack up and ‘go back home’, as evidently we don’t quite cut it (and our names are too un-Scottish and too unpronounceable anyway – another accusation I’ve had to deal with).
The naming of Edinburgh’s newest school offers a unique opportunity for us all – the local community, Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government – to show that we really are serious when it comes to a demonstrable commitment to equality and inclusion. To implement meaningful action in the light of BLM, allegations of racism in local schools and the ongoing debate around the city’s links to slavery and colonialism. To stand up to the casual racism and microaggressions that I, and so many others, have had to suffer for so long.
We are almost at the finish line. Let’s make history. Let’s be proud to be us.
-Vineet Lal is an Edinburgh-based literary translator who is currently leading the Saroj Lal Primary School campaign.