THE Children’s Hearing had concluded, and I was typing up the decisions and reasons of the panel, when I heard a comment that made my ears prick up. My two panel colleagues – volunteers, like me – were talking about the ethnic group to which the family we’d just met belonged.

I paused, then kept typing. There was another family in the waiting room, another case to hear shortly, and no time for distractions from the task at hand. At least that’s what I told myself. While it was true that a tangential debate risked derailing the morning’s proceedings, I also just didn’t want to start one. We were a panel, a trio, a team. We were part of a small community of volunteers with a common goal: to make decisions in the best interests of children. It was much easier not to rock the boat.

Then I heard it, crystal clear and undeniable: “They move in packs”.

I stopped typing, swivelled round in my chair, and interrupted. “Did you actually just say that? ‘They move in packs’? Good grief.”

Silence. An exchange of looks. Not quite an eyeroll, but a look that said: “Oh. She’s one of them”.

I’d like to tell you I made a formal report, named and shamed, to highlight a serious concern about that individual’s ability not just to make sound decisions about children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, but to regard them as fully human. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. And while I could tell myself that my very mild rebuke caused him to reassess his racism and turn over a new leaf, who am I trying to kid? Of course it didn’t.

If you’ve never heard a racist remark that you didn’t challenge, I applaud you. Because while it’s easy to condemn racism in the abstract, it’s a bit tougher to do it in real life. When it’s a relative, a colleague or a neighbour making the comment, calling out prejudice risks causing a rift. When it’s a stranger, a challenge might put your physical safety at risk.

We’ve all seen the phone-camera videos of horrendous verbal assaults that went unchallenged by everyone else on the bus or in the train carriage. We all like to think that if we’d been there, we’d have intervened. But can we say for certain we would have?

Was a hate crime committed when my panel colleague made his remarks? If so, who was the victim? If I had reported it to the relevant people in the children’s hearings system, would it have made its way into official statistics? What about the instances on public transport that no-one films, where securing a conviction depends on identifying the perpetrators and tracking down the witnesses who failed to step in at the time?

When the headlines this week proclaimed that Scotland has a problem with racism, just like the rest of the UK – and that notions of exceptionalism are not supported by the evidence – many were quick to cry “Unionist fake news!”. No-one likes to be told bad things about the country in which they live, least of all those fighting for self-determination. But the mature response to hearing difficult truths is not to stick fingers in ears and hum “A Man’s a Man For A’ That” over whoever is speaking them; it’s to listen, reflect, and ask “is there anything I could be doing differently?”

The authors of No Problem Here: Racism in Scotland say portrayals of Scotland as more tolerant than the rest of the UK are a “misleading fantasy” based on a misreading of statistics and a failure to correctly categorise race-related hate crimes. With Syrian refugee Shabaz Ali lying in hospital recovering from an allegedly racially motivated attack, the warning is grimly timely.

Anyone who has ever looked deeply into crime statistics – whether they be a professional working in the field, an academic researcher, a politician or a journalist – will have quickly found there’s nothing straightforward about the reporting, recording or interpreting of offences. There’s a reason why justice-related university classes begin with a lengthy deliberation of the question “what is crime?”, and demonstrations of the huge mismatch between the number of offences reported to the police and the number of experiences of victimisation reported in large-scale surveys.

Most switched-on people understand that when it comes to certain types of crimes, only a fraction are ever reported. Campaigners for change have done a good job of highlighting the risk of re-victimisation involved in reporting rape or sexual assault, and the impact this has on the willingness of survivors to come forward. Less attention has been paid to the way in which reporting of hate crime requires victims to re-live experiences they would rather forget.

The annual Glasgow Household Survey has consistently found that of those who experience hate crime, seven in 10 victims do not report it to the police or any other authority.

Perhaps you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps because you don’t hear it or see it, from your own family, friends and colleagues, you are happy to believe there is indeed no problem here and that the so-called experts who have painstakingly researched this topic are just looking for any excuse to talk Scotland down.

If so, you’re living in a bubble. And for as long as you stay in that bubble, failing to tackle a problem you refuse to believe exists, you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.