For many years now, especially since we moved to the countryside, we have been fans of Countryfile. Everything stops on Sunday evenings. I am even found giving the programme my full attention, without getting side-tracked with gadgets. The programme has become even more attractive since its presenting team have become more diverse.
I was pleased the programme invited Dwayne Fields to report on the
current situation on race. The message of the programme was:
that minorities “can feel unwelcome in the countryside”
“think they don’t belong in the countryside”
being black in a rural area is an isolating experience
One interviewee referred to “People saying they liked the good old days
when you could be racist, and you didn’t have to be PC.”
The programme has attracted criticism for drawing attention to racism in
the countryside. Dan Wootton questioning
the use of ‘white (his emphasis) environment’. He brought on Calvin
Robertson who was “baffled” with the programme. He questioned the label ‘BAME’:
“we are all British”. He spoke of the “PC brigade” and “woke people” saying
racism was everywhere. “Racism isn’t everywhere”.
The Spectator said:
Countryfile is wrong about racism and the countryside.
criticised the BBC for its response to the Black Lives Matter movement:
The BBC has made a special effort to put race front and centre in
response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It has promised to
spend £100million on ‘diverse’ programming. It has
commissioned op-eds by activists to promote BLM talking points.
It said so widespread was the BBC’s BLM activism that “it has started to
crop up in the unlikeliest of places. Now even BBC One’s Countryfile is
taking on ‘systemic’ racism. I wonder why they used the word ‘even’ in
this respect and why is Countryfile an unlikeliest place for addressing racism
in the countryside.
Most of the criticism was decontextualized and ahistorical. It took
little account of the wider and historical context of the issue of race in
relation to our rural areas.
A bit of background
First a little about me.
I had a happy childhood, in Kashmir. It was a simple world, no roads, no
electricity, no running water. We walked everywhere. Our days began and ended
with the rising and setting of the sun.
We made up games and created our own amusement. We ‘sailed’ boats. We
played with stones and pebbles. We ‘raced cars’. We played marbles, gulli
danda, sat khutar…
We went on walks with our friends. We appreciated the space around us;
it changed with the seasons. We helped with jobs such as looking after the
animals and gathering kindling for the fires on which our meals were cooked.
We sat and listened to our elders’ conversation (we spoke when we were
spoken to). We followed our elders do their jobs such as ploughing the field.
We helped when we could.
All this changed when I was about 12. My parents sent me to England, to
live with an older sister. So, the green and pleasant countryside went out and,
in its place, the urban environment arrived. Inner city Birmingham, to be
precise. Houses and other buildings; factories; people everywhere. Living next
door to the gas works was a million miles from where I had spent my early
Life carried on. Slowly, I began to discover that not far from my urban
environment was another world. Just like my birthplace; green and pleasant
though very different. It was what has been described as ‘white space’.
I stuck out because of my colour. People stared at me; not directly but stared,
nevertheless. It was that ‘second look’ which made it clear that people had
registered my difference.
I stuck with it. Over the 50 years of being here, I have made the
British countryside my own. Wales, Scotland, and many places in England; I
become alive whenever I am out and about. It takes me back to Kashmir. One year
an Asian friend and I hitchhiked to Cornwall and back (that’s what you did in
your teens in the 1970s). So, now I was not in the company of white people
(which makes visible minorities safer in the eyes of the wider world) but
Every now and then I have wondered whether we would ever be able to
actually live in a rural area. In such situations ethnic minorities are never
far from wondering whether one would be accepted; would one’s children be safe
at school; whether one would be able to make friends with one’s neighbours. Or
if one suffered abuse would there be an organisation to turn to or race-aware
local people who would come to one’s aid. Or small yet significant matters
whether one would need to anglicise one’s name or be frequently asked the
‘where are you really from?’ question.
Keep them in Birmingham
Then one’s personal questions are given weight by official reports. It
is made clear that there are plenty of spaces in the rural parts of our nation
where people are of the ‘Keep them in
Birmingham’ mindset. This was a report from the then Commission for
Racial Equality was published quite recently (in 1992). It stated the following
examples of racism:
trainee was black, and the following day he was asked to leave, since
his colour ‘might affect the trade’.
black woman who had just started work as a chambermaid was dismissed
because members of a coach party staying there expressed virulent dislike at
the idea of having a black chambermaid attending to their rooms’ and the
management did not want to risk alienating regular customers and losing
valuable trade. A tribunal in Truro awarded her £1,500 in compensation.
Another black woman who was sacked from her job in a hotel because of
the racial prejudice of a guest now works in a school where prejudiced parents
are said to be reluctant to allow her to have anything to do with their
A hairdressing salon which takes hairdressing students on placement from
a college of further education refused to have black students, ‘because our
clients don’t like it’; the college was prepared to accept this on the grounds
that we must use this hairdresser for our placements’.
And in a seaside resort where there are many overseas students, there
have been several reports of bus drivers deliberately driving past a bus stop
where black students were the only people waiting even though there were empty
seats on the bus.
That was then. Maybe things have changed. If they have then this needs
to be communicated to the minorities who have decided to ‘stay in Birmingham’.
The ‘stay away from the countryside’ message might have been passed onto
younger people and may still be influencing people’s decisions. And if they
haven’t changed then….
Then in 2004 the Head of the same CRE, Trevor Phillips, said low
numbers of black and Asian people in the countryside was a form of ‘passive
apartheid ‘and that the countryside was seen as a ‘no-go area for ethnic
minorities’. He pointed out that many in the ethnic minority communities felt
they did not belong outside towns and cities. “But I think what we are
seeing is a gradual drift towards a difficult situation in which people from
ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable.”
Then, in that same year we had the publication of a book – ‘Rural
Racism’ (Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland). This pointed out that people
of colour were now found in almost all parts of England, Scotland and Wales and
the numbers were increasing.
It is now a simple empirical fact that you can be ‘visibly different’
and yet still from Worcestershire, the Highlands of Scotland, the Welsh valleys
They also pointed out that, were it not for racism, there would be even
more ethnic minorities moving to the countryside. It maybe stating the obvious
but people from these communities “enjoy living in the countryside for the same
reasons as their white counterparts – the love of rural terrain, the
availability of country pursuits and the emotional tranquillity that comes from
living in a peaceful natural environment.”
The book’s authors believed that “there is a real need to think about
how best to respond to rural racism and how policy can meet the needs of
individuals and families with diverse backgrounds”. They pointed out:
a range of covert and overt processes of racism through which minority
ethnic people are made to feel ‘othered’ in rural environments.
subjectively defined ‘low-level’, or less tangible, types of racism that
tend to be particularly common features of areas with low minority ethnic
racism can often be marginalised by rural agencies in deference to other
problems that show up more readily in official crime figures
introducing elements of diversity, multiculturalism and anti-racism into
the classroom is a further challenge to those working in the field,
particularly in the rural context where schools may have very few minority
ethnic pupils and familiarity with ‘other’ cultures may be extremely low
Crucially, the authors pointed to the complexity of the problem:
rural racism is not a simple phenomenon: changing cultural norms,
attitudes, geographical landscapes and political agendas will all impact upon
the way in which different forms of racism manifest themselves in different
forms of rural space, and indeed upon the way in which such behaviour is
interpreted and challenged.
Since then (2009), in an article titled ‘is the countryside racist?’ Sathnam
Sanghera pointed out that racial prejudice was certainly a factor that led to
ethnic minorities feeling uncomfortable in the country:
all my Asian and black friends have stories of being stared at, country
pubs falling silent on entry, and strangers asking if they can “feel” their
And thinking about my numerous trips to the country, there are all sorts
of things I do consciously and unconsciously to avoid such reactions: I’ll
never enter a pub with a Union Jack or St George’s Cross flying outside, for
instance; will invariably stay in places I know to be popular with other
Londoners; and will usually travel with someone white. Sanghera
makes a distinction between ignorance and “racism” and asks us to remember
“that people in the country aren’t just hostile to ethnic minorities – they’re
hostile to all outsiders.” He also reminds us that the lack of ethnic
engagement may be a question of class rather than race; a large family can make
the visit prohibitively expensive.
Rural racism is very real
The other rurally focussed programme is Farming Today on Radio 4. This
has had two recent items on race. On 13 June it discussed the problems of
ethnic minorities working in the farming industry. People spoke of suffering
overt and covert racism, such as racist jokes. When asked whether the victim
had reported any of it, he said “to report it you’d be reporting it all the
time”. In any case he said there was no one to report such problems to. He
asked the agriculture industry to not be complicit in the problem. “It should
take action to address the problem”.
On 20 June, the programme asked: How welcome are black or Asian families
in rural Britain? It reported on one family taking taxis because they were
unsafe travelling while black. The family reported “experiencing racism all the
time – once a week racism, such as being called the N word”. When asked whether
the situation had got better, the response was in the negative. “It’s better
but not because there is less racism but because I am better dealing with it”.
Professor Neil Chakraborti was interviewed. He was one of the authors of
the book ‘Rural Racism’, referred to earlier. He said the demographics
had changed; there were now more minorities living in rural areas, but the
environment was still not welcoming enough. Like Sanghera above, he spoke of
people’s unfamiliarity with difference. He called on all different
institutions- police, health education – to play their part.
There are some good signs of change. Countryfile interviewed the writer
Julian Glover who had authored a report.
He said both the two main political parties had supported the report and had
agreed to act.