Is the British countryside (still) a ‘white space’?

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.

Spiked also 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 years.

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 another Asian.

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 children.

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 or wherever.

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 populations.

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 hair.

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.