Welcome back to another edition of Tropic Takes on Racism, this time we’re discussing the relationship between rural areas and racist sentiment. 

While many of us may be making plans abroad on an ever-changing list of countries people are open to visit, many others will be planning ‘staycations’ and venturing to the far rural reaches of the UK’s countryside. 

However, not everyone will find the decision to get away and go somewhere a little more green so easy without having to think about how they may be received. Below, we’ll be discussing race and a sense (or lack thereof) of ‘belonging’ in rural areas, and how attitudes can differ from those of our cities. 

First up, let’s look at some quick stats about the countryside and minority populations.  

  • People of BAME background make up just 1% of visitors to English national parks (Natural England Report).
  • About 17% of the English population – some 9.5 million people – lived in rural England in 2018, the latest official figures showed. BAME communities made up just 2% of that number, while the rest of the population was white. (2018 report by the government).
  • In 2017, 26.2% of black people had spent time in the natural environment in the last seven days compared with 44.2% of white people. 

We can see from the data above that there may be barriers for many non-white people in England to enjoy rural areas and experience the benefits of a life lived near nature. According to Sport England, these include safety, culture and confidence.  

Likewise, a recent review commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that people from ethnic minority backgrounds enjoyed and valued rural areas and communities, but they felt excluded and conspicuous, with the countryside seen as a “white, middle-class club.”

For racism to be truly eliminated, we must look beyond our cities. Rural landscapes are often romanticised as the true fabric of British life – you only need to take a few quintessentially classic novels out of a British library to stumble across stately homes in the countryside and dramatic morning mists clouding big open vistas – and people of colour have historically been excluded from that narrative. 

However, the CPRE countryside charity actually states that while rural Britain is largely a white landscape, the idea that it is exclusively white is a myth. Many people of colour live in the countryside, but Gurpreet Sidhu, head of the anti-racist campaign group BLM in the Stix, says tackling racism and discrimination in the countryside is difficult as incidents are more insidious.

“What happens in rural areas is a lot of people think racism doesn’t exist. It’s denied, it’s downplayed. They’ll say maybe it’s a one-off, maybe you did something that caused it.” 

This experience is backed up by Professor Jon Garland. He researched rural locations over four years, finding that instances of racism are constant, rather than simply one-off events. Verbal abuse and harassment are commonplace with assault and criminal damage also being experienced by non-white residents, leaving them frightened and isolated, with the significance or implications of racist behaviour not being fully grasped or combatted by authorities in the countryside.

Research conducted by Dr Brian Plastow, Chief Superintendent with Fife Police, also uncovered widespread racism and harassment in rural Southeast Scotland, which fuelled an attitude promoting Scotland’s identity as a white landscape, with any non-white residents seen as posing a threat of ‘polluting’ the rural area. 

What can I do? 

The evidence above may all paint a pretty bleak picture. This doesn’t mean, however, that white residents in rural areas are racist. Far from it. Britain is often described as one of the most tolerant societies in the world, with findings still showing that most people in ethnic minorities think Britain’s racial and religious groups get on well and have a positive view of other communities. 

However, of course, from the research above, there is still a way to go. Everyone can agree that no one should face hostility while visiting somewhere, especially in the country they call home. Likewise, everyone can agree that no UK residents should fear going on holiday or receive different treatment based on the colour of their skin.  

BLM In The Stix says that “the conversations that need to be had are with our friends, family and the local community.” So, if someone says something that you think isn’t right, ask them why they think that way or said what they said. While engaging in uncomfortable conversations can be hard with those who mean most to you, racial prejudice is even more uncomfortable – for those who experience it, it is humiliating and dehumanising. Take action and don’t let members of your community suffer in silence.

You can find more resources from BLM In The Stix here. 

In the 80s, Guyanese-born British photographer Ingrid Pollard captured the feelings of alienation and ‘otherness’ in her photos, noting that 'a visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease; dread…'

You can also follow and listen to those who are tackling rural racism head-on.

What is Tropic doing? 

We’re working with Forestry England to regenerate spaces that are free and accessible to all, with a goal to grow a forest of 7,000 trees in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, less than an hour and a half away from central London. The park is complete with cycling and walking trails, and throughout this summer we’ll be encouraging everyone to seek out and take a walk in their local national parks, wherever they live in the UK. 

“The countryside is a territorial place, full of imperial nostalgia, that harks back to a time when black people were not welcome. The very concept of Britishness is wrapped up in images of the fields of England – and I do not represent that concept. Yet, as part of a dual-heritage family leaving an overpriced city to set up life beyond the smoke, I am now a representation of the countryside’s future.” VV Brown, Singer/Songwriter 

Final note in this issue, we used the phrase BAME. This was due to available research being reported in this manner. While we believe these stats help paint a stark reality for many, the term BAME unhelpfully blends ethnicity, geography and nationality and in doing so erases identity and reduces people to an ‘other’ status. This is why we’ve quoted individuals on their experiences and we encourage others to listen to lived experiences also.  

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