Why black lives matter in the British countryside
Issues of racism are often portrayed in an urban setting and not among the primary concerns of rural communities. Louisa Adjoa Parker explains why tackling racism is crucial, wherever we live, in the first of a series of contributions on diversity and access.
At first glance, the murder of an African American man in Minneapolis by police might appear to be of little relevance to those living in the British countryside. Pressing matters here often revolve around getting stuck behind tractors on the way to work, or the odd missing sheep. We’re far removed, it might seem, from racism writ large, the supersized white supremacy that rears its ugly head elsewhere. America has a long history of racism and violence towards its black and brown inhabitants. Racism, or so many believe, has nothing to do with rural Britain, with its green velvet landscapes, forests, beaches, and quaint villages. And besides, there aren’t many black or brown people living here anyway, are there?
But racism is everywhere. It spreads like a pandemic, is passed down the generations like an heirloom. And the British countryside is far from exempt – for people of colour like myself who inhabit this green and (not always) pleasant land, there is too much we can relate to.
The myth of a white rural Britain
Rural Britain is a predominantly white landscape. But the idea that it is, and always has been, exclusively white is a myth. There are higher numbers of BAME people in urban areas, but there are also many BAME people living in the British countryside, a population that has increased in recent years. And we have been coming here for centuries, as – amongst other things – enslaved African ‘servants’, soldiers, entertainers, refugees, visiting royalty, writers, and more recently, students, migrant workers, care and catering workers.
I’ve been following the Black Lives Matter movement – both in the US and here in the UK – for some time. The murder of George Floyd was one in a long line of black men (and women and children) killed by the state. It didn’t shock me. What did surprise me was the global response to his death – it feels as though many people, especially white people, are noticing racism for the first time, and protests have taken place all over the world and the UK, including in the west country, where I live.
It warms my heart to see so many white people speaking out about racism, although I don’t understand why it’s taken so long for them to notice it. But I am concerned that although many want to see real change, and are recognising their white privilege and how whiteness has benefited them, sitting with the discomfort this brings, others are jumping on a bandwagon. Racism might be something that’s trending for some; for us, it’s our lived experience.
I’ve long been aware that it’s going to take white people coming on board to end racism. But it isn’t going to happen overnight, it’s going to take hard work, and deep thinking about how to implement tangible and sustainable change both in individuals and society. It’s going to need commitment, a willingness to accept that structural racism is real – it kills and dehumanises people. And that some of that structural racism will be in you.
The black and brown British rural experience
I’m of English and Ghanaian heritage and have lived in the countryside for most of my life. I’ve been researching the black and brown British rural experience for nearly two decades, telling my own and others’ stories. A growing body of evidence shows that those with African, Asian, mixed and other ‘non-white’ heritage experience racism, ranging from inappropriate terminology and touching black people’s hair and skin to verbal and physical assaults.
Journalist Jay Rayner created a race map which showed BAME people are much more like to be the victim of racist assault in rural areas than in cities. In Dorset, where I lived for 25 years, statistics show that 62 out of 1000 black people are stopped and searched by police, compared to 2 in every 1000 white people. In 2017, a black actor was stopped by police in Bridport who thought he ‘looked like a drug dealer’, hours before he was about to perform in a play about racism.
It’s time for change
Although black and brown rural people are individuals, with different backgrounds and identities, there are many commonalities. The majority of us witness or experience racism, to some degree. Most of us experience microaggressions. Many of us feel isolated, with few or no people who look like us or share our cultural heritage. In a place that’s often viewed as the last link with ‘Olde England’, an imagined golden age that nationalists hark back to when everyone was supposedly white, life as a visible ethnic minority can be challenging. We are both highly visible and invisible when it comes to being heard.
In rural Britain, issues of race can be even more complex; it’s likely most white people living in rural areas have little face-to-face interaction with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. But there’s a wealth of information out there, and now more than ever before it’s easier to educate yourself on ‘race’, and the colonial history that links the British countryside with stories of oppression across the globe.
Together, we can decolonise the British countryside, in hearts and minds as well as public spaces. A change has long been coming – I hope with all my heart that it’s finally here.
Louisa Adjoa Parker is a poet, writer, and inclusion and diversity consultant who specialises in telling the stories of marginalised rural voices.