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Towards an Inclusive Countryside: How racist incidents are routinely overlooked in rural areas


By Dr Viji Kuppan

Dr Viji Kuppan is a Research Associate at The Centre for Hate Studies at the University of Leicester. He is a researcher on The Rural Racism Project: Towards an Inclusive Countryside, an important new two-year study being carried out at the University. The project responds to, and builds on, earlier research that has revealed how racist incidents have been routinely overlooked, minimised and unchallenged in rural areas.

Here, Viji talks about his personal experiences and the project’s aims and ambitions…

This work has a personal and political dimension for me. Some years ago, I visited the West Yorkshire village of Haworth for the first time. It is a place steeped in literary history, famed for its association with the Bronte sisters, who once lived in the village. With its cobbled streets and characterful shops and cafes, it exudes an enchanting olde worlde charm. Nestled amongst the weathered hills and windswept moorlands of the southern Pennines, this rugged landscape conjures the atmosphere of classic texts, like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. It may be hard to imagine then, that racism occurs in this most literary and English of places. But it happened to me. On the threshold of a public house that my (White female) partner and I planned on eating in, a White man brandishing a large knife, and barring our entrance, ferociously bawled ‘You crippled P****! I’d like to kill and burn the lot of you’. Our swift withdrawal from the scene may very well have saved me from being physically injured or worse, but the traces of that shock and fear have stayed with me. The next day, on the same cobbled streets, another White man shouted ‘P****’ followed by ‘Go back home’. This is my home, and these are not isolated incidents as countless other Black, Brown and Asian people have similar stories to tell. However, it is not only spectacular moments of racist hostility that affect us. Racism is structural and is solidified in systems of power such as the media and police. It can also be communicated in very mundane ways: through avoidance, silence, laughter, stares, gestures or mutterings when people of colour enter ordinary rural places, such as banks, churches, hairdressers, pubs, retail stores or schools.

This timely study shifts the persistent urban-centric focus of racial intolerance to a consideration of minoritized ethnic communities in the countryside. This new project will reflect the significant social, political, economic and demographic shifts that have taken place in rural areas in recent years. For example, changes caused by Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis, on farming and food production, and the impacts this has had on countryside communities, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees. As I write this piece, Israeli bombs continue to rain down on the people of Gaza and incidents of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate surge here in the UK. Such episodes are not restricted to metropolitan centres but occur in countryside locations too.

Despite evidence of prejudice in rural areas, the idea of the “rural idyll” remains a durable trope. For example, speaking in 1993, the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major romantically opined: ‘Fifty years from now, Britain will still be a country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs [and] dog lovers…’ We are now thirty years on from his speech, and these beguiling depictions of village and country life remain intact. It is not that such images are false; rather, they are only partial representations. They work to shroud a sometimes more difficult, and sinister reality, for populations of colour, living and visiting the countryside. This project also wants to shine a light on the historic, cultural and symbolic representations of racism that are conveniently forgotten. The ways in which colonialism, empire, slavery and indentureship are embedded in our grand stately homes, statues, memorials, family, place and street names located in rural spaces. To those who say they want the countryside to remain “unsullied” by these ideas, I would say it is an impossibility because it is already stained by racism. Instead, I would argue that it is in everyone’s interests to develop a deeper understanding of how ideas about race have shaped and left permanent reminders on our countryside. This is a history that we must have a reckoning with, no matter how unpleasant, and learn and grow from it.

Yet, I know that the countryside is not just a place of conflict for people of colour, but one of conviviality too. This summer I walked several stages of the Pennine Way. During this journey I experienced many moments of generosity, humour and warmth from the local people who inhabit and walk in these rural spaces. The disclosure of racism does not mean the denial of hospitality and support. This is the complexity of rural life that the research team want to capture in this project. Yes, we will broaden, deepen and detail the range of rural racisms and processes of exclusion that exist, but we will also highlight the ways in which solidarity, friendship, inclusion and allyship are offered to minority ethnic people in rural environments.

My connection to the natural world and the wild places of England is of vital importance to my health and well-being. I am not alone in expressing these sentiments; numerous artists, public intellectuals and writers of colour, for example, Anita Sethi, David Olusoga, Ingrid Pollard, Haroon Mota, Lemn Sissay, Louisa Adjoa Parker, Paul Gilroy and Sene Seneviratne, to name but a few, whilst acknowledging racism’s touch, also express a deep sense of belonging to this land. I wanted to work on this project because I am passionate about wanting to change the relationship that we, and future generations have to the countryside and the natural world. The Black jazz-poet-singer, Gill Scott Heron, once sang: ‘we’ve got to do something to save the children; soon it will be their turn to save the world’. I believe this whole-heartedly and want to do all I can to help build a bridge between all our children and the countryside. I could be despondent about racism, instead, I am hopeful that we can re-construct a more inclusive relationship to the rural; one in which we all feel welcome and belong.

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