The countryside is finally getting more diverse – and it’s about time
I don’t know if I am allowed to write about racism and the countryside. In an age obsessed with identity politics it seems taboo to comment on anything outside your own experience. But still, isn’t that the point of journalism?
Although some think the race debate is new to the countryside, emerging as part of the culture war after Countryfile sparked a race row two years ago when they claimed people from Bame backgrounds feel unwelcome in the countryside because it is a “white environment”. But of course the issue of race and country life has been discussed for decades.
As a child in Somerset, I remember a black friend talking to me about how difficult she found it to grow up in an area where so few people looked like her. Later I would come to understand that for me growing up rurally had added to my estrangement from the Jewish community – who I later found so accessible in London.
If now discussions about racism in the countryside seem novel, perhaps it’s only because they’re finally being heard. From hurtful words kept secret, hugged in fear, people are finding ways to more openly share their experiences.
Perhaps in part, discussions about racism in the countryside are louder now, not because racism itself has become more heightened, but because the number of people of colour moving to the countryside has increased. Studies have shown that until now, people from Asian and black ethnic groups were most likely to live in an urban location. In 2018, official figures showed more than 50 per cent of the black British population lived in London, and over 35 per cent of the Asian population did.
But as city dwellers have flocked to the green hills, especially during the pandemic, so among them are people of colour, who are now standing in muddy fields rightly asking questions.
One black woman I know, who relocated from London to Somerset during lockdown, spoke to me about how she’d struggled to adjust to living in an area that was so predominantly white. Having come from Brixton, and used to streets heaving with people of different backgrounds, she felt in Somerset the culture was more monochrome. “No one here looks like me,” she explained.
My Libyan friend living nearby often shares similar feelings. When her parents recently complained she hadn’t met a nice Muslim boyfriend she shot back: “Do you know how hard it is to meet someone Muslim around here. What do you want me to do – hang around the kebab shop?” She was joking, but she wasn’t. When she later signed up for a Muslim dating site she found the local options depressingly limited.
As a person of Jewish heritage, I joke that in Somerset I eat plaited cheddar loafs instead of challah. In reality, I miss the way that in north London I could so easily buy freshly boiled bagels, salt beef and picked herring; the Friday night dinners I was so often invited to and the rabbis of different denominations on-hand to answer my questions.
One of the things I loved most about London was how a rich medley of cultures came together. I relished heading from my Dalston flat across the road to feast on Turkish breakfasts, to Peckham to buy Persian sweets, or choosing from the different curry houses on Brick Lane. In Somerset, sometimes even I get sick of eating cider and cheese.
I don’t just miss food, but the art that comes out of having different cultures alongside each other – the sari shops around Whitechapel, the bhangra music nights, reggae clubs, the exhibitions of African art, Jewish-gay Buttmitzvah nights. But although Somerset is not so diverse, it doesn’t mean the people here are malicious.
A 2019 study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), found many Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people viewed the countryside as an exclusionary, middle-class, white “club”. Yet in my own experience of being in the countryside – seeing campaigns to keep Cornwall for the Cornish, or Wales for the Welsh – the concerns I’ve seen raised about “outsiders” is less about skin colour and more local people’s fears about being priced out by those they perceive to be “rich Londoners”.
It feels telling that in the re-staging of Jez Butterworth’s 2011 play Jerusalem, some of his motley Wiltshire crew have been re-cast as people of colour, but one (white) character still says that he considers anyone from outside Wiltshire to be foreign.
I hope that over time the countryside diversifies further. I already see it changing. Now discussions about race and the countryside are more forthright, with movements like Gurpreet Sidhu’s “BLM in the Stix”, Tsara Smith’s ramble against racism, the Kinder in Colour movement and the Local Equality Collective in the Forest of Dean.
Countryside culture is diversifying to become more inclusive and reflect the backgrounds of a diverse population. I find that exciting. The recent exhibition at Bruton’s gallery Hauser & Wirth by the black artist Thomas J Price, examined preconceived perceptions of identity and race.
Bath’s Holburne Museum hasn’t just explored the city’s historic connection to slavery as part of their work around Black Lives Matter, but also regularly hosts diverse artists. The African Somerset’s “Park Braai” on the Somerset levels, the Gillingham Syrian restaurant and afro-dub bands playing Frome festival.
Rural life isn’t all about cottagecore and Cath Kidston. Although for some people of colour that’s part of the appeal. Paula Sutton of Hill House Vintage – a fellow lover of country style who has shared her move from London to a Norfolk farmhouse on Instagram – has spoken about how much she enjoys the positive impact sharing her life as a black woman in the countryside has. “It hadn’t occurred to me at the beginning [of cultivating a social-media presence], but now I get messages from people saying, ‘We thought about moving to somewhere rural and were worried about the diversity issue, but seeing you enjoying a good life has encouraged us.’”
The countryside is changing. I hope it feels more welcoming, because one of things I love most about nature is that it doesn’t discriminate.