In the past eight months, there has been a marked increase in city dwellers fleeing to the country in search of lush greenery and low rent. Alongside this has been a deluge of essays and think pieces on the merits of rural over urban existence, with pithy headlines like “city quitters” or “escape to the country”.
There’s a formula to these pieces. The writer (usually a relatively successful white woman in her mid-thirties) has been doing some thinking, she tells us. London in lockdown doesn’t quite have the same allure – there are no brunches to be photographed, oat milk lattes to be sipped or offices to commute to. Besides, rent is extortionate and the pollution is suffocating. So, she’s upping sticks; green spaces, a tight-knit community and general sense of safety beckon.
I’ve been tempted myself – googling house prices in my mum's hometown of Barton-upon-Humber, becoming one of many frenzied house hunters who managed to double Rightmove searches for homes in small towns and villages in recent months. At 25, I'm still living at home and am reluctant to squander my savings on London rent. But one thing puts me off; I’m of mixed Bangladeshi and English heritage and have absolutely no desire to be the only brown person in the village.
“[White people and people of colour] perceive the countryside in different ways. They have different realities that are born from their identities,” says Neil Chakraborti, director of the Centre for Hate Studies at Leicester University and co-author of the book Rural Racism. “The reality is that most able-bodied white people haven’t had to think about their identity in rural spaces because they’re one of many.”
The essays and think pieces I’ve read tend to buy into the “rural idyll” – the romanticised idea that the countryside is healthier, happier and has fewer problems than the city – but not everyone sees it that way. A 2019 study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), for example, found that many Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people viewed the countryside as an exclusionary, middle class, white “club”.
In 2018 there were 9.5 million people living in rural England, and people from BAME backgrounds comprised only 2% of that number. As a visible minority ethnic person, my concerns run the gamut from “what if people stare” to “what if someone posts a letter bomb through my door”. Hyperbolic maybe, but my fears aren’t entirely unfounded.
Vanessa, a Christian youth pastor from London, spent three years at a university in rural Worcestershire. As a Black woman, her experience of low-level microaggressions seriously impacted her mental health. “People would speak to me differently compared to my friends. Everyone else would get a ‘hi’, I would get a ‘yo’. One boy asked if I was dating anyone. When I said no he replied, ‘I get it. No one here’s ghetto enough for you.’”
Being one of few Black people on campus forced her to consider her identity in a way she’d previously never had to. “Before I moved there I didn’t think of myself as a Black person. I was just Vanessa who happened to be Black,” she says. “In London I had such a diverse group of friends, so it was bizarre going to somewhere where I was the only Black person and people were trying to impose this identity on me.”
At the beginning of lockdown, Jenny* moved back to her parents' home in a small Lincolnshire village along with her two children – she is English, and they are mixed English and Vietnamese. Three weeks in, they received a letter. I won’t go into detail, but it made reference to ‘the disease-ridden race’ and demanded that she and her children ‘go back to London ASAP’. “I taped the letterbox shut after that,” she tells me. “I was terrified someone would put a firebomb through our door.”
Thankfully it never came to that, but the letter was something of a wake-up call. “It definitely would not stop me moving back there – it’s as much my home as anybody’s. It just made me realise I need to be switched on to the situation for the sake of my children,” says Jenny. Vanessa feels a little differently, shaking her head vigorously when I ask if she’d move to a rural area in the future. “My husband has dark skin. I have dark skin. Our kids are going to be blackity Black. And I promise, no amount of Christianity will stop me lashing out if they do something to my child.”
Kids aren’t on my agenda at present, but nonetheless, the idea of raising my future sons or daughters in a majority-white area concerns me. I was born and raised in Haringey, northeast London – one of the most diverse boroughs in the country. There were 63 languages spoken at my secondary school and you’d be hard pressed to find a continent that isn’t represented by my best friendship group. The broad mix of cultures I was exposed to has led to a confidence and cultural competency I simply wouldn’t have had growing up in a town that’s 99% white.
From a purely financial perspective, my mum thinks moving is a good idea, but she understands my concerns. She was born in Hull, Yorkshire and lived between there and the nearby town of Barton until she was 21. She briefly considered moving back up north when I was born, but was put off by the lack of cultural diversity (and the fact that people tended to look at me funny). When she looked up demographics in the local schools at the time, the only “minority group” listed was Irish Travellers.
It’s not all hate crime and microaggressions, though; there are plenty of people of colour who live in the countryside and love it. And increasingly, there are pointed efforts to tackle rural racism. Tsara Smith embarked on her very own Ramble Against Racism this summer – walking 140 miles across Devon and leaving flyers outlining how people might challenge hate in small towns and villages as she went. Louisa Adjoa Parker has been researching the experience of Black and brown people in rural Britain for decades, and launched Where Are You Really From to document their stories.
And this summer Gurpreet Sidhu founded BLM in the Stix. They work with a panel of 20 experts, including Neil Chakraborti, to support and empower anti-racist efforts in rural areas. “We’ve had so much good will. Everyone wanted to get involved – we haven’t got this far because I forced it,” she says. They have since launched a toolkit aimed at white people in rural settings who want to challenge racism but don’t know where to start. “There is definitely an appetite for change.”
Like Jenny, I’m loath to let racist individuals dictate where I live, but I have to be realistic about the kind of life I want for myself. Of course I find affordable property and access to nature appealing – but is it really worth it if I’m constantly holding my tongue or, worse, living in fear? I’m yet to make a decision, but until then, it’s oat milk lattes, extortionate rent and stifling pollution for me.