Sunday 22 August 2010

Is the Countryside Racist?

This was the question asked by a writer called David James Smith in the Sunday Times magazine a couple of weeks ago.

In the Times feature, Smith who's white writes about the experience he and his black wife and four mixed race children have after moving from west London to Lewes in East Sussex. He believes that his family have continually experienced subtle forms of discrimination.

Having read his article he doesn't give any clear examples of outright racism. It's more a case of incidents he calls 'microagressions' which are perceived to have a racial element to them.

The report caused controversy back in Lewes, with many residents angry and upset at Smith's portrayal of the town. There were a lot of strong feelings made about his report on local internet messages boards.

The consensus opinion seemed to be that Smith was seeing racism where it didn't exist. He was being overly sensitive, and making mountains out of mole hills.

In last week's Sunday Times they then had a follow up feature in the main paper asking whether the countryside was a hotbed of racism. Having finished reading the magazine report, I knew I wanted to write something in response. Some of the points Smith made seemed to reflect more of a culture clash between city and country life rather than racism.

Another point which I thought about, was the different perception levels people can have when it comes to considering what might be considered racist or prejudiced behaviour.

Smith and his family decided to move from London to East Sussex for the typical reasons people give when they leave big cities. Lack of space in London, high crime, a better quality of life for their kids etc.

He describes Lewes as being a modern town but not when it comes to race. He objected to locals using the term 'coloured' which was commonly used to describe black people.

He then went on to talk in more detail about the experience of his wife and kids. His wife stands out when she's out in the town centre, she began to feel uncomfortable being so visible within the local community.

Other incidents are highlighted which he sees as undermining his children's self confidence as mixed race children. His son was told by a school friend he had 'big nostrils' a teacher describes his daughter's hair as being 'all frizzy'.

Two things struck me. Firstly, people from the city regardless of their colour and particularly from London, go into the countryside with their own preconceived ideas and prejudices about what people are going to be like in the countryside.

Smith talks about Lewes being overwhelmingly white. My question to this is why would it be anything other than predominantly white?

Outside of London and other major cities in the Midlands and the North, there are still many areas of the UK which are almost exclusively white. Multiculturalism doesn't exist. Is it really fair to criticise such places because of this?

When ethnic minorities started coming to this country they went to places where the jobs where. This was mainly in the big towns and cities not in England's countryside.

As a minority you can sometimes visit areas where you know you're going to stand out, and subconsciously you can be looking for signs of racism from people which may or may not exist. I think there's some element of this in his article.

Smith complains that his wife is known in the town because she is one of only a handful of black people, but I'm not sure if you can complain because his wife and kids can't 'blend' in within the local community. What were they expecting in East Sussex?

As an outsider who moves to a small community you are going to stand out. Interestingly enough, on a visit a few years ago to the Caribbean island of St Kitts which is where my mother's family come from. I went to the village where my grandparents were from.

Local villages looked and stared at me as they knew I wasn't from the village, the fact that I was also black didn't matter, I was an outsider I stood out. To me that's countryside life.

The second point I wanted to talk about was the term 'coloured'. I'll be honest and say I'm not comfortable with it, it's an outdated term.

I find it's mainly older people who use it. I'd be surprised to hear anyone under the age of 50 use it. In saying this, I wouldn't take offence as it's not being used in a derogatory way.

This leads onto my final point with regards to how people perceive comments and situations, and how they interpret them.

Smith argues that comments directed at his children undermined their confidence as mixed race children, particularly his son who he thinks is vulnerable to the stereotypes and low expectations society has of black boys.

I understand what he's saying here, but the family have moved away from London siting urban crime as an issue, something that affects young black boys disproportionately.

Having moved to the English countryside for a safer environment he complains that his children stand out at school and the local schools don't do enough to acknowledge black history and culture?

I'm not convinced that Smith really acknowledges the pros and cons of city and country life.

As for the point that his son's friend said he had big nostrils, part of me can't help but think 'get over it'. Maybe that's being harsh, but compared to some of the stories of abuse my mom suffered as a child in the 1950s and 60s he should get things into perspective.

As for myself, I think I was quite lucky as a child. Although I grew up in a mainly white area of Birmingham, racial abuse was rare, but I still received the occasional ignorant comment. 'Why don't you go back the jungle?' is one that stands out.

Ok, it's not nice, but it didn't crush my self esteem, you've got to have other positive influences in your life to counter-balance negative ones. That goes for anyone.

Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages to city and country life. The advantages of country life appeal to both white and ethnic minorities.

It's unfair to complain that the countryside isn't as diverse and culturally aware as London. Why criticise rural Britain for not having this level of diversity. If you move to the countryside you've got to be prepared for such differences.

As for David James Smith's family, for all his complaints about the countryside lack of racial awareness, they're still living a relatively privileged and comfortable middle class life. Many of the economic and social disadvantages that some of Britain's ethnic minority communities face will not be experienced by Smith and his family.


  1. Hello!
    This is the Sunday Times commenting. David James Smith will be online tomorrow from 1pm to answer any queries and comments you may have about his article, England’s green and prejudiced land. Readers can contact him via this webpage:

    and the original article can be found here:

  2. I am from Lewes and replied to DJS's article with a radio interview on the BBC. My daugher had a small section of her letter printed in the following issue of the Sunday Times. I wanted to tell David that his perception of racism is deluded and dangerous. He sees racism where there is only an expression of diversity. Young people nowadays do not have an issue with race in the way that he does. All children pick up on differences. He is a white man writing on behalf of his black family. I did not hear anywhere in his piece the opinion his wife and children have about their new life in Lewes. I am most surprised that the Sunday Times allowed this man to have this subjective article printed.