Villagers Bristle At Accusation Of Rural Prejudice

Laura Smith, The Guardian, Oct. 9

The village of Brockenhurst in the New Forest is only an hour and a half from London, but it might as well be in another world.

While it is impossible to walk through the capital without seeing a black or Asian face, take a train south-west from Waterloo and the last black face you are likely to see is the person picking up the rubbish on the train.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, spoke yesterday of “passive apartheid” in the countryside, for which a kind of “mutual incomprehension” was to blame.

He told the BBC: “This is not by anybody’s will; there is no law and I doubt if anybody in the countryside wants to keep people out. But I think what we are seeing is a gradual drift towards a difficult situation in which people from ethnic minorities feel uncomfortable.”

Few people in Brockenhurst disagreed that a black face on the high street was something of a novelty.

“We don’t see many,” said Julia Timms from the Village Butchers. “If you do see one you do notice. You don’t treat them any differently, but they do stand out.”

Jean-Marc Charton, who runs the French Confection teashop, said: “I’ve been here for 10 years and if I’ve seen four coloured people in a year I would be surprised.

“You see people who come to do cleaning jobs or to work in the nursing home, but they only come from Southampton for the day.”

Most were at pains to point out that “coloured” people would not be unwelcome, but a few voices were inclined to agree with Mr Phillips.

“In a small community like this they can be very closed,” said Sue Boldrini, who works in the village opticians.

“My husband is Italian and I had one or two friends who felt he shouldn’t be doing this or doing that because he wasn’t born here.

“I just pointed out that he was paying his taxes like anyone else and could do what he liked. But I guess it is even worse for coloured people: people don’t see beyond colour.”

Chris Dunkinson, 23, an American who visits relatives in the village, said: “Older people are very open-minded here but the teenagers are not. They take the piss out of me because I am American.

“The other night someone’s cell phone went missing in the pub and they automatically thought it was me. I dread to think of their reaction if I was black.”

Brockenhurst is in Hampshire, where 98.6% of the population is white, and is precisely the kind of village that Mr Phillips had in his sights when he argued yesterday that more needed to be done to encourage ethnic minorities to venture out of the cities.

Research shows that only one person in 85 in the south-west is black or Asian, compared with a national average of about one in 12.

A survey by the UK National Tourist Board in 2002-03 showed that 1% of day trippers to the countryside were of ethnic minority origin, compared with 9% of the population.

Although it is clear that much of the discomfort felt by black and Asian people when contemplating visiting or living in the country stems from an exaggerated fear of hostility, there is more to it.

If you are black, trying to get a decent haircut, buy appropriate cosmetics or find a plantain is difficult outside the main British cities

It is also a matter of stereotypes. How many images of black or Asian people walking up a windswept mountain or contemplating the sea from a Cornish beach do you see on television or in advertising? The very word “urban” seems to have become a euphemism for black.

It is this stereotyping that Jacqui Stearn from the Countryside Agency hopes to counteract. “Quite frankly our sector have got a lot to learn from what’s happening in other sectors,” she said.

“Most of the material features white, middle-class people. We need to stop worrying about being seen as politically correct or getting things wrong and reach out to other people.”

The handful of people from ethnic minorities who have made their home in Brockenhurst insisted they had received nothing but welcome.

Pauline Soma, a retired teacher who has lived there with her husband, Jasmat, originally from South Africa, said: “I was a little bit angry about what Trevor Phillips said. I thought he went too far.

“I don’t know whether he has been to rural communities and asked people but I certainly don’t think they are racist. They just don’t meet people from other cultures.”

Mr Soma agreed: “I don’t think it’s racism that stops people coming to the country. I had more racism from pupils . . . in London than I have here.

“It’s more about culture and tradition. A lot of Asians want to go back to the country they came from rather than go on holiday in the English countryside.”

Ehsan Zaman, from Bangladesh, is working as a waiter at the only Indian restaurant in Brockenhurst while he waits to begin his Masters in corporate risk at the University of Southampton. He insisted he had experienced only goodwill in his six months in the village.

“I love the countryside,” he said. “People here are special people. They talk very nicely. When I go to the cities I do face problems, I have been called names and felt threatened. But here the people are very, very good.

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