A university researcher who’s been on the receiving end of racist abuse in the English countryside is part of a team that’s spearheading a study on racism in rural England.
Dr Viji Kuppan is one of the University of Leicester’s team behind The Rural Racism Project: Towards an Inclusive Countryside, which builds on earlier research that has revealed how racist incidents have been routinely overlooked, minimised and unchallenged in rural areas.
Dr Kuppan previously researched racism and other forms of discrimination within football fan culture as part of his doctoral study. He brings this expertise as well his lived experiences of racism in rural areas to the Project.
Recalling a trip to the West Yorkshire village of Haworth, famed for its association with the Bronte sisters, Dr Kuppan said: “With its cobbled streets and characterful shops and cafes, [Haworth] 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.”
However, Dr Kuppan also said: “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 these rural places. 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 ethnic minority people in rural environments.”
The two year project, which was commissioned by the Leverhulme Trust, will see Dr Kuppan and fellow researchers, some of whom are based in rural areas across England, interview residents about their experiences of racism in the countryside.
The project involves a cross-disciplinary team from Leicester’s School of Criminology and the School of Museum Studies and is led by Professor Neil Chakraborti, Director of the Centre for Hate Studies.
Professor Chakraborti is working alongside Dr Amy Clarke, Deputy Director at the Centre for Hate Studies, Professor Corinne Fowler, Professor of Colonialism and Heritage at the School of Museum Studies, as well as other Postdoctoral researchers and Community Research Partners.
The study will also be the first to empirically record and analyse targeted abuse, acknowledging that the process of researching rural racism or engaging in discussions about race and rural spaces, can itself provoke a backlash.
Researchers in this field regularly receive personal attacks on social media or email; targeted opinion pieces in media; ridicule and abuse within comments sections online; and in some cases, direct threats against personal safety.
Dr Kuppan added: “My connection to the natural world and the wild places of England is of vital importance to my health and well-being. 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. I 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.”
For further information and to keep up to date with the project, follow @RuralRacism on X.