The whiteness of the countryside

“I can't imagine anyone in my family going for a holiday in the countryside. It is totally ridiculous for middle-class Indians to walk, and my father came from a middle-class family in Bombay. People who walked were peasants.”

Hanif Kureishi (playwright and novelist), quoted in The Guardian in 20041

Many people see the British countryside as a distinctly white place. Although there is no official data, it is widely acknowledged that black and Asian people in the UK do not visit the countryside nearly as frequently as white people do. There are a multitude of reasons: a lack of connection to the countryside (something which is often passed down in a family, and therefore hard to establish for first or second generation immigrants), a fear of being unwelcome, and a lack of representation both in the media and on the boards of organisations like The National Trust. Whatever the reason for each individual, the result is that currently the countryside is a very white place.

Many point out that ‘not from here’ has a very broad definition in the countryside, and it can just mean someone from the next town. When my parents first moved to the village I was born in, in the 1980s, they went to check out one of the pubs: the Newport Inn, a local pub that was so local it could’ve been mistaken for someone’s living room. My Mum always told me that the moment they walked in the place fell silent, and they felt abundantly unwelcome, obvious outsiders. It held a reputation for being ‘villagers only’ until it closed down a couple of years ago.


Rural areas of the UK were not only substantially more likely to vote to leave the EU in 2016, but the image of the rural UK (e.g. the White Cliffs of Dover) was emblemised by the Leave campaign, turned into something which needs to be preserved, protected from ‘invasion’. Nigel Farage poses for photo opportunities in village pubs, clutching pints of beer, positioning himself as defender of traditional ways of life2.

This has always been nonsensical, since for decades a migrant workforce has done much of the agricultural labour in the UK, and harvest labour has been transient and mobile for centuries.

To return to the idea of the countryside as a white place, it is interesting to consider that in the past outdoor work, and therefore rural life in the UK, was associated with darker skin. The desire among nobility to emphasise their lack of exposure to the elements through manual work, by cultivating the palest of appearances, has over time contributed to prejudices based on skin colour through the prism of class as well as race3. In a postindustrial era in Northern Europe, when exposure to the outdoors is associated decidedly with middle class lifestyles, this prejudice becomes somewhat complicated.

I tick ‘White British’ on the census forms, but I think I can relate in a very limited way to Kureishi’s explanation of how varied cultural attitudes are to leisure in the countryside. My father is from a family of Irish Catholic farmers, and has spent so much time working outdoors that the idea of going for a bracing walk around the fields, for fun, was never part of his ideal weekend plans. To him, leisure was falling asleep on the settee watching motorbike races, or pottering in the garage. My mother’s family came from Southwark, London, her parents were a lorry driver and a clerk, and outdoor country pursuits (save for dog walking) were just not part of the lifestyle she knew. It was the children I went to school with, whose parents were doctors and teachers, who went horse riding on the fields around our house (and skiing in the Alps at Easter), not me. It’s been clear to me that the countryside as a place of leisure is a litmus test of class backgrounds4, and the barriers to enjoying rural spaces are more than physical.
1. Raekha Prasad, “Countryside Retreat”, Guardian Online, 28 January 2004 <> [Accessed 9 March 2020]

See also Sathnam Sanghera, “Is The Countryside Racist?”, Sathnam Sanghera, 2009 <> [Accessed 9 March 2020]

Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay for ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, a 1985 film depicting British Pakistani life in Thatcher-era London. See social realism

2. He has been banned from his local pub, however, after fleeing the scene when his speeding car was involved in a crash with the landlord.

3. Similar prejudices based on skin colour in Asia are also thought to long predate European colonialism:
Nadra Kareem Nittle, “The Roots of Colorism, or Skin Tone Discrimination”, Thought Co Online, 30 January 2020 <> [Accessed 9 March 2020]

4.  I’d go as far as to venture that the extent to which the countryside is disassociated with work and re-associated with leisure is also telling of a shift in the geographical association of class, concurrent with industrialisation and, later, the reliance on imported agricultural labour.