Rural Racism; Welcome to BLM in the Stix

Could “is Devizes a racist town?” be a clickbait headline?! I’m not out to infuriate. Ah, that’s why I didn’t use it. That and, hope this to be only a part of a wider subject incorporating rural racism in a series of reflections for Black History Month. And here we meet an organiser of a new campaign highlighting a different angle of Black Lives Matter……  

Nicotine stained wallpaper curled off the walls and tacky brass jumbles hadn’t seen a duster for decades. We sauntered to the unattended bar. A balding head popped up from arranging glasses underneath it. The landlord scanned us with a discontented frown, paying particular attention to one of my friends. Long before I’d moved to Devizes, I was with a group who were residents here; it was the first time I’d been in a pub in this town. I’m not going to name the pub; this was many years ago, it’s changed hands and is now converted to a rather splendid bar. The landlord avoided eye contact, and called down to the cellar where it would become obvious his wife was below. “Love, we’ve got a darkie up here needs serving,” he sighed as he walked off.

My jaw hit the floor and I suggested we go elsewhere, but the target shrugged it off as routine; “it’s okay.” Recently, following a Facebook thread debating racism on a local group, one comment offered, “because Devizes is a racist town.” Do I agree? Not really, is the simple answer. Devizes is a wonderful market town of which we should be proud to live in, yet with any affluent area, racism lurks and often can be so ingrained it’s overlooked, accepted as the norm, or taken with a pinch of salt. I see it here, as I see it everywhere.

Image taken from Gazette & Herald article: Black Lives Matter gathering to be held in Devizes

The concern, then, is more generally and nationally; are racist attitudes increasing? “Only if we let it,” Gurpreet Sidhu replied during our online meeting. In August Gurpreet created a campaign group to raise awareness of racism in rural environments in the UK, called BLM in the Stix. Though it has no website yet, it operates over social media and has staged protest from her home in rural Essex. She moved from London for her son to attend the university, and because she wanted to live rurally, “it felt safe,” she explained.

But Gurpreet expressed, “you are three times more likely to be victim of racial abuse in the countryside than in urban areas.” We tend to associate racism as an urban issue, perceptibly being a more multicultural society. Yet, BLM in the Stix states, being active in fighting against racism is even more fundamental when your ethnic population is minimal. You will send a message to non-whites that they are supported and welcomed, and for those who are overtly racist you will be demonstrating that their behaviour is unacceptable; systemic racism.

Gurpreet Sidhu

Gurpreet specified this was the angle of the group, as I predicted the response to anything I write would be preaching to the converted. “It’s often denied, downplayed and dismissed,” she said, what was more important to her was opening up to the concerned and encouraging them to be active. “It’s not about targeting racists,” Gurpreet explained, “more about encouraging people to think differently, and act.”

I gave Gurpreet my above anecdote in the pub, and I said I feared discussing it with people of ethnic minorities. She looked shocked but far from surprised, and asked why I felt like this. That got me, I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps we should feel easier about discussing the subject, in turn the ethos of Black Lives Matter. Gurpreet suggested I should consider addressing the individual dishing out the abuse, “but not in a confrontational way.”

Black lives matter. Yeah, I know, right, “all lives matter” don’t they; well done you. If I had a pound every time… It’s an ingrained xenophobic get-out-clause, a shrewd one, but only one under “I’m not racist, but…” For the amount of times explaining is needed, you’d think the feeblest of minds could grasp, quite simply, no one is suggesting they don’t, but the focus of the objective is black lives matter equally. I beg we get over this stumbling block, BLM is but a slogan, like Keep Britain Tidy, or Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives; they’re direct, often sweeping and not all-encompassing.

Akin to when protests over the George Floyd murder in the US kicked off, the great orange one whacked one out on Twitter, as he tends to mindlessly do, stating antifa was a terrorist organisation and enemy of the state. Ha, there was me thinking the term “antifa” was simply an Americanism shortening for anti-fascist. Seems right-wing thinkers cannot fathom free-willed movements of the masses is possible, and have to therefore assume it’s some malevolent chief organisation, radicalising the left-wing; as if we’re far too stupid to have abstract thought ourselves. Just because you couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery, others have this “thing” called sociability.

Contradicting my rant, though, as well as Gurpreet insisting her group was generally here to raise awareness, she stated they needed good case studies and hoped the campaign would be more organised, as far right groups tend to be. “We bury our heads in the sand at times.”

Alongside a Tweet from a conservative Afro-American writer, suggesting black people didn’t care for white do-gooders campaigning the issue, which was shared wide under the crass banner this guy somehow speaks for an entire ethnic worldwide population, one comment on a local thread which horrified me put that BLM was doing more worse than good, as it was encouraging racism. Gurpreet suggested the aims of BLM in the Stix were twofold, “helping doing anti-racism work,” and, rightfully contradicting the tweet, “asking white people to change and recognise it does affect them.”

“Racism is for every day,” she added. One thing is clear from our meeting, brushing it under the carpet and fearing to discuss it isn’t going to make it go away.  

Now, I’ve used the word “ingrained” a bit here, as our conditioning, particularly in rural environments where the majority are Caucasian, is entrenched historically. I honestly feel, knowing people I consider good people, but a little racist, that some often fail to even register how their thoughts and remarks are considered prejudice. We disguise and excuse them light-heartedly or with humour; that, I feel, is the issue with rural racism, here today.

So, during this black history month, expect this article to be part of a series in which we need to unbiasedly dig a little deeper. Both my reasoning and the fact I contacted Gurpreet was to expose a controversial rejection of a perfectly acceptable proposal to display some BLM related art by a local parish council. I await a response from said council before we can progress with it.  

For now, I asked Gurpreet how interested people can help. She suggested supporting them, in which you can like the BLM in Stix Facebook page as good start, but also getting involved with local BME groups, which lack funds as monies tend to be poured into city organisations.


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