What’s it like to be Brown in a White Landscape?

11 February 2019

BAME people are still made to feel unwelcome in the countryside says Dr Anjana Khatwa

Rocks and landscapes have always fascinated me. When I was thirteen years old, I walked across and ancient lava flow in Kenya and it was in that single moment I decided I wanted to learn more about the Earth. However, growing up in Slough during the 1980’s, in a house with eight other family members, the words “In England’s Green and Pleasant Land” from the poem Jerusalem by William Blake did not mean very much to me. In fact, I had more familiarity with landscapes from East Africa and India since this is where my family originated from. The British landscape, this green and pleasant land, was not something that I or my family could relate to nor did it form part of our heritage or culture. We simply did not feel that it belonged to us or that we were welcome to explore it.  

The Khatwa family enjoying the countryside. Photo: Dr Anjana Khatwa

On those rare occasions when my family did take a trip to the seaside or the countryside, I always came back with a memento which became part of my treasured rock collection. What I also collected were memories of sharing time with my family, in a space that was new and unfamiliar. Experiences that were tinged with unpleasantness where we were made to feel out of place and unwelcome. Where people stared and laughed at our traditional clothes or made negative comments about our homemade Indian picnic.  

I would love to say that those experiences were something of the past; snapshots of experiences for immigrant families visiting rural parts of Britain some thirty or forty years ago. Having lived and worked in rural Dorset for over fifteen years, I can assure you that these experiences still exist. Fear of isolation, of being stared at and hostility from people unfamiliar to diversity is something that I have experienced personally and have witnessed happening to others countless times. These factors are actively preventing more people like me from enjoying the countryside including our National Parks.

Deep suspicion, misunderstandings and ignorance surrounding the discourse and narratives concerning the expression of BAME voices and our relationship and experiences with nature, are persistent in the conservation sector. I was made to feel that by voicing my lived experiences, not only was I not wanted but I was not welcome “in the club”. I encounter plenty of marketing images showing photogenic BAME people enjoying the countryside, but seeing is not always believing. Are we able to discuss the reality behind that photogenic BAME family enjoying England’s green and pleasant land if we are met with a tone of defensiveness from a workforce that is predominantly white?

Photo credit: Dr Anjana Khatwa

If you are white, you benefit from the absence of funny looks, the stares that question why you are there and the cultural expectation of who you are. Unless organisations and individuals make a step towards recognising this privilege, they cannot hope to understand and therefore empathise with why BAME people are reticent to engage with natural spaces.  

To do this, it’s important to engage with the narrative around diversity and inclusion; listen and learn from those who are actively discussing the issues.  Arrange to meet with BAME communities in their spaces and on their terms. Take time to listen to their voices and appreciate their views and opinions of how they wish to access protected landscapes such as National Parks. Enable and empower those communities to lead from within; this is not only sustainable but will lead to a lifelong relationship with the landscape as we have seen with organisations helping people of all backgrounds access nature such as the Ramblers Association. Only then will we begin to see diverse shades of colour emerging in England’s green and pleasant land.     

Dr Anjana Khatwa

Is a TV presenter, Earth Scientist and Learning Specialist with over 20 years experience in the Conservation sector