Where are you really from? is a project founded and run by the writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, set up to tell the stories of black and brown people living in rural Britain,an experience which is rarely explored in conversations around ‘race’. This is a series of interviews from the project. Here Louisa speaks to Sinéad, who lives in Dorset.
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Sinéad was born in London, as were her parents. Her paternal grandparents were born in the UK, and her maternal grandparents were born in Jamaica. She defines her ethnicity as mixed race. She now lives in a village near Dorchester, Dorset, where she and her husband moved in 2014 for his work, and to be closer to family. Her husband is of British and Dutch heritage.
Overall, she says her experience of being an ethnic minority in a rural landscape has been a positive one, but some incidents have made her question the move. ‘Most people are very welcoming, but I have noticed there is a small minority of people who dislike “out of towners” or anyone who appears to be different.’
Sinéad has experienced verbal abuse and has been threatened with violence. Two local men attempted to run her over near her home. The second time this happened, she was outside her house putting the children in the car. ‘The driver had seen me before and knows where I live. He saw me and veered the HGV towards me as though he was going to run me over.’
Other incidents include a man staring at her then saying, ‘Oh they’re taking over everywhere,’ and a woman in Waitrose telling her she was the reason for ISIS. ‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘people think we are used to it, or that they’re justified in saying these things.’
In terms of more subtle racism, she says this usually takes the form of indirect comments, ‘or just dirty looks or stares.’ She is often asked ‘where are you from?’, to which she will reply London, and then people usually say, ‘Yes but where are you really from?’
Hair is a big thing, Sinéad says. Strangers often touch her children’s curly hair, which she feels is inappropriate. Her own hair is covered with a hijab so people don’t touch it. Her husband has a huge beard – ‘so some people might think he’s a hipster’ – but if he’s with Sinéad they know he’s Muslim. Skin colour, and the different tones of her children’s skin, also leads to a lot of interest. Her eldest son is darker than the other children, who have olive or pale skin. Sinéad gets asked if the children are adopted, or if they have the same mum and dad.
Local people often assume she is a foreigner or a refugee. ‘They make assumptions that you’re from one place when you’re not.’ Some assume she is an Arab, or ask if her husband is from Saudi Arabia. When she tells them he is white this leads to more confusion. Her husband has also experienced racism because of his Dutch heritage, and been told to ‘go back to Poland.’ ‘If they think you’re foreign, whether black, Muslim or European, or any other race, they have an issue.’
It can be worse in some areas than others. When the family first moved to Dorset, Sinéad’s husband didn’t want her to go to Weymouth, until she knew which parts of it were OK. Her sister-in-law used to live in Littlemoor, and one day they picked her up. Sinéad’s husband was wearing Islamic dress. ‘A guy drove past and shouted racist abuse, even though my husband’s white.’
These experiences, she says, have made her anxiety worse, and made her extra cautious when she goes out. ‘I don’t feel like I belong here – I’m mixed race, Muslim and from London. Many people have asked if I’m here on holiday – I’ve lived here for 5 years!’ It’s hard to get over this anxiety when you hear about the issues in the area. But she tries not to be negative about living here, and says it’s not too bad. She thinks that rural communities are harder to integrate into, and that in comparison, people in cities such as London are more accepting of different races, religions and lifestyles, ‘because it’s a mixing pot of cultures.’
When it comes to enjoying the natural environment around her, she says, ‘PoC* enjoy nature like everyone else. We love going to the beach and going for countryside walks. But myself, my family and friends are cautious about where we go because we worry about the reaction from others.’ Many of her friends want to visit Dorset, as they’ve heard it’s nice, but most are black and Muslim, so there is a ‘double whammy.’
Sinéad says that these issues are not spoken about enough, especially when it comes to schools, employers and others who are in a position to do something. ‘It should just be normal practice.’ She feels that the wider community in Dorset needs to ‘see us as humans – they need to look past our colour, dress, or religion. They need to learn about history which includes colonisation and the historic dehumanisation of PoC and non-Christians. Only then will they understand why they have been taught to see us as a threat.’
*PoC refers to the term ‘People of Colour’ which is now commonly used in the UK to describe ethnic minorities from Black, Asian and other non-white backgrounds
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Louisa Adjoa Parker’s coastal memoir will be published by Little Toller in 2021. She is a writer and poet whose work includes Salt Sweat and Tears and How to Wear a Skin. Her writing and research has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She is also the curator and edited of the Where are you really from? project – if you’d like to share your experience, please get in touch with her via her website.