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Black and brown hikers are taking back Britain’s countryside

Hobbies like hill walking and wild swimming are too often seen as the preserve of white people. But a new generation is challenging the prejudices that stop diverse communities enjoying the great outdoors.


 

April 20 2023, 13.24pm
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Sidra, a 20-year-old apprentice from Coventry, is a member of the walking group  Muslim Hikers. To mark Ramadan this year, the group  teamed up with Wiggle and Adidas TERREX to create a range of prayer mats designed specifically for outside use, and installed signs pointing to Mecca along popular hiking routes in the Peak District. Considering they were subject to a torrent of racist online abuse for posting about a Christmas Day hike in 2021, Sidra says this new collaboration means the world to her.

“Having signs pointing towards Mecca might seem like a small thing, but it's a really thoughtful idea,” Sidra tells The Lead. “It makes me feel like the National Park is welcoming us with open arms. Something as simple as this can make us feel very welcomed by the outdoor community. 

“I love being able to escape city life and be surrounded with such a warm, welcoming community. But when I go hiking I used to just take a normal prayer mat, so when it's raining or really windy, it can be a bit tricky. Having a prayer mat which is weatherproof means I don’t have to worry about walking around with a soggy mat in my bag. These little things make a big difference.”

“Only 1% of visitors to UK national parks are from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds”

Muslim Hikers is one of a range of organisations tackling the real problem of minority exclusion from the countryside.

(Credit: Muslim Hikers)

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There are 15 national parks in the UK. The 10 in England cover 10% of the land area, the three in Wales cover 20% of the land, and the two in Scotland make up 7%. These protected areas of natural beauty and conserved wildlife are funded by the government and are free for anyone to enter and enjoy. These spaces should function as beacons of accessibility, providing ample opportunity for everyone in the UK to benefit from being in nature on a regular basis. 

But only 1% of visitors to UK national parks are from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Their data found that people from ethnic minorities have, on average, 11 times less access to green space. And, of the time they spend in green spaces, only 15% of it is in the countryside. This is compared to 38% for white people. Additionally, a 2017 study by Natural England found that just 26.2% of Black people spent time in the countryside, compared with 44.2% of white people. 

There is a tendency for divisions like this to become cyclical and self-fulfilling. Negative encounters in rural spaces, coupled with homogenous messaging in the media and advertising, can cause certain myths about nature to be internalised. Among Black and ethnic minority communities, there is a sense that outdoor pursuits are “not for us”, and limiting narratives - that Black people don’t go walking, that open water swimming is for white women, that minority groups are only comfortable in cities - are perpetuated. 

(Credit: Muslim Hikers)

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But these myths are not plucked from thin air. They are the conditioned response to experiences of racism, hostility and the pervasive sense of feeling “unwelcome” in the British countryside. Rural racism is real and stands starkly at odds with the perception of peaceful, idyllic green spaces that many would prefer to believe about this country. A 2011 report from the University of Leicester said there are “frequent, and alarming, forms of racism that affect ethnic minorities in the countryside.” The university has now commissioned a fresh, two-year study to “develop an evidence base which reveals the ways in which rural racism is expressed and experienced”, which is due to begin in October. 

Nigerian-born Enoch Adeyemi, co-founder of Black Scottish Adventurers, recently shared his experiences of hiking with a large group of Black men, revealing they are constantly subject to spurious complaints about “littering”, condescension and demands to stop playing music. “Why should I turn off my music? Just because white Scottish people enjoy nature one way, that doesn't mean Black people have to enjoy it exactly the same way,” he told the Daily Mail. 

Sometimes the racism in rural spaces shifts from microaggressions into more overt and dangerous realms. In 2021, Patriotic Alternative, a group with far right and neo-nazi members, waved racist banners - reading “we will not be replaced” and “white lives matter” - at a family summer camp in the Peak District. In May last year, racist graffiti - including anti-Black and anti-Pakistani slurs, and the words “race traitor” - was painted onto signs at Magnolia Park and Nature Reserve in Hawkwell, Essex.

(Credit: Wild in the City)

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Colonialism in the countryside

Acts of hate, like the examples detailed above, stem from ideas of ‘purity’ and national identity. For those who believe that only white people have a claim to Englishness, it follows that quintessentially English landscapes would be vigilantly guarded with the same exclusionary vigour.  

“There is a perception of ‘green and pleasant lands’, and people of colour in those spaces are seen as an intruding”

“In a lot of the philosophy of the early environmental movements there was a parallel between the idea of pristine landscapes, and ideas of ‘pristine races’,” says Beth Collier, psychotherapist, ethnographer and founder of nature-based community group Wild in the City. “This fuelled the dispossession of lands for a lot of indigenous people, and the idea that they were a blight on the landscape and needed to be removed in order for these landscapes to be pure and to be enjoyed. I think unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, that mindset still exists. There is a perception of ‘green and pleasant lands’, and encountering people of colour in those spaces is seen as an intrusion.”

Collier believes there is an unwritten social contract that keeps Black people and ethnic minorities confined to cities and urban spaces, so to step beyond those confines is unfamiliar and challenges the status quo of who belongs where. She points to the legacies of colonialism and slavery, specifically the long history of non-white groups being accused of “primitivism” for having a close relationship with nature.

“Upon encountering the British Empire and migrating to the west, we were told we were progressing because we were living in more technical, affluent cities,” Collier explains. “So, nature was backwards, and cities and urban life were progressive. That led to the internalisation of a sense of being inferior for having a relationship with nature. Colonialism denies us a sense of empowerment in nature. It disenfranchises us.” 

Another issue is that traditional ecological knowledge is appropriated by mainstream environmental and conservation movements. Collier says Black people are dispossessed of nature while, simultaneously, white people are taking their knowledge and refashioning it as exclusively theirs. 

“This is done to prove that white people are the better custodians, that they - uniquely - know how to look after nature, where Black people harm nature, or don't understand nature,” Collier adds. The impact is alienation, exclusion, and missing out on the multifaceted benefits - from physical and mental health, to cultural enrichment and environmental understanding - of spending time in nature. 

(Credit: Matthew Iapoko Foulds)

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Pushing for change

For people who live in cities and don’t have access to a car, the physical logistics of getting to and from England’s nature hotspots can be areal challenge. Visitors to national parks overwhelmingly rely on private transport to reach them, with 93% of journeys made by car. The majority of areas where less than half of all households own a car fall outside the accessible range of these landscapes. 

Money is also a barrier, with the cost of train travel unaffordable for many, and expensive fees and equipment for many outdoor sports and pursuits. This is a problem for anyone from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, and research shows that nature’s financial barriers typically affect Black people disproportionately. 

There are organisations pushing for change. Alongside Wild in the City and Muslim Hikers, there are also Black Girls Hike, Flock Together, Peaks of Colour and We Go Outside Too, to name just a few of the groups focused on improving access, representation and funding for Black people and ethnic minorities in outdoor spaces, activities and sports.   

While the existence of these groups suggest an improvement in the diversity of these spaces, the founders and members say there is still a mountain to climb - with key issues around funding, leadership and tokenism. Sabrina Pace-Humphries, the co-founder of Black Trail Runners, tells The Lead there are serious issues with how Black and minority-led groups are treated by the rest of the sector.

(Credit: Matthew Iapoko Foulds)

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“Middle-aged white men in their ivory towers who are in charge of budgets and funding for these organisations, need to listen and act on what we have been telling them about our communities and the lack of inclusion that we've seen in these spaces,” says Pace-Humphries.

“The senior management teams at NGOs and organisations responsible for creating inclusive outdoor spaces, need to look around them. They need to ask themselves if their senior and board-level teams accurately represent a diverse community. 99% of them don't - because they don't want to change it. There have to be people of colour, the global majority, appointed into these positions where they can be decision makers. If they do not represent the global majority, they cannot understand and they will not act to address these barriers.”

Pace-Humphries say that since the boom of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, organisations such as Black Trail Runners have noted an uptick in engagement with their practices - but not always in positive or meaningful ways.

“The last few years have seen a lot of healing and repair. There is a new understanding of the rupture and disconnect between Black cultures and nature, and it has been exciting to see so many of us embracing and reclaiming those spaces, and acknowledging our long history of connection with nature,” says Collier. “But in terms of the sector, progress as a Black-led organisation has been stop-start.” 

One key issue has been a lack of trust and a condescending attitude from mainstream environmental groups and possible funders. Collier has witnessed assumptions that Black-led groups will need extra help filling out simple forms, and patronising offers of junior roles to people with a wealth of experience and qualifications. But most damaging of all is the way their work is frequently co-opted by mainstream organisations without credit.

“We experience a high level of competition from the mainstream, established white-led environmental organisations to tell the story of Black presence in nature,” explains Collier. “But rather than collaborate or recognise our expertise and create a budget to work with us in a true partnership, we find people want to have a ‘chat’, or download all of our research, rather than commission us.” 

She says, despite being invited to take part in all sorts of high level forums, they still aren't able to attract the funds they need to really build and develop.

”On the one hand, we are being recognised for having a specialism and expertise and a knowledge base, but on the other hand, it's really hard to get renumeration or to get funders to attach any monetary value to what we are providing.”  

Take action

  • Register for the inaugural Black to the Trails event taking place on Sunday 14th May 2023 at The National Trust’s Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate. This will be the UK’s first trail running event - 1k, 5k or 10k  - designed, directed and run by Black Trail Runners for Black people, people of colour, and community allies seeking to diversify the UK trail running scene.
     
  • Educate yourself on rural racism. Read Black Sheep : A Story of Rural Racism, Identity and Hope by Sabrina Pace-Humphries.
     
  • Donate or volunteer with Black2Nature, a charity fighting for equal access to nature for all in the UK. 
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