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.