Reflections of an anti-racist rambler

Tsara with the choir who came out to meet her at Sandford

When I set out on a 140-mile anti-racist ramble across rural mid-Devon, it was really driven by two words: do something.

The murder of George Floyd (and the reflection of countless stories like his) made me sit up and pay some real attention to the experience of black people, not just in America, but in the UK, and right here in Devon.

I had taken an interest in the topics of diversity and inclusion before, but what could I, a middle-aged white woman living in a small village, possibly do to be more proactive?

I wasn’t comfortable joining a big protest during a pandemic. I felt there was a need to tackle the topic of racism specifically in rural areas. And I like walking.

Having done some more research, reading, listening and reflecting, I felt slightly better equipped to have some difficult conversations. I would likely never be comfortable talking about racism, but if I waited until I had all the answers, I would never do anything.

So, I ordered a big yellow ‘stand up to racism’ flag, created a poster with ideas for how people in rural areas can become anti-racist and stepped out of my front door.

What happens when you walk through rural Devon with a big anti-racist flag on your back?

A variety of things happened on my travels.

I was given quite a lot of thumbs ups and approving honks from drivers, and I was even applauded once or twice.

People contacted me on Twitter and joined me on my walks, and in one village I was greeted by a choir. I received donations totalling almost £1,000 for the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, many of them from people I have never met.

But not all my interactions were positive.

I was also sworn at, shouted at, mocked and told I should put on a ‘white lives matter’ t-shirt. When a story about me and my walk appeared on a well-known national news website, the more than 700 comments on that page were nothing short of horrific and a demonstration of the worrying number of people who feel emboldened to spread hate and prejudice. If I have received this kind of response, what must the experiences of people of colour be? I can only imagine.

The silent majority

While every walk brought its highs and its lows, both geographically and emotionally, the truth is, for much of the time, nothing happened. Most people ignored me.

They would walk by, eyes trained on the ground, focusing so hard I could almost hear their inner monologue of ‘don’t look, don’t look, don’t look’. Or, they would glance up really quickly and say the obligatory ‘morning’ and look away again, making it clear that they did not want to engage further.

I had to keep turning around to check that my flag was still there. Was the writing too small? (It wasn’t). Was I invisible? (I really wasn’t). Had I not smiled enough to show that I was friendly? (Surely I had, because my cheeks were constantly hurting).

It was these responses, or lack thereof, that worried me most – because I think they go to the heart of the issue.

Firstly, many people do not believe that racism exists in Devon – if we do not have much diversity, how can it even be a problem? The reality is, more than 1,000 race hate crimes were recorded in Devon & Cornwall in 2018/19, and there will have been many more that went unrecorded. Systemic racism – which infects our education system, criminal justice system, health system, working environments – is, by its very nature, everywhere.

Secondly, there are those who know racism exists, but either do not want or do not feel equipped to talk about it.

And thirdly, there are those who know it exists, know enough that they could talk about it, but don’t believe there is anything they can do about it, so what is the point?

Of course, there will be other reasons outside of these – it is perfectly sensible not to want to engage in a conversation about racism with a stranger. Everyone has an absolute right to go about their business without being accosted by a flag-bearing oddity.

However, the observations above were also reflected in the conversations I did have. There was a general feeling that there is more we can do to recognise, understand and take an active stand against racism.

Photo courtesy of Colette Bennett

A work in progress

I genuinely feel that the majority of people in our county are kind, welcoming and hold strong values. During discussions on my walk, the value that was most referenced was treating others in the same way you wish to be treated.

When it comes to holding true to this value regardless of someone’s skin colour, there is little opportunity to demonstrate this in Devon – especially in rural areas – due to our lack of diversity.

As a result, living out our lives being ‘not racist’ to the few people of colour that we meet will not do an awful lot to move the dial on the issue of racism. If we genuinely want a world where everyone can live their lives free from discrimination, we need to play a more active part in creating that world. This is where the idea of being ‘anti-racist’ comes in.

Anti-racism is about leaning into this uncomfortable topic and learning more about it. It’s about equipping yourself with the knowledge and language to engage in a conversation; it’s about putting aside your fear of saying the wrong thing and accepting that you will make mistakes along the way. It’s listening, it’s learning, and then – most importantly – it’s acting.

I won’t lie; it isn’t easy. I have faced uncomfortable truths about myself, and have had awkward conversations with family, friends, and strangers. But I couldn’t ignore that voice in my head, telling me to ‘do something’.

I would encourage anyone who hears that voice to listen to it. Everyone has unique skills that they can bring and different circles of influence in which they can have an impact.

Your contribution might be: having conversations with your children, speaking to your local school about the curriculum, creating art or music, attending protests, challenging family and friends who say inappropriate things, signing petitions, taking an anti-racist book to your book club, talking to your employer about diversity and inclusion, writing to your MP – anything that spreads understanding of the issues at hand and that seeks to tackle inequality wherever it lurks.

For me, the start has been to try to spread awareness in rural spaces. I genuinely don’t know if it has made any real difference, and I have clearly already made mistakes along the way – there are likely many in this article. I do not pretend to be an expert; I am an anti-racist work in progress and will always be so. But I will keep following the voice that tells me to ‘do something’.

The East Devon leg of the Ramble Against Racism is now underway, follow @MidDevonWalker on Twitter for updates.

Editor’s note: This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you might like to read some or all of these:

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward
  • They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery
  • Why I ‘m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Natives. Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
  • Black and British. A Forgotten History by David Olusoga