Two Steps Forward…

Words by Clare Howdle

There’s something ugly lurking beneath Cornwall’s cutting-edge cultural veneer, but how do you tackle a problem when some people refuse to see it?

Riding a wave. On the cusp. Reborn. Metaphor after metaphor has been bestowed on Cornwall in recent years as the county has been catapulted onto the national music, art and lifestyle scene with its hip new sensibility and youthful status. But something is slightly awry with this modern, cutting-edge portrayal of the far Southwest.

It’s in the sign a sushi bar has to put on Falmouth high street proclaiming “we don’t just serve raw fish”, it’s in the uproar in Newquay at the possibility that a mosque might be built, it’s in the four-foot high KKK signs sprayed in red on an estate in Bodmin. From backwards attitudes to outright racism, prejudice has built a wall around Cornwall cutting it off from the rest of the country and preventing the Land of Saints from marching into 21st century multicultural Britain.

Countryside racism is a big issue; in fact racist attacks are ten times more likely to be perpetrated in rural areas than in the big cities, and are experienced by around one in 15 of the ethnic minority population. Many black minority ethnic people in Cornwall experience racist abuse every day – from personal attacks and verbal insults to staring – making life in the county harrowing and difficult. Although the direct racism issue cannot be overlooked, the problem in rural areas like Cornwall runs much deeper and is a symptom as well as a cause of the limited numbers of black minority ethnic families that choose to live in the county. According to the 2001 census, Cornwall’s population is 99% white. With such a small ethnic community, some people are colour-blind; in their eyes, seeing is believing – it’s easy for them to be blinkered to the reality of racism when they seldom see a black face on the high street, on the beach or down the local.

“There’s still an attitude in some communities that there is no problem,” explains Luke Cox, Project Manager of Anti-Racism Cornwall. “It’s much more difficult to offer the support people need when the necessity for our very existence is being questioned by the public and the media.” The inherent racism that still exists in parts of Cornwall was highlighted in a report published last year by the Anti-Racism Project (No Problem in Cornwall, 2004). “‘We don’t have any black people in the county’ has been heard too often,” says Mandeep Sandhu, author of the report. “During the year of research, this attitude was expressed by many professionals ranging from teachers and civil service employees to health providers – demonstrating the depth of the problem.” Survey comments made by young people regarding racism were equally revealing. “In my school people call me nigger”, “I was slapped in the face and called Paki” and “there’s no point telling a teacher they just ignore you,” demonstrate the lack of understanding about what constitutes racist behaviour, and that many kids have nowhere to turn when faced with racist experiences.

But things are changing. The British countryside’s “passive apartheid” caused by “mutual incomprehension” as identified by Trevor Phillips (Chairman for the Commission for Racial Equality) is being tackled face-on, from both sides. Anatu Ben-Lawal works at Anti-Racism Cornwall’s Drop-in Centre in Truro, which not only provides somewhere for young black minority ethnic people to talk about their problems, but also gets out into the community. “We want to show young people the good things about living in Cornwall, with its lifestyle, culture and amazing landscape,” says Anatu. “Black minority ethnic families move down here because it’s a great place to bring up kids, but a lot of the children haven’t had a chance to experience the benefits, so we take them out skateboarding and surfing to show them what Cornwall has to offer, and hopefully counterbalance some of the negative experiences they have already had that make them dislike living here.”

Developing mutual appreciation rather than incomprehension triggered the founding of Global Links, a project designed to introduce multicultural influences into schools as a means of combating racism. “The Local Education Authority approached us about piloting a scheme to get black minority ethnic arts practitioners into schools to educate students and teachers alike,” explains Dani Illich, coordinator for the Global Links project. “The arts are a really strong medium for change because with traditional anti-racism teaching methods children just switch off, whereas through cultural arts the focus is taken off race and put on something creative.”

The importance of teaching children about all cultural influences, including Cornish culture, is something Global Links are keen to highlight. “It’s really important that children learn the value of a multicultural society and what everyone can bring to a community,” continues Dani. “During the 40 workshops we had Turkish dancers, Nigerian singers and a Cornish language band working on a fusion piece with the kids: they loved it.”

And it’s not just in Cornish schools that cultures from around the world are being introduced to inspire and educate. The Eden Project was the only place apart from Johannesburg to host a Live8 concert, Africa Calling, that celebrated the diverse music scene that exists in Africa itself. “The significance of Cornwall being the only event to focus its line-up on music indigenous to the countries that Live8 was trying to help should not be overlooked,” says Peter Hampel, Creative Director of Eden. “It was a massively well received and successful event; many of the artists have been invited back and it demonstrates that despite Cornwall’s lack of ethnic diversity, the majority of the Cornish public is open to and enjoys learning about different influences and cultures.”

Such positive steps show that progress is being made, from educating and inspiring schools and communities to training staff in companies throughout the county. “Racism here goes all the way through but institutions are beginning to take action to confront what is going on, and a lot of them now have support systems in place for racist incidents,” explains Dani Illich. “Many companies are actually contacting Anti-Racism Cornwall and asking us to oversee their racial equality policies, which is a huge step forward,” expands Luke Cox. “It’s all about training staff to deal correctly with racial abuse incidents, so that families can feel safe and supported wherever they are, knowing that people will handle their problems sympathetically and seriously.”

As the black minority ethnic population grows, Cornwall has a real opportunity to create a successful multicultural society from the outset by implementing systems and educating the community early on, learning from mistakes made through decades of discrimination and segration that people have suffered in urban areas. With support systems and infrastructures beginning to take shape, hopefully the perceived correlation between a high percentage white population and racial intolerance will diminish, leaving the county more openly inviting to people who want to move down. Gordon Kelly of the Combined Universities in Cornwall certainly thinks so: “Students coming from the broadest spectrum of social, national, ethnic and religious backgrounds are helping to create a more cosmopolitan feel to some of the towns in Cornwall,” he says. “This will, in turn, reassure people from ethnic minorities that they could feel comfortable in and benefit from Cornwall’s unique lifestyle.”

Because Cornwall is unique. There is nowhere in the UK that has such a creative outlook, beautiful landscape and colourful cultural history. Cornwall deserves the metaphors as much as all its residents deserve to feel welcome and proud of where they live. Defeating racism is an ongoing battle, and both the direct racist abuse and the underlying inherent racism present in the county will take time to overcome. But it will happen, however slowly. The wall is coming down, brick by brick.