Beaches, scenic coastal views, pasties, line dancing… Rattler? Of all the things that come to mind when thinking about this great corner of Britain, ethnic diversity and/or multiculturalism are not some. According to the 2011 Consensus, less than 2% of the Cornish population is made up of non-white minority groups. Almost 95% identified as White (Cornish/English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British) which in comparison to overall 80.5% White demographic of the UK and 44% White (British) demographic of London, gives an idea of just how homogeneous Cornwall County is; a factor I didn’t fully consider when I arrived here in September 2016.
I remember it quite clearly when my Mum dropped me off some two and a half years ago; as she was leaving, she gave me an almost uncomfortably strong hug and began to cry. After telling her to stop being silly and that I’d be back in a month or two, she said, “it’s not that. I haven’t seen a single non-white person here, I don’t want you to be alone,” which to me sounded like a ridiculous statement because I was raised by my single white mother, in a predominantly white neighbourhood town in Surrey, went to predominately white schools/college and I honestly can’t think of a single close friend I had growing up who wasn’t white. Long story short, I never really saw myself as any different to those around me because I had never been treated as such, so I dismissed my Mum and told her I’d be fine, though it wasn’t long before I realised this was not Woking and the attitudes here aren’t quite the same.
I never realised just how diverse my home was until I lived in Falmouth; the first mosque in Britain was built in Woking, so it has a large Muslim community and in the mid-late 2000’s there was an influx of eastern European migrating to the area, so although my friends group was largely comprised of young white people, other ethnicities were never far from view. The first problem I faced was meeting and integrating with people who had not come from a similarly culturally diverse area; I was the only non-white minority in my entire block in first year, which wasn’t a problem until I realised a lot of the people around me were communicating differently with me: some people came across awkward or not wanting to converse when they were fine with everyone else; some people were adding words like ‘bro’ and ‘man’ when addressing me but never bothered with anyone else; I must have been asked if I was selling drugs at least twice a night when I went out for freshers; all quite trivial stuff but enough for me to feel a differentiation between me and others.
Then we move into experiences with the local residents of Falmouth; if I had a pound for every time I’ve been stared at, glared at, inquisitive looks shot at, I’d have no need to for a student loan. I’ve seen faces of bus drivers shift from a smile and a pleasant ‘thank you’ to a sullen, aggravated ‘that’s a pound’ just by putting myself in front of them. I’ve had staff seemingly follow me around the store in what I can only assume was an attempt to prevent me from stealing (which I can tell you no matter how deep into my overdraft I am, would not happen) and I’ve had local punters stare me out across the bar, whispering to their mate who then joins in on the old stare out.
The most blatant experience of racism or intolerance was last year on the walk back from one of Falmouth’s legendary Cottage parties. Walking down a rather busy 3am high street, a group of people in front of us were dressed as traffic cones which obviously made me and my friends laugh; outside of the laughter I heard ‘Oh yeah, f*cking roadman.’ A man, probably in their early 40s, was walking adjacent to us and apparently didn’t take to the comedic value of the traffic cones. I asked him quite calmly, ‘what do you mean roadman?,’ to which the seemingly inebriated man replied, ‘you think you’re the sh*t don’t you? You think you’re hard?? Fucking roadman,’ and when I had no reply but to laugh at such an empty comment, he turned and started towards me and got close enough to my face for me to feel his aggravated breathing pattern. I asked him again “why am I a roadman and what have I done?” and he had no answer other than keep persisting with uneducated statements. I laughed again and went to move, at which point he pushed me which luckily got a few bouncers attention; at this point he was being led away and I was trying to explain what had happened. All I got told was ‘ah don’t worry about it mate, he gets like that sometimes.’
He gets like that sometimes? Is that the sort of dismissive comments made on such a blatant and undeserving verbal (and almost physical) attack? And ‘roadman’? why am I roadman? Because I appear black (I’m mixed race) and wear trackies? Neo-traditionally, a ‘Roadman’ is a young man from an urban area (originally London) who is ‘active’; in gang-related activity/selling drugs/fraud. I was called this without them knowing anything about me and judging me purely based on an image perpetuated by the media, in a place where there isn’t a ‘roadman’ within about 300 miles. Not only did this appear to sum up the general attitude towards racial and discriminative behaviour in Falmouth, but also signalled to me the harmful effects of the media on society, churning stereotypes without educating or being educated on the subject themselves.
While I whole-heartedly feel there’s a more discriminative attitude in the south-west, I do NOT believe that all hold the same opinion as the man in my aforementioned encounter; I’ve met some incredibly lovely and wholesome Cornish people who simply do not have the same views. What one must remember is that aside from their being good and bad (nice and hateful) people everywhere in the world, Cornwall is one of the view places in the country that hasn’t been pushed to the absolute industrial/urban peak; there hasn’t been any real mass ethnic immigrations because there isn’t any work for them to really take on such as in London, Manchester or Birmingham, which has led to a slower inclusion that the rest of the country and old attitudes. Furthermore, as a county there is a strong pride in their longstanding roots in pre-Great British history; by many accounts, locals see the university and constant addition of students (regardless of ethnicity) as a threat to the preservation of their home; struggles with Students have been long documented.
All I feel I can do (and what I implore any other in a similar situation to do) is prove them wrong; smile when they glare; confront them and converse with them when they whisper; say good afternoon to the middle aged man looking uncomfortable; help an old lady across the road: mainstream media is not on our side and the sooner the people who harbour resentment realise there is no need for it, the sooner we can get rid of stereotypes, discrimination and ill-learned behaviour.