English villages and online spaces: how rural community Facebook pages help maintain the belief that racism is only an American problem. ‘We are the village green preservation society’: an essay.
Originally shared on 6th June 2020.
This essay is a personal response to an ongoing thread that I have read over the last few days, in an online forum for a village where I have family, and where I spent a lot of time growing up. The community Facebook group page is for a small village in the South West of Devon, a county in England which is 94.9% White British according to the last Office for National Statistics census (compiled in 2011). I too am a woman from a White British background. Since writing this article, some of the original posts and attached comments have been deleted, largely as a response by the group admin to negate derogatory and racist online disputes. This essay comes from a place of frustration, a willingness to carry on the conversation with others, particularly my white peers, who would like to contribute for the betterment of racial equality and a place of deep unlearning of things I thought I knew about this subject.
I have decided to redact the name of this place and used ‘the village’ instead. I am not doing this to protect the people who hold these prejudiced or narrow views, but because I firmly believe this is not unique to many places, especially in Devon and Cornwall. This village sadly could be many villages.
When I started to think about this piece, there was already a soundtrack in my mind which was on repeat whenever I thought of ‘the village’. In the German language, this incessant sensation is called ‘Der Ohrwurm’ (literally translates as an ear worm) which is an expression used when one cannot get a tune out of their head. Although the song in question was released way before my time, in 1968, it was part of the sixth studio album that The Kinks wrote featuring these lyrics:
We are the Village Green Preservation Society
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties
If you look on Google maps, there is a cluster of small villages on the outskirts of the Mayflower city of Plymouth, situated in coastal South Devon. They are, by their very essence a quaint definition of country living. Most of them have some amenities that include a couple of pubs, village shops and garages, and often are surrounded by fields or back onto ample woodland and rivers to explore. Most have a ‘buzzy’ local primary school which for young families is often the heart of their village life. These villages are known to hold agricultural shows that draw huge numbers from far and wide for their shared interests in horticulture, livestock and other pursuits of a pastoral nature. As well as this, many residents (especially those who have never left ‘the village’) could usually tell you about the vast amount of the parish property and historic families of interest who once owned large swathes of their village estate. In the intertwined relationship of laying down roots and a familiarity with local history that much of the village holds close to their hearts, it can indeed paint a vision of quintessential Englishness.
Like most modern communities, ‘the village’ uses the online platform Facebook as a way of communicating the often-mundane comings and goings of life; ranging from feature bulletins and highlights from local news, to asking ones’ neighbours which day recycling is that week. However, when an 18-year-old member of ‘the village’ used the Facebook group to share and signpost Black Lives Matter resources for others that also live within the predominately white milieu, the angry reaction of many was met with an apoplectic attack on the notion that there could possibly even be a problem with racism in their village. In a matter of days, hundreds of comments have seen a usually sleepy village awaken a Cerberus like beast. The reaction to the statement that Black Lives Matter has apparently been so divisive, it has provoked all three administrators of the group to resign from their voluntary posts after feeling overwhelmed, mentally exhausted and verbally abused.
The year 2020 has left the world reeling, and we are only half way through. January began with bush fires, which was swiftly followed by a global pandemic of catastrophic proportions that no one was prepared for. Violence stoked by religious sectarianism in Delhli, India’s capital saw over 50 dead and many hundreds injured. This year has had earthquakes in Turkey, and locust outbreaks in East Africa, not to mention the new cases of Ebola in Beni, DCR. The world was in mourning after the tragic helicopter accident wherein the NBA icon Kobe Bryant, his daughter and others died. Things already felt bleak.
However, the killing of the 46-year-old Black man George Floyd on May 25th in Minnesota has been a catalytic ‘pinch-point’ in our time. With the racial tensions, anger and frustration that so many people within Black communities worldwide (notwithstanding the Black British population) have felt for so long, many have come together and united in peaceful protest, candlelit vigils and memorial services, in the aftermath of the murder of Floyd at the hands of police force and brutality. The coming together of thousands as seen in multiple cities across America and in London’s Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square presses everyone to truly start to think about having impact and not only good intentions. It is one thing to speak (or write words as I am doing now) but another to act and force the change for the movement of equality. To some who might read this and who immediately ask the question, ‘Well, what about the riots?’, I ask you to ask yourself to reconsider why protests have turned to riots. When the President of the United States has been quoted verbatim, using his Twitter profile to say ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’, it is painfully clear that Trump is calling for violence upon more violence to be perpetuated, predominately on Black lives. For many, it becomes all too easy to think, ‘well this surely is all just an American problem — they set sail in the 1600s, what does this have to do with Plymouth now?!’
To simply wash your hands of this issue (but as a Public Service Announcement: please do wash your hands we are still in the midst of a pandemic) and turn a blind eye and say you’d rather not discuss racism in your village is to be complicit in the covering up of a problem. In denying the experience of Black people here in the UK, and indeed in our rural areas as something that simply does not exist in ‘the village’, there is an internalisation of the wider issues with racism starting in your own homes. In the wake of the globally hash tagged #BlackOutTuesday — the online movement of social activism created by two Black women in the music industry , ‘the village’ in this corner of the ‘West country’, was confronted by a long-quietened issue when someone uploaded a link to www.blacklivesmatter.com
Whilst some applauded and used their blue Facebook thumbs to like and agree, many subscribers of ‘the village’ Facebook group openly stated their sentiments that the posting and discussing of racism has no place on their digital wall. In drawing to mind the notions of preservation and protection, The Kinks lyrics come to mind once again
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways, for me and for you
What more can we do?
There was something clearly so enraging about Black Lives Matter to many of the members of this page, which was difficult for me to understand. How could this post, by a sixth form student infuriate so many? I think it has everything to do with preserving their old ways, sadly. With the various voices that emerge from the clack clack clack of a sound of a keyboard typing, the three-dot ellipsis signalling that a comment is being written can seem ominous to say the least. The unknown quantity that will be added to the thread might read something like this, as posted by one member:
While I completely understand the sentiment of your message, the people who brought up black lives matter are also apart [sic] of the community. While it seems uncomfortable to read the conversations, it’s also important that they happen, it’s how culture changes.
Albeit, for some to accept that the Black Lives Matter movement does not centre whiteness or the white experience was a concept that was not able to be grasped or discussed without causing controversy. For example, below is one of many posts that believes strongly using the terminology ‘All Lives Matter’ is more appropriate. If you’re reading this essay, you know that point is moot — it is not practical and holds no relevance to the current situation. By insisting that ‘All Lives Matter’ not only minimalizes the issues that have overwhelmingly caused suffering and oppression for Black and Indigenous people worldwide, but creates a discourse of white exceptionalism that white people simply do not encounter in the same way because of a longstanding holding of privilege and power.
When confronted by other group members on the subject of Black Lives Matter and racism as a thread for community conversation, there were many users who were involved that felt that ‘the village’ Facebook was not an appropriate forum for this. The engagement of the numerous individuals that chose to comment, read and like (or even angry-face) was seemingly unprecedented for this online space. Some described the interactions and open posting of Black Lives Matter as a ‘hijacking of the page’. One user posted:
After a flood of posts that were both in support and solidarity for calling out racism, some members of the group reiterated their desire to see their view of village norms return.
In one of the posts, a comment read that:
Things I love about this group is seeing [sic] walks and pictures informative posts and seeing the village come together as a wonderful community. I don’t like seeing arguments and race and religion hate keep that to your own pages I really love this village and I’m very privileged to be living here. Please keep the posts light and informative with the beautiful pictures and the painted stones what the children do
It feels like a sad indictment, that this comment itself is an emphatic denial of the willingness to discuss racism, so much so that the individual would rather look at pictures of painted rocks instead. The undercurrent of this post and the intentions of just ‘keeping it light’, might be interpreted as ‘keeping it white.’
One person who posted a photo-comment implied that the village needs to be more Christ like in their digital interactions, to be without rage or bitterness or anger. To be more kind is of course a message one can unanimously agree with whatever one’s religious affiliation may be. But it is imperative now more than ever to imbue a timely reminder to the intention behind this post, however resolute these values may have been, that Jesus was not a white man.  As Robyn Whitaker observes, ‘If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.’
It might then be worth asking ‘the village’ as a collective if this conversation would have unravelled so very differently had it been, for example, about Greta Thunberg and climate change? And why is that the case? The open degree of dissonance on the subject of Black Lives Matter has left many of those who use the group divided in opinion, in both their online and offline selves.
Whilst some posts offered explanations of the semantics of terms such as white privilege and supremacy as a way of explaining how deeply rooted the issues of race are entrenched, others preferred to demarcate the group as an online space for matters such as gardening posts and should not be breached by the political sphere. To many involved in the dispute, the act of being a called a racist, (as it appears on reading the litany of posts) seems to cause more offence to the individuals than the actual flagrant use of racialized or prejudiced language. It is worth remembering, that little over three years ago, in 2017, Devon’s Conservative MP for Newton Abbot Anne Marie Morris glibly used the expression ‘real n***** in the wood pile’, with regards to Brexit. Although her use of the phrase was initially condemned by the Prime Minister May, Morris subsequently had her suspension lifted and was permitted to continue serving in parliament. What type of message does this send to Devon and their wider constituencies? The age-old adage of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ comes to mind. Because it is entirely, categorically untrue. When racist words are spoken, so are the violent actions against Black people continued. Whilst the two conflate the oft generationally accepted notions that if an individual is not seen by society as white — they are treated as less than and that they deserve less than in all facets of economical, political, and social life.
Perhaps one telling statement to conclude the inward reflections held to the online life of ‘the village’ and the way in which this conversation has escalated to a debate of NIMBY* (Not in my backyard) proportions, can be seen with one individual posting their concerns about potentially moving there. In a village that many who live in it claim there is no problem with racism, and some write that they ‘don’t care if you’re purple’ but yet are so wilfully determined not to discuss the issues. The post reads:
‘The village’ may have quite recently been abruptly awoken to the nasty and often ugly and discomforting feeling that there is racism inherent in their village, which is far closer to home than Minnesota — and some may be doing their best to read more widely, to educate their children and talk about the issues amongst themselves, perhaps even on Facebook. If you, like me identify and benefit from the privileges of being a white person we need to do so much better, starting at home. To paraphrase the words of racial justice educator, lawyer, and speaker Rachel Ricketts, if you are only now perhaps beginning to hold yourself and your families to account on the things they say and do that are damaging to racial equality, this is probably a good place to start — although a strong reminder that ‘…you’re centuries late, now get the fuck to work.’