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Postcards from the edge: how the seaside sharpens racial differences

As another British summer comes to an end, buckets and spades are put away, rubber dinghies deflated, and windbreaks rolled up and stashed in garden sheds. Hundreds of thousands of people can reflect on happy memories of days and weeks spent at seaside resorts in the UK and abroad. Little thought will be given to the non-white groups which have been largely absent from the nation’s edges.

Across the English Channel in France, a very different seaside story emerged – one characterised by exclusion and control, rather than inclusion and freedom. In August 2016, reports surfaced about the inequitable experiences of French Muslim female beachgoers: communities prevented from accessing seaside spaces and enjoying beach areas in the manner and attire in which they wished. In effect, people were excluded – physically as well as figuratively – from the collective idea of who can be natural, organic inhabitants of the beach.

In a country where full-face veils have been banned for five years and restrictions are placed on visible religious symbols in state schools, the beach became a key place where discriminatory treatment by race, gender and religion could occur. French municipal authorities stipulated that full-body coverings were unacceptable on the beach. Fines were given to women who chose to wear them and in one case a woman was forced to remove her clothing by the police.

A woman wearing a Burkini protests outside the French embassy in London. EPA/Hannah McKay

Most of the debate has focused on France itself and on the nature of laïcité – the French idea of secularism – as well addressing Islam, gender and the politics of multiculturalism. Little attention has been paid to the significance of the beach itself.

However, throughout much of the global north, the beach and the coast have long been symbolic sites for reaffirming dominant national, cultural, ethno-racial and religious identities. In short, the seemingly benign, open and free leisure spaces of the beach are, in fact, often contested, regulated and exclusionary.

All at sea

In Britain, received wisdom, academic scholarship and, let’s face it, a long history of bawdy postcards and dirty weekends have all told us the beach is primarily a place of fun, frivolity and escapism. It is an ambiguous yet comforting space where traditional standards, roles and constraints of society are transgressed, albeit temporarily. This means that social issues and problems of any kind, let alone those related to race, have only recently gained critical attention.

Add to this mix the overwhelmingly white populations of British seaside towns. Put simply: there simply haven’t been many “non-white” faces in this context – with an unsophisticated understanding of the mechanics of racism, this means that the English seaside is seen as a discrimination-free zone. The experiences of minority ethnic seaside communities – residents, tourists, revellers and workers – have been ignored.

British seaside identities are being dragged out of the past. Paul Townsend/Flickr, CC BY-ND

However, it is these associations of leisure and playfulness combined with an unrelenting whiteness that make the structures and repercussions of race at the English seaside so significant. When race is ignored or underplayed it accentuates rather than mitigates its effects.

The modern seaside in Britain has, in fact, always been a racialised environment. It is a place where social constructions and beliefs about race have defined spaces and architectural design, forms of entertainment, leisure and tourism economies, and the provision of cultural services and infrastructure. A visitor to any seafront will encounter Orientalist minarets adorning piers and bandstands, Gypsy fortune tellers and fairground themes of colonial conquest, and refreshments and wares designed for “traditional” seaside shoppers.

This has allowed white British communities (of all class backgrounds) to effectively dictate who can have access, how they should behave, how they should appear and how they should be represented. In other words, everything about how to truly belong in that environment.

In turn, the beach intensifies a fascination with bodies, determining which types of people are made welcome and which are not. The police might not enforce it in the UK, but ideas about what clothing people should or should not wear, and how they are expected to behave or perform are central to the public understanding of the beach.

End of the pier show

Today, the British seaside remains an excluding space for many. Far from an innocent, apolitical place, it is one where distinctions around race, culture and religion are sharpened. It is no accident that the UK Independence Party has enjoyed recent electoral successes in coastal spaces, especially in south Essex and Thanet in Kent.

Quaint souvenir shops frequently reject the imposition of so-called political correctness, selling items that would be regarded in many other areas as racist, such as “Golly dolls”. Minority ethnic seaside residents and visitors report various forms of discriminatory treatment: physical violence, verbal abuse, surveillance in shops and social spaces – and simply being stared at by other local people.

Horses for courses. Donkey rides on Skegness beach. nutmeg66/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The seaside is changing, socially and culturally, in numerous ways. With this comes hope. In terms of population demographics, the seaside is slowly becoming “less white”: home to visitors, workers, tourists, retirees, refugees and asylum seekers, students and locally-born young people from ethnic minorities. Against political claims of a country characterised by division and mistrust, seaside towns can be places of conviviality, pan-ethnic solidarity and inter-cultural exchange.

My own experiences on the south coast attest to this: productive inter-faith networks, unextraordinary mixed residential neighbourhoods, cross-cultural assistance for refugees – and even acts of symbolic support for French female Muslim beachgoers, such as Muslim women bathing in the sea at Brighton.

The seaside is as central to the modern British multicultural island story as our towns and cities, villages and countryside. For it to be a collective cultural experience, the stories, sights and sounds of the beaches on the edges of Britain must express the pasts, presents and futures of everyone.

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