Weeding out horticulture’s race problem

Even in the garden, there’s bigotry to be found

One of the things I love most about gardening is its ability to cut through social divisions. Tapping into the universal human desire to nurture, as well as our instinctive fascination with the natural world, gardening has the unique ability to transcend gender, class, race, sexuality and political persuasions.

So, it may come as a surprise to many people how much of a systemic problem racism is within the seemingly friendly, mild-mannered world of UK horticulture. When one of my best mates recently asked me if I had ever experienced it in our industry, we were both genuinely shocked at each other’s reactions. He to know how frequently it happens to me, and me to discover he had absolutely no idea that this wasn’t something that was wholly confined to the 1970s. But his reaction was totally understandable: it’s not something I enjoy talking about, to be honest. It is not fun, in fact I find it both uncomfortable and tedious to relive, as I imagine it is for those listening to me doing it. However, it is important. We do not make the world a better place by ignoring problems, but by talking about them.

I have a bi-racial background and most of my close family are white, as are pretty much all of my friends. I often forget my ethnicity – I don’t walk around with a mirror, after all. So no matter how many times it happens, even for me, it often takes me by surprise. My earliest experience started in my 20s at my first ever show garden, when top brass at a major UK newspaper told me: “I love what you have done here. But we only work with British designers.” My first reaction was that they must have somehow misunderstood as our sponsor was German. When I naively tried to reassure him with, “Oh, no I am based in London,” he left with a smile and an “Anyway, enjoy the show.” Equally, when told by an industry big wig at Chelsea Flower Show, “You look just like Kim Jong-un in that suit” and, as they did the Gangnam Style dance, I naively thought: “But it’s light grey, not black.” That was, of course, until their follow-up of, “Let me show you how British people tie a tie.” My realisation, as so often, came so late that I just stood there, like a mug, as they proceeded with the power move of faffing with my tie.

These kind of comments aren’t always that subtle or in private settings. A few years ago I was excited to be speaking in a line-up with one of my childhood heroes – a pioneering Australian landscaper who has since died – at an annual gathering of garden designers on the theme of tropical horticulture. I had pictures of this guy’s gardens on the wall as a teen, instead of posters of pop stars. After my talk about Singaporean urban planning, his talk about Bali was peppered with a surprising amount of scathing anecdotes of Singapore, done while loudly and animatedly impersonating a generic “Ching Chong” accent and looking right at me. No one in the audience of hundreds had anything to say, I am ashamed to admit, including me. These are just a few examples off the top of my head, there are dozens more.

Yet this marginalisation of people whose name or face doesn’t “fit in” isn’t just a problem for those who actually experience it. Like any human endeavour, especially in the creative arts, gardening is enriched by meritocracy. The ability for people to bring their own diverse and unique experiences benefits everyone. Perhaps it’s time we started acting like it.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

Contributor

James Wong

The GuardianTramp

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