Natasha Culzac on Poverty, Prejudice and Gentrification

In the UK, if you’re an ethnic minority you are twice as likely to live in poverty than if you are white. If you’re black and degree educated, you’ll still earn 23% less than graduates who happen to have less melanin. These uncomfortable facts comes from a far-reaching study published recently by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and it details entrenched racial prejudices and inequality in modern day Britain.It shines a light on the truths that ethnic minorities know all to well, having lived with them for years, but ones that the “PC GONE MAD”-screaming press likes to belittle and shout down as “total nonsense”. Of course we’d all like to kid ourselves that we live in an egalitarian utopia, but some people can’t trick themselves – the reality is far too harsh to block.

Natasha Culzac by photographer Ella Hansmann.
Natasha Culzac by photographer Ella Hansmann.

Race, poverty, class, social mobility and place are issues very close to me. I was born in an east-end council estate to a white teaching assistant mother and a black Caribbean odd-job council worker father. We moved to Hastings, on the south coast of England, when I was eight-years- old. At the time, my dad was one of very few black people in the working class seaside town, yet always facing his share of ignorance and bigotry with his head held high and his pride insurmountable. I learnt a lot from him. We moved from social housing to social housing in Hastings and neighbouring Bexhill, never far from the arse-end of the socio-economic stratum.

Author, Natasha Culzac as a child.
Author, Natasha Culzac as a child.

Which is why I was pleased to learn that in August, our new prime minister Teresa May ordered a review into the way ethnic minorities and the white working class are treated by public services such as the police, the judicial system, the NHS and in schools. I’ll never be a Tory voter, but this is something that I commend her for announcing and at least recognising. The plan is to audit the way people are treated and to see if there are any disparities based on a person’s class, gender, income and race. Whether this review leads to direct action, or whether she is merely paying lip service to real world equality, remains to be seen.

When I think of my own teenage experiences in East Sussex, listening to Nirvana, feeling like a total outsider at the local comprehensive and dreaming of the bright lights of London, I realise now that I was one of the lucky ones. We had absolutely no money but my family always taught me that there was the fabled ‘something else’ out there if I wanted it. Which is why I experience a lot of cognitive dissonance when it comes to gentrification.

Old Town Hastings, East Sussex. By Peter Trimming
Old Town Hastings, East Sussex. By Peter Trimming

Now as a Peckham/Camberwell resident I will happily agree with those who decry gentrification in south-east London – perhaps because I haven’t grown up here. But I have a hard time denouncing the gentrification of Hastings. I feel like the place needs it. Is that terrible? If you’ve ever been to Hastings as a visitor, you’ve probably only seen the Old Town, with its quaint fisherman’s huts, timber-beamed pubs, Tudor cottages, contemporary art gallery, and the ultimate Pinterest wet dream: rows of antique shops, dusty bookshops and Farrow & amp; Ball-coloured restaurants. But this is only one snapshot of the town, it’s really only a few streets of it and a very new one at that. The town has higher-than- average unemployment and more than double the average of working-age people claiming welfare.

The rest of Hastings’ suburban area is nowhere near as picturesque and many people are public sector workers experiencing year-on- year wage suppression. No, the much-maligned “DFLs” or “down-from- Londons” as they’re called, aren’t the bloody saviours of a down-trodden Hastings, but surely there’s something in the increased investment, increased spending in the town, that will pave the way for more businesses, more jobs and greater wealth for everyone? Our first proper Hastings home was in the Farley Bank estate – Google it, it’s grim, so much so that I’m pretty sure the nine-year-old me was praying for the kind of opportunities that gentrification affords.

Words by guest writer Natasha Culzac

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