Modern Welsh history is often punctuated by civil unrest, riots and strikes. It’s a little known fact that the Great Strike of Penrhyn (1900-1903) is the longest dispute in British history. In 1910, Westminster sent the British army to quell the Tonypandy riots (also known as the Rhondda riots). Race riots broke out in 1919 in and around south Cardiff, resulting in the death of three people. More recently, following the miners’ strike, race riots raged for three days in the council estate of Ely, Cardiff (1992) and later on in Caia Park, Wrexham (2000). While the links between them seem tenuous, the connections between these political moments have acted as triggers in the Welsh consciousness with long-lasting influence, not too dissimilar from the cultural legacy of the Rebecca Riots. The Rebecca Riots are well known and often taught in schools, whereas the race riots aren’t. The former point to a class inequality, the latter about race and both are just as significant in thinking about race and inequality in Wales.
These uprisings have highlighted historical tensions that are becoming ever more exacerbated around contested topics relating to race, class, labour relations, ethnicity, identity and the perceived notion of ‘identity politics’. The latter (when not deployed in discussion of gender and sexuality, etc.) is used overwhelmingly as a shorthand to refer to movements for self-determination for people who are people of colour. It’s used not for Welsh movements such as Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the ‘Party for Wales’ Plaid Cymru or for discussions on civic nationalism in Wales.
A future, independent, progressive and anti-imperialist Wales needs to decolonise, not diversify. Wales is already extremely diverse. Philosopher Angela Davis famously said ‘In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be anti-racist’. Wales is, no doubt, a racist society. At whom is the concept of ‘diversity’ targeted in Wales? The diversity discourse in Wales posits a ‘central’ point of ‘the majority’ from which others diverge, usually in relation to race, sexuality, migration or faith. The de facto starting point is predominantly white, male and predominantly English-speaking. Is an eighth generation Welsh-Somali person ‘diverse’ enough in the equality nexus, or what about a white, straight Welsh- speaking man from Gwynedd?
The diversity discourse portrays certain groups as gatekeepers to people of colour and black and minority ethnic communities in Wales, perpetuating the same problem it seeks to end. This allows for a large amount of power to be wielded by those who are institutionalised enough to give organisations that which they desire: tokenism. Diversity is the corporate counterpoint to grassroots anti-racism, and merely helps institutions give their ‘due regard’ under the Equality Act, and before that, the Race Relations Act.
Wales prides itself on being a ‘nation of sanctuary’, while, at the same time, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are subject to the white supremacist United Kingdom Border Agency who can incarcerate without trial and deport at a whim, sometimes with fatal consequences. The roots of the UKBA are found in colonisation. While deportation isn’t devolved, Wales is certainly complicit in it, e.g. Welsh votes for parties like UKIP with racist immigration policies. On the one hand, race is privileged in the diversity discourse yet racialised people who have often arrived due to forced or coerced migration are subjected to brutal state violence. A cognitive dissonance is arising in Wales, one that cannot be congruent with a progressive and anti-imperialist nation. The price is too high to pay.
In the seminal British critical race theory text The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, the authors write that ‘complicity [of Wales and Scotland] in the British imperial enterprise makes it difficult for colonised people outside Britain to accept their identity as post-colonial’. The newly elected Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price gave a lecture called ‘Wales, the first and final colony’ at the Institute of Welsh Politics in 2009. The argument that Wales is a (post) colony that can be readily compared to colonies in the non-West has become increasing en mode on the pro-independence Welsh left, with critics of this position being castigated as ‘anglocentric’ or out of touch and privileged for living in Cardiff. This is where we find ourselves in 2018.
However, the British Empire never ended. Wales is simultaneously still part of that Empire and administering its violence through complicity in British state and foreign policy abroad. It’s an uncomfortable position, certainly, but the British military is the biggest recruiter in state schools. Wales is not the ‘final colony’: the British Empire holds territories such as Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and more. The role of Wales is not demarcated from historical colonialism; there are towns with Welsh-language names in (for example) the Caribbean and New South Wales in Australia. Wales is in denial about its colonial heritage, with Carwyn Jones flying to Argentina in 2015 to ‘celebrate’ 150 years of ‘Yr Wladfa’, literally meaning ‘The Colony’ in Welsh. This is not the direction we should be going in.
We need to decolonise, not diversify. Decolonisation must be a process that acknowledges Wales’ complicity in empire, and the deep ways in which that perpetuates itself in discussions relating to people of colour in Wales. One hundred years after (some) women were afforded the right to vote, and despite Wales housing the oldest black community in Britain, we have never had a woman of colour elected to the Welsh Assembly. However, there has been representation of BME men in the Senedd and BME councillors in Wales.
In 2017, both Betty Campbell and Ambalavaner Sivanandan passed away. Campbell was Wales’ first black headmistress and a well-known community activist, Sivanandan was a writer and the founder of the Institute of Race Relations. Both have left footsteps for us to follow and their absence in discussions of race in Wales and Britain is keenly felt. In a speech given by Sivanandan on combating racism he says ‘We must look, too, to the various levels of struggle – on the streets, in the media, in the council chamber. We must begin to see how we can take our issues into the media and make them responsible to the community.’ We must carve a distinctively Welsh political sphere, however we must also ignite whole new ways of discussing and understanding politics, on the streets, in the media and in party politics. It appears that our work to turn back the white supremacist legacy is starkly cut out for us, to ‘undo the darkness’ as Frantz Fanon says.
Fanon also writes in ‘Concerning Violence’ that the coloniser desires to become the colonised. There is something deeply poignant about his work given political discussions on racism in modern Wales, and deeply British ideas of racialisation held by the Welsh public. For a Wales which is truly independent we must decolonise at every level, including our own hearts and minds.
Yasmin Begum is a writer and student from Cardiff, Wales. She is interested in decolonisation, feminism and radical activism.
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