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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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4.1 Thinking about ‘race’ and Wales

Race relations literature and policy have tended to focus on areas of ethnic minority concentration in the UK. For a number of reasons Wales has been largely off the race relations map of Britain. This is curious, because Wales is home to one of the oldest black, or more appropriately multicultural, communities in Europe (see Figure 6).

Bert Hardy/Getty Images
Figure 6 Images of 1950s Butetown from Down the Bay, photographs by Bert Hardy insert

In the 1940s Kenneth Little studied ‘the coloured people of Cardiff’ and thus opened up a social science of race relations in Wales (Little, 1948). The somewhat ‘exotic’ reputation of the area of Cardiff known in the early 20th century as Tiger Bay that was the focus of Little’s study had been well established even before the turn of the century. Accounts by novelists, newspaper columnists, social workers, civil servants, social reformers and others had contributed to the rather ambivalent representation of the area as dirty, diseased, violent and immoral, but at the same time fascinating and a world-leading example of harmonious race relations.

Against this backdrop, Little set about conducting a meticulous social survey that captured the socio-economic circumstances of some of Wales’s earliest ‘coloured’ (a post-war term) immigrants:

We can proceed to consider the coloured community itself. The main elements consist of Arab, West African and West Indian seamen, but it has been estimated that altogether in this Loudoun Square quarter [in Butetown] some fifty different nationalities are to be found. ... The square itself serves as a convenient centre. Here the density of the coloured population is greatest – with perhaps eight out of every ten persons.

(Little, 1948, p. 68)

Summarising the employment situation in the area at the outbreak of the Second World War, Little comments that ‘the community may be expected to undergo further vagaries of economic hardship’ (1948, p. 75), and in reviewing the state of race relations between the coloured community and the majority white population at the time he notes that ‘the community is segregated with some considerable degree of rigidity from the rest of the city in the geographical, social and psychological senses; in the last respect the existence of strong patterns of colour prejudice among residents of the town is the main causal factor’ (1948, p. 183).

Migration to Wales and the consequent ethnic diversity it produced need to be seen in historical context. The mid-19th-century boom in the coal industry and merchant shipping attracted black seamen from Africa, America and the West Indies. By the time of the Second World War this community was well established; there was considerable intermarriage and a clear presence of second- or third-generation ‘mixed race’ people. Wales did not experience the West Indian immigration of the Windrushera so characteristic of a number of cities in England (Evans, 2002). Little’s study identifies four important issues surrounding ‘race’ in Wales. This settlement represents something quite different from other parts of the UK, where pre-war settlement in major towns such as London, Bristol and Liverpool was largely a product of the economics of shipping and the business of transporting slaves. Second, and significant for understanding contemporary racial divisions, Little’s study illustrates the geographic containment of the issue of ‘race’ in Wales to an area a little short of one square mile in the dockland area of Cardiff. Third, the work documents the nature of discriminations, racisms and exclusions faced by these individuals and their descendants that has had an enduring impact to the present day. Fourth, and of particular interest, the study raises the question of whether there is something distinct or different about Wales in terms of an understanding of ‘race’ and racism.

In the historical encounter between the majority Welsh population and black and ethnic minority settlers to the country there is evidence of both amicable race relations and trenchant ethnic conflict, and yet a predominant myth of Welsh national identity portrays Wales as a tolerant nation, particularly in comparison with its neighbour, England. In any reading of Welsh race relations history it will be clear that the fate of the Welsh themselves as an ethnic minority within the wider context of Britain is a significant factor in understanding this popular myth of Welsh tolerance.

Wales, Scotland and Ireland were the first (internal) colonies of the great imperial project of Britain. This has led to an ongoing sense of national oppression. For example, the experience of cultural domination by the English in which self-rule was lost, the language and culture of Wales were subjugated and the Welsh themselves were racialised, has led to a pervasive and continuing sense of national oppression. The politics of self-rule and the reassertion of the Welsh language and culture in public life have been a key focus of the politics of ethnic conflict in Wales. It is this form of ethnic conflict, between the Welsh and the English, that has been foregrounded and this has served to displace any focus on other racialised divisions.

A widely held, but perhaps misplaced belief is that this historical experience has produced a strong empathy and sense of tolerance towards other racialised minorities. The argument runs that as an oppressed people themselves the Welsh are more understanding of the oppression of others, including the oppression of black people. In this sense the Welsh national character is portrayed as anti-imperial, tolerant and internationalist, by contrast with the English, who are perceived as colonialist and racist. This is, of course, a part of national myth making and cannot be supported by available historical or contemporary evidence. However, it is a deeply held and powerful belief. This type of thinking has been mobilised in varying degrees in contemporary Wales to cast the Welsh as a non-racist nation. One consequence of this myth is to view ‘race’ issues and racism as a non-issue for Wales. The idea that ‘race’ is ‘no problem here’ has provided a powerful discourse even in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary.

The legacy of this set of ideas meant that prior to devolution ‘race’ was not considered to be an issue for public policy interventions. There were, of course, many UK public policies on race (e.g. the Race Relations Act, 1976) that applied to Wales. The assumption was that the relatively low numbers of people from ethnic minorities meant there was little need for such policy. In the absence of perceived need, racism was not recognised by government, and complacency on the part of civil servants and policy makers meant that little or no attention was directed towards ‘race’ issues. The idea of Wales as a multicultural society was barely acknowledged in public life.

At the same time, lack of political clout among minorities led to an inability to push their concerns onto the political agenda. The black and ethnic minority population is very diverse, dispersed and isolated and this has militated against their establishing any kind of strong collective political identity able to forge change. What grassroots activity existed was poorly coordinated and organised more around social support than political lobbying. Effectively, minorities across Wales remained largely disenfranchised, powerless and hidden. The idea of multicultural Wales was associated only with a tiny area of Cardiff and the lack of interethnic conflict in this small area of Wales contributed to the myth of harmonious race relations.

Access to identification and membership of the national community is important to the exercise of citizenship rights and to equality. If you feel that you belong, then you may also feel entitled to some of the opportunities of that society. This feeling has been frustrated for the majority of people from black and ethnic minority groups in Wales. The sense of belonging to the national community is signalled in a number of ways and communicated through ideas about ‘Welshness’: who is and who is not considered Welsh. The marginalised position of ethnic minorities has been compounded by dominant constructions of Welsh national identity that figure in the popular imagining and political discourse. The way in which a nation tells its story via its cultural representations, how it presents who is seen as Welsh and who isn’t, can operate to exclude. There is inevitably some tension between the aspirations of a country wishing to advance itself as a distinct nation and one that wishes to portray the image of a country welcoming and accepting of all ethnicities.

Activity 10 explores this tension: how at one and the same time to build a sense of the national collective and a distinct national identity and also to incorporate an increasingly ethnically diverse population. These are issues that have much concerned politicians and scholars particularly in post-devolution Wales.

Activity 8

The extract below, ‘Can we live together? Wales and the multicultural question’, comes from a public lecture to the Honourable Royal Society of Cymmrodorion, in London, by Charlotte Williams, one of the authors of this section.

As you read, consider the following questions:

  • What is meant by the ‘paradox’ of how to square diversity with national integrity?
  • Why is this a contemporary dilemma?

Extract 1 Can we live together? Wales and the multicultural question

Addressing a multicultural audience at the Global Britons Conference in Cardiff, the then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, spoke of the ‘ultimate paradox of a country’. On the one hand, there is the recognition of huge diversity and long standing diversity as a product of Wales’ industrialised and globalised past. On the other hand, he referred to the ‘Celtic nature of Wales’ – the Celtic essence, Wales’ cultural integrity ‘as maintained through its language’ (Morgan, 2003). This is the paradox: how to square diversity and national integrity.

The then First Minister is, of course, correct in his acknowledgement of long standing diversity. Cultural diversity is not a new phenomenon to Wales. Wales has always been in one sense multi-cultural. ... However, it is the era of modern globalisation coinciding with the emergence of the nation state that brings a more complex encounter with difference to Wales. It is no longer reasonable to think of nation states as ethnically homogenous entities. Economic expansion, technological and information advance and increased migrations mean that modern nations are increasingly and consciously diverse. However, as the world is opened up to us, so we feel insecure and try to shrink it back to size. Thus, the potential for ethnic conflict increases as the assertion of who we are becomes all the more important ...

The idea of multiculturalism is nevertheless popular. Most people would argue that multiculturalism is a good thing. But what if it isn’t?

When the then First Minister spoke about the paradox of nation he raised the core elements of the multicultural question – how to reconcile increasing diversity with national identity. National identity is of course a construction and his construction of nation was by reference to something called ‘The Celtic Essence’. What is clear is that these indices of identity as presently constituted are proving rather too inaccessible or meaningless for the majority of ethnic minorities. I would argue that instead of formulating the paradox in this way, that is, how to fit together two potentially incompatible forces, we need to consider how we are constructing these notions. Is not, for example, diversity/migration, movement and change, a fundamental element of the Celtic essence and integral to it? Some commentators would argue that we need to dispense with the idea of nation altogether because in an era of globalisation the idea of nation becomes more and more anachronistic. The discourse of nationality itself creates barriers, antagonisms and renders marginal those who do not fit the predominant constructions of national identity.

(Williams, 2005, pp. 216–30)

Wales is changing both within and because of pressures beyond it. It is increasingly diverse as a result of the ebbs and flows of inward and outward migrations. Ideas of nation and national identity that cling to narrow, traditional and exclusive definitions of who is Welsh and who is not Welsh are increasingly being challenged. To link national belonging to membership of a distinct ethnic group will always act to exclude people and limit the project of nation building. The paradox is how not to lose the distinctiveness of Wales as a nation, its history, culture and traditions, while at the same time recognising and embracing its ethnic diversity.

To be genuinely inclusive, the ‘integrity’ of the nation must be built on factors that cut across ethnic boundaries. In post-devolution Wales, politicians, popular culture and minority peoples themselves are contributing to redefining national identity, asserting a variety of national identities and claiming belonging based on a more inclusive rights-based citizenship.