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The truth about racism in Wales

Cardiff Bay

When I moved to Cardiff in 2003, it was to work in an office at the bottom end of Bute Street, the main artery connecting the city centre to the waterfront. I’d heard much about Tiger Bay, the cultural melting pot that had bubbled away for hundreds of years thanks to immigration into the city’s international port.

The docks, as it was better known by then, had produced Shirley Bassey, the race riots of 1919 and one of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice when the murder of a young white woman resulted in five more victims – Stephen Miller, John and Ronnie Actie, Yusef Abdullahi and Tony Paris, local men wrongfully imprisoned for the crime by South Wales Police.

So imagine my surprise when I looked around me on Mermaid Quay, day after day, to see predominantly white faces enjoying pizza and jewel-coloured ice cream against that picture postcard backdrop.

The invisible line separating the communities of Butetown from their own waterfront was as subtle as a taser gun. The physical wall separating the area from the upmarket Atlantic Wharf development kept them symbolically segregated.

As a result “The Bay”, a calculated, sanitised rebrand designed to attract investors, couldn’t be less representative of the city’s cultural richness if it tried. But that was the point. It was cynically designed not to be.

The ghetto-isation of the people on whose ancestors’ blood, sweat and toil the docks were built, to me, remains a stain on the city’s conscience. In a city that has always been a patchwork quilt, there was profit in passing it off as a starched cotton tablecloth.

To this day, there isn’t one museum dedicated to the people that helped build Cardiff into a thriving international centre of maritime trade. Go figure.

Fast forward 17 years, and it’s the beginning of lockdown in the city. I’m walking in a fairly empty local park, gulping fresh air and a micro-freedom. So is a teenage boy, who happens to be black. Two police officers appear. Guess which one of us is stopped.

Later, in Gwynedd, a swastika is daubed on a black family’s garage door as they sleep.

Ethnic minorities die disproportionately from COVID-19 and the UK Government’s report feels as heavily redacted as the JFK files. It repeats what the numbers already told us. But it censors the why. It speaks nothing of over-concentrated poverty, poor health, low-paid work, or of institutional racism.

But you know, at least police in the UK aren’t killing black men and women, right?

You might want to ask the families of Derek Bennett, Azelle Rodney, Sean Rigg, Olaseni Lewis, Kingsley Burrell, Mark Duggan, Jermaine Baker and Dalian Atkinson about that.

Over the Bristol channel, a statue of a slave trader is torn down. In Cardiff, I’m proud to say mayor Dan De’Ath ensures our equivalent – a marble effigy of slave-owning Sir Thomas Picton – will be removed from City Hall.

The Prime Minister – a man that has described black people as picaninnies with watermelon smiles and likened Muslim women to letterboxes – responds by telling the nation we shouldn’t photoshop our past.

But what of those that seek to photoshop the present?

On Welsh Twitter, it’s depressing (yet unsurprising) when a succession of white people in positions of influence queue up to proclaim that racism isn’t a problem here.

“We’re not America!”. Get back in your box, and be grateful for what you have, they tell the Black Lives Matters protestors between the lines of their lofty 280-character proclamations. Get off your knees! Racism is cancelled!

Let’s put aside the stratospheric arrogance involved in telling minorities that their lived experience is imagined, exaggerated, invented.

Let’s not waste time pondering how people that have never experienced persecution, micro-aggressions, racial slurs and offensive jokes can presume to be an expert on how people who have and do should feel and protest about it.

I suppose we should at least be thankful to them for sparking the conversation.

While it might be more comfortable to pretend we don’t, it’s a conversation we need to have, and keep having. Because the UK, and Wales, is far from innocent where racial discrimination and inequality is concerned.

That whitewashing of the docks extends to all aspects of Welsh life – our workplaces, our institutions, our judicial system and our cultural milieu.

People from a BAME background make up 4.7% of the population, but more than half of the inmates in prisons for young people. A mere 1.6% of police officers and 1% of judges are non-white.

Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped-and-searched by the police than white people, and three times more likely to be arrested. As recently as 2016, BAME young people were more likely to be sentenced to custody than their white counterparts for equivalent crimes. Do we really believe it’s because young black men are disproportionately born bad?

A third of Welsh teachers have witnessed racial bullying in the schoolyard, and since the Brexit referendum there has been a sharp increase in race-based hate crime in Wales.

Our racism might be less lethal, less overt, but to deny it exists is akin to denying gravity.

Officers of the law might not kneel on people’s necks until the breath is wrung out of them, they may not gun them down in the street for traffic offences as often as they do in the US, but we continue to criminalise, incarcerate and discriminate against people of colour in a way that should shame us to our core.

Back in Butetown, again at the start of lockdown, and Mymuna Soleman, a young Muslim woman tired of pervasive and insidious denial of racism in Wales, sets up ‘The Privilege Café’.

Designed as a virtual safe space where people can share their experiences of discrimination, it is soon attended by hundreds of people from across Wales.  Mymuna teaches attendees that white privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard to get where you are, it doesn’t mean you didn’t struggle, it just means your achievements were never impossible.

I and many others listen attentively and learn. It feels like the nucleus of a beginning. A spark.

Someone once told me that having privilege is like wearing a Christmas cracker paper crown. After a while you forget you’re wearing it. As we point at the US in horror, it would do us all good to look in the mirror from time to time.

We have a lot of work to do in Wales before we’re in any position to judge, or tell protestors they have nothing to protest.

We could start by listening.

Further reading

Welsh writer and comedian Esyllt Sears has curated a list of key works, commentaries and resources with a focus on Wales and our troubling past in relation to racism. In it, she shares links to community groups and organisations that would benefit from your support. To explore this list, go to www.twitter.com/esylltmair.

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