Despite a long-established narrative of non-racism in Wales, the reality is that  racism persists and has real consequences, writes Dr Bethan Harries. This awkward truth must be acknowledged if the country is to make real progress in redressing racism and inequalities.

In March this year an All Wales Race Conference was held in Cardiff – the first such event since the Wales Committee Against Racialism Carnival of 1978. At the conference members of both the Welsh Assembly and black activists called upon “we as a family” in Wales to redress racism. And whilst this call to a somewhat folkish familial concept of Wales came from all sides of the debate on the panel – the origin of such talk lie in a far more traditional and white domain that warrants reflection.

The broad challenge remains for Wales to recognise that racism and ethnic inequalities have and still persist. This is made difficult because a narrative of non-racism and tolerance has long been told (see ‘A Tolerant Nation?’ University of Wales Press for an analysis of this). To recognise inequality it is necessary to confront some uncomfortable truths and challenge certain cultural representations.

To understand how these representations have emerged it is in part useful to reflect on Wales’ historical relationship to England and the ways in which cultural and political distinctions have been articulated. Cultural distinctions have been used perhaps most pertinently in discussions over language suppression and linked to cultural representations of the Welsh as barbarous and backward (see for example, BBC (1968), ‘It’s a Barbarous language’). In Wales they have also been employed to shape a distinct political agenda and a cultural identity that is defined as more tolerant and more radical.

Much of the political history of Wales resides in the belief that Wales is not only a place but also ‘a reservoir for certain political and moral values’. There is a deeply ingrained sense that Welsh people are a particular kind of people of moral worth – a sense palpable both inside and outside Wales. In the 1980s in ‘A community of communities’ Plaid Cymru described ‘Wales [as a] home for a set of values…that are poles apart from the repugnant ideology …of Thatcherism’. This was a sentiment popularised through songs such as ‘Yma o hyd’ (Still here) still heard at rugby matches today that describe ‘the English’ and their politics as ‘other’ nearly 20 years before the Welsh assembly government was formed.

The idea of Wales being defined by certain political and moral values is not confined to a nationalism that seeks to carve out a distinct political agenda. It is also invoked more broadly across Wales through concepts such as Y Gwerin which translates literally as ‘folk’ and is a term used to distinguish “the people” of Wales, as a people from and of the land, from an increasing English land-owning class. This term of folkishness is used to suggest a form of innocence and classlessness epitomised by folkish caricatures such as the wild Welsh, the miner and the Welsh mam and so on.

What does all this mean for how race works in Wales? We often think too generally about how race works in Britain. Until the 1990s, racism was largely seen in Wales as being an English problem and a problem for Westminster. One reason for this is because the immigration debates that had emerged so vehemently in England in response to post-war immigration did not have the same impact in Wales because most of Wales’ immigration had preceded this by 50 or more years. However, it is also because in Wales it is the English that have been maintained as the significant other and this in effect has acted as an obstacle to recognising racism and inequalities.

A national narrative of moral worth and radicalism works to conceal the fact that oppressed and oppressor are not mutually exclusive categories. The weight placed on the formation of Welshness through its relation to Englishness implies that to be Welsh, to be one of Y Gwerin, a particular history in Wales must be established which, whilst it varies across Wales, is overwhelmingly white.  In Wales (as elsewhere) we need to examine who is included in the narration of nation and who can make claims to be Welsh that are recognised in a meaningful way.

So when calls to work “as a family” are made as they were at the recent All Wales Race Conference we can be optimistic, but we need to think critically about what that means in practice.