Race has no basis in biological truth. There is no evidence that members of the human race belong to different ‘subspecies’, where particular groups might be thought to exhibit particular attributes.
Yet the cultural myth and social reality of race continue to dominate the way in which we perceive each other, with regard to skin colour and other ethnic markers.
Most importantly, of course, it has been used to divide, dominate, and justify the enslavement, killing and genocide of peoples the world over.
As with other imperial powers, those of us living in the UK are deeply enmeshed in historical relations defined by racism, which we continue to benefit from economically and socially, and which continues to discriminate against different peoples.
Which is why it is difficult if not impossible to construe any incident in relation to race as innocent.
This includes, of course, blackface. It might also be added that given the very particular history of this practice – related to the minstrel shows that were based on the prejudicial stereotyping of black people – the lines are not even particularly blurred.
Because of the history, because of the context, it cannot be dismissed as a bit of fun, but rather can be characterised as an act of racism.
In fairness to those who ‘blacked up’ for the Aberaeron carnival, they have apologised for their actions and they received an understanding response from the Jamaican Bobsled team, who acknowledge that there was no malice intended.
However, this does not exonerate them from blame and neither does it justify others in defending them. They may not have intended to belittle others and to act prejudicially against them, but this, unfortunately, is what happened.
We may defend them for not being racist – not holding to the belief that others are inferior on account of their race – but we must also acknowledge that it isn’t us that gets to decide what is racist and what isn’t, but rather the people who have suffered from such prejudice.
What should be emphasised is the need for not only them, but all of us, to become more educated as to why such acts are perceived as racist.
If people don’t believe that others are inferior because of their skin colour or ethnic markers, then they should want to learn why certain actions suggest this is what they believe – and what we can do to create a society which is no longer structurally racist.
Wales and race
These historical, structural forces that shape our reality in discriminatory ways really should not be too difficult for people in Wales to grasp.
Whilst we have been part of the imperialist project and have perpetuated the same structural racism, we have also been in an in-between state where we have been subject to prejudice because of our ethnic difference and our colonization.
When we object to people mocking our language or telling us to get back down the mines, we do so because this is not a bit of fun or harmless banter; it reflects historical, racial prejudices and the prejudicial socioeconomic structures that have kept many of us in poverty.
I suspect part of the response to this latest incident is borne from being in a part of the world where we don’t actually come face to face with a great deal of explicit racism in our day to day dealings, simply because of the very small number of minorities.
There is a certain amount of being blasé, and a desire to fob off certain acts and speech acts as harmless, perhaps because they are not seen to be directly affecting people (this sort of attitude might also be said to pertain to other issues, such as the now notorious Tommo incident in Llangrannog).
However, this simply emphasises the need for people to take these issues seriously and for people to be educated in schools, for starters (it is especially worrying how little reading of novels now happens, given their key role in informing us about the world and encouraging empathy for others).
One of the more disturbing elements of the Aberaeron incident was that this was a public event where they were given the go ahead, and indeed, there are even reports that they won a prize.
Such a level of crass acquiescence is just unacceptable. And let’s be honest, we can’t palm this off as a case of ignorance from the sticks. This is a very middle-class village in a county with two university towns.
It is pretty amazing that at no point did those involved think to check whether blacking up was appropriate. Superfast broadband may not have reached some parts of Ceredigion, but the internet works well enough to do a simple google search on these issues.
The bigger picture
All that being said, there are other issues to consider here. Those who have been forthright in their condemnation may want to consider whether they have been as quick to speak out against the prejudices expressed about Wales and the Welsh Language in recent weeks.
Whilst we must avoid suggesting any form of equivalence here, it is legitimate to note that prejudice is prejudice, in whatever form it comes in, and Welsh speaking communities in recent weeks have been subject to insidious attacks that have merited a more coordinated response from some of our representatives.
More broadly, however, we must ask ourselves if an incident such as this is surprising in light of recent political events in Wales.
UKIP’s toxic, neo-fascist, often racist politics met with little moral opposition from rival politicians, the media, or our country’s spiritual leaders.
If they have been given such an easy ride and have been so readily accepted into the political establishment, can we really be surprised, and should we be expending our energies on an incident like this?
There are much bigger issues here than the action of a few thoughtless people and careless individuals.
We should be asking ourselves as a nation how we got to this situation, and despite the often shining example set by some of our people, whether we must accept we are just as ignorant, intolerant and gullible with respect to racism as other cultures we presume to look down upon.
Given our own past as both the colonized and colonizers, given our place in the world and our own efforts to sustain a minority culture in the face of age old challenges, we should be well placed to take a lead on these issues.
We should be facing down prejudice – rather than becoming a nation of apologists for racism.