Opinion

No, Welsh language requirements do not exclude people of colour

23 Aug 2021 6 minutes Read
National Museum of Wales, one of the two institutions that commissioned the report. Picture by Ham II (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Adam Pearce

It seems unlikely that the authors of a recent report jointly commissioned by the Welsh Arts Council and the National Museum of Wales into their treatment of people of colour realised that it would make headlines in the Daily Mail, Express or Telegraph.

I do not know enough personally about the inner workings of either organisation to comment on the broad thrust of the report – except to say that it would be no surprise whatsoever to learn that there are shortcomings in both – and I see no reason to doubt their overall conclusions. People of colour, as well as their stories, are poorly represented by our arts and heritage sectors for a variety of social and historical reasons which it is absolutely right and crucial that we address.

However, I take issue with the claim (more implicit than explicit in the report itself, it must be said) that Welsh language requirements, especially on job vacancies, exclude people of colour. This claim is not only false, it is also extremely dangerous and pernicious, and needs to be decisively refuted.

This claim – for which the report itself offers no evidence – appears to be based on the assumption that few or no people of colour speak Welsh. This misconception is not just outright wrong historically (as brilliantly explored by Simon Brooks in his recent book Hanes Cymry) but is itself offensive, treating Welsh speakers of colour as if they do not exist – something which has understandably led to many frustrated comments on social media by Welsh speakers of colour. It would be interesting to know whether the authors of the report spoke to any of this group as a part of their research.

The reality is that, of course, there are Welsh speakers of colour – thousands of them. This will not be a surprise to anyone who’s ever watched S4C or seen the intake of a typical Welsh medium school, however, it’s reflected in the official statistics too: according to the 2011 census, 2% of Welsh speakers recorded an ethnicity other than white (over ten thousand individuals). To put this another way, approximately 25% of Welsh-born people of colour – a comparable figure to the overall average of people born in Wales that can speak welsh.

Of course, a much smaller percentage of those born outside Wales can speak Welsh, and as this group makes up a much bigger proportion of non-white communities, a smaller proportion of Welsh speakers are people of colour (2%) than the proportion in the general population (4.4%).

This should be no surprise, given that there are vanishingly few opportunitities to learn Welsh outside Wales, compared to English. Nonetheless, it bears repeating: a person of colour born in Wales is about as likely to speak Welsh as a white person born in Wales.

Conflict

One can only hope that both organisations will choose to disregard this unfortunate aspect of the reports, which I’m certain will have otherwise identified genuine problems with representation and inclusion in both orgaisations.

Whatever happens, however, in some respects the damage is already done: this report has now set an uncomfortable precedent in needlessly placing the cause of the Welsh at odds with broader notions of Equality and Diversity. Anyone naive enough to think otherwise need only look at the way the right-wing press – those famous champions of cultural and social inclusion – gleefully (and, one suspects, deliberately) misreported the story: “Welsh language is racist and ‘excludes minorities’“ ran the Daily Mail; “Welsh language use ‘systemically racist’, Arts Council warned” ran the Telegraph.

It shouldn’t need pointing out that neither publication cares about minorities: they are simply licking their lips at the sight of two of the things they hate most – the Welsh language and social justice – being pitted against each other. The report in fact claimed neither of these things about the Welsh language itself, but by bringing it into the debate it was simply inevitable that it would be framed in this way.

Sadly, this argument is likely to be a self-reinforcing one, and is a new version of an idea that has long been peddled in Wales: that Welsh is inherently insular, closed-minded – and the unstated corollary that English is the outward-looking language of progress (for a detailed deconstruction of this idea we are indebted once again to Simon Brooks, and his book Pam Na Fu Cymru).

There is an echo here of another much older report, that of the Commissioners of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales back in 1847, better known of course as the Blue Books. That infamous document invented a conflict between Welsh and education, this new report creates one between Welsh and social justice.

The Millennium Centre, home of the Arts Council of Wales

Interact

In reality, the commonalities of experience between Welsh speakers and other minorities everywhere should make us all allies in the shared goal of a diverse, inclusive society where everyone is free to live their lives within their own identities, rather than under the hegemony of a majority – whether that is language or race.

There is no conflict between Welsh and social justice other than that which is imagined by those who fail to see that language rights and language equality are just other strands of the equality we are all striving for.

Welsh is our national language and it is only right and proper to expect that it is at the forefront of the provision of our national institutions. As a Welsh speaker, one of my favourite things about visiting our national museum sites is the knowledge that even in the south, you can count on the staff being able to speak Welsh. Except for schools or occasional events like the Eisteddfod, it is one of the few spaces outside y Fro Gymraeg where this is the case.

Thus, as well as being a vital space for all Welsh speakers, rather than excluding minorities, our museums and art sectors are some of the most important places where the Welsh language is able to engage and interact with those exact same people of colour that, we are told, it is excluding.

To see that dismantled in the name of inclusion would be a misfortune whose tragedy would be exceeded only by its irony.

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