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Opinion

Unseen: Young, Black and Welsh

12 Oct 2022 6 minute read
Photo by nathelly_cris from Pixabay

Shakira Morka

Despite completing 15 years of Welsh medium education, despite being born and raised in Swansea and despite speaking fluent Welsh, I usually receive a shocked reaction when I speak the language. And despite attempts to dismiss these experiences, I have become painfully aware of how I am seen, or more accurately not seen as a Black, Welsh speaking person.

Attending a 98% white school and facing almost daily torment ranging from smaller micro aggressions, such as touching my hair, to harsh and overt racism, such as racial slurs, meant I never felt truly accepted within the Welsh community.

One of my earliest memories was having my skin colour compared to poo and mud at the age of five. Little did I know that this was only the beginning, shaping the idea that I will never be ‘Welsh’ enough simply because of the colour of my skin.

This caused a strange confusion for me growing up as a mixed Welsh-Nigerian person. The dichotomy of looking “more Black” yet having a better understanding of my Welsh over Nigerian heritage has left me feeling isolated at times.

In my experience the lack of diversity within Welsh language schools combined with a curriculum that prioritises the needs of its white students has damaging effects on its few Black students.

My conversation with Professor Charlotte Williams, chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities, Contributions and Cynefin in the New Curriculum Working Group, only reinforced this.

She said that failure in representing the history of BAME people directly leads to reduced academic attainment in these groups.

Oppression

This reduced academic attainment, due to lower self-esteem and interest, perpetuates other forms of oppression, such as classism which affects the most vulnerable members of society.

Her work in changing the curriculum, beginning in 2020, has meant that children across Wales are being given access to the entirety of our country’s rich history.

Failure to include BAME history also affects white children’s attainment as she stated: “The majority white child being denied to have their curriculum, their thinking, enriched by diversity”.

This reduction in attainment and opportunity is perhaps best represented by my 16-year old sister’s experience. Growing up, she was passionate about history, and decided to take it as one of her GCSE options, yet she eventually dropped the subject due to the inappropriate trivialisation of Black history in her teaching.

Yet this is only a small example of the frequent racism she faced. Her hair is now damaged from daily straightening due to pupils mocking its texture. She has suffered significant mental health effects from years of racial abuse. This eventually forced her to leave her Welsh language secondary and head to an English college.

She implied that the solution is multi-layered but a key part lies within changing curriculum and educating students. She also highlighted the thin line between patriotism and racism stating: “They’re very proud of being Welsh but then that pride can turn into hatred for anyone that isn’t Welsh”.

This occasionally misguided “patriotism” may stem from Wales’ own position as a formerly oppressed nation. Perhaps the most notable example that permeates our history is Tryweryn, the Welsh village infamously and purposefully drowned to supply Liverpool with water in 1965 despite push back from Welsh locals and government.

Hypocrisy

Yet there is a strange hypocrisy: the Welsh themselves have been oppressed, yet Welsh language institutions continue to reinforce this attitude towards ethnic minority groups who arguably face more severe, racialised discrimination.

Despite the fact that black Welsh speakers have been documented as back as the 18th century and perhaps earlier, there is still a perception that Welsh is an inherently “white” language and in turn Wales is an inherently white county.

This issue is systemic and embedded within the education system, our media and cultural events. This is evidenced by a lack of prominent Black Welsh role models. The Education Workforce Council found that currently only 7 of a total of 3,443 serving headteachers/executive headteachers are from minority ethnic backgrounds, none of which are Black.

Yet there is some evidence of change. Following the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021, S4C, the national Welsh language television channel announced a commitment to increase the amount of BAME backgrounds on screen. Additionally, the number of ethnic minority teachers is growing annually.

So what are the implications for the current generation and those to come? The Arts Council of Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru commissioned The Arts Anti-Racist Union to look into their inclusion efforts. Unsurprisingly they found that both organisations hadn’t done enough to engage with people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

They cited current Welsh language policies in the organisations’ applications processes as part of the problem. Of course, it’s difficult to argue that the language itself is racist, but the current environment of Welsh language spaces certainly contributes to the lack of Welsh speakers from these backgrounds.

Diverse

Nia Adere, a 20 year old student who attended Welsh Language schools in Swansea said her former schools are becoming more diverse annually. She spoke of her younger sister, age 10, who has more ethnic minority pupils in her year in comparison to her own, which contributes to a more welcoming environment.

This is reflected by the wider trend across all schools in Wales with 12% of students over 5 being from ethnic minority backgrounds. Despite this her sister still continues to face racism, showing that increased diversity alone, without acknowledging Black history is simply not enough.

This also brings discussion about the future of Welsh culture, as our world is rapidly becoming more multicultural, more multilingual and will be even more so in 2052. Traditional Welsh culture can be preserved without denying a safe space for its ethnic minority members.

For example, Tiger Bay in Cardiff, which houses Somali communities, was one of the first places Black people lived in the UK, and so failure to include these stories means that Welsh history is simply incomplete.

I asked Charlotte about the inclusion of the word ‘Cynefin’ in the title of the New Curriculum Working Group, which seems to contradict the narrative that the Welsh language is exclusionary. She said ‘cynefin’ which means habitat in Welsh is an idea that can be “challenged as well as subscribed to”.

That it is not exclusive to those who are ethnically Welsh but instead encompasses the full history of Wales, which includes its Black members. This shines a light on a future with a curriculum which represents a better, more inclusive Wales.

Shakira Morka is one of the participants in GALWAD’s People’s Newsroom.

GALWAD is part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, co-commissioned with Creative Wales with funding from Welsh Government and UK Government galwad.cymru


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Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
1 month ago

When we allow exclusions in Histotry lessons, when we think of culture as something that is unchanging, when we behave as the oppressor behaved towards us in our interactions with others, when we believe that we are superior to others, when we create atmospheres unpleasant to human beings, we must forget about Cymryu, remind ourselves that there is no point in the struggle for independence, for when we are as above stated then we are nought but a shire of a country that has only spat in our eyes and abused this land we call home. When we display the… Read more »

Alwyn
Alwyn
1 month ago

Diolch am y sylwadau Shakira, ac mae’n flin gen i glywed am eich profiadau negyddol. Ond gwerthfawrogaf y ffaith eich bod yn cydnabod y ddeuoliaeth a welir yn agweddau Cymry Cymraeg sydd heb arfer ystyried rhywun du yn Gymraes Cymraeg. Tra gwahanol oedd profiad fy nghwaig sydd bellach yn 80 a thyfu i fyny ym Mangor yn ferch o dras cymysg. Roedd hi bob amser yn cael ei hystyried yn Gymraes, er lliw tywyllach ei chroen,ac enw ‘dieithr’. Ni ystyriai hi ei bod hithau a’i chwaer wedi cael ei heithrio; i’r gwrthwyneb yn wir. Ond efallai mai rhesymoli pethau oedd… Read more »

John
1 month ago

So sad. We can be better.

Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
1 month ago

I accept that you are correct in everything that you say Shakira. We must be better than we are. This is irrespective of the situation on the wrong side of the border. WE must be better.
I will not stand with bigots just because they were born within the same national borders as me. A Cymru that is not inclusive is not a Cymru worth existing. AUOB means ALL Under One Banner. Not SOME

Dai Rob
Dai Rob
1 month ago

Black girl from Swansea.
White boy from Port Talbot.
As Welsh as me. (plus I’m wel Jel of your Cymraeg skills!!)
Simple.
Not hard to understand. What’s wrong with some people!!!

Pascal Lafargue
Pascal Lafargue
1 month ago

This is a very interesting (and quite sad) testimony. I had always seen Wales and the Welsh speaking community as very open minded, (I still think it is generally true). After all, there have never been any Welsh far right political parties nor groups, like the BNP, EDL in England. But I now understand that things are a bit more complicated… I think however that the situation is changing, thanks to talented and cool young people like Mel, Mal a Jal, Toda Ogunbanwo, Kizzy Crawford etc. You are part of this new world we need to build, without sexism, without… Read more »

DevinPugh
DevinPugh
1 month ago

There are Welsh far right organisations. In fact the far right have quite a presence in Wales and it’s not only English migrants.

Pascal Lafargue
Pascal Lafargue
1 month ago
Reply to  DevinPugh

Yes, I have heard about ‘Gwlad’ afterwards… But they seem to be insignifiant.

Arwyn
Arwyn
1 month ago

It often takes a proactive and warm arm around the shoulder to include a person who feels left out of the group. That small effort, that simple kindness can make all the difference to a person. What a waste to exclude people from the community that is Wales. There are communities within Wales who struggle to find their voice or to be visible within the traditional structures we have. It is up to all of us to extend a hand in friendship and make sure our spaces are open to all.

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