We need to have a serious conversation about race in Wales
Neil McEvoy, AM for South Wales Central
I was four years old when I asked my mum what a Paki was. It was another kid who called me it, while attacking me in the street. Amazingly, he was the same age as me and had already picked up racist language like that from the people around him.
That kind of abuse didn’t stop throughout my time at school.
Moving to France to learn French, after I left school, was the hardest. France has still not come to terms with its appalling occupation of Algeria. So being part-Arab there was a real problem.
Countless times I was turned away from vacant accommodation I wanted to rent. There was always a question about my nationality, followed by an excuse. I was turned away from night spots, being told “we don’t let people like you in”. There was the time I was walking with my white girlfriend in Nancy, in north east France, and got chased by three racists. They pulled up with their car, called me a “dirty Arab bastard” and my girlfriend a “fucking slut”, who shouldn’t be going with an Arab. On a quick risk assessment in my head, the three together looked too menacing to fight; they wanted to do serious harm. We had no option but to run and hide in an alleyway. They almost found us and we listened to them describe how they would beat me senseless and then kidnap and rape my girlfriend. Luckily, they didn’t walk around that corner to find us.
My back of the bus moment was on a train from Paris to Nancy. I was with my mother, who had come to visit me. I watched as the ticket conductor walked down the carriage and calmly inspected everyone’s ticket. When he came to us, he took my ticket and demanded to see my ID, without even speaking to me first. I explained, in French, that I was a UK citizen, born in Wales. But he kept going, demanding ID. It was the first time I heard the term “en colère”, which means “in a rage”. And I was. I was so angry to be picked on because of my race. Eventually, he threw my ticket back at me and walked away.
Then there was the teaching interview in Wales. I was the only candidate in the waiting room asked to have a cup of tea with the head teacher, after she’d had a look at us. I thought it was a good sign. But she then grilled me on my ethnicity, wanting to know where I was “really” from. She named every nationality under the sun; Greek, Italian, Spanish. I told her I was part Arab. She said “oh! There’s nice”. I didn’t have time to finish my cup of tea, because my pre-interview interview was over. I didn’t get the job.
There was also the time I was on a stag do in Tenby and walked into a pub. After a short time, I was called a “Paki bastard” and told to leave.
At a pub in Pontypridd I was once asked my religion. When I said I was Catholic they told me I was a liar because I was a “fucking Muslim”. In the same pub, on a different occasion, I had a knife pulled on me by someone who told me I was a “fucking coon” who shouldn’t be drinking in “his” pub. He backed down after I lifted a glass to defend myself.
Learning Welsh only provided even more opportunities to be discriminated against. I was once banned from Walkabout in Cardiff, when the manager took exception to me speaking my newly acquired Welsh in front of him. I was told to speak English. The ejection from the club was the most revealing. As I was flying through the air, the words, “ you are banned you Paki bastard” rang in my ears. On that occasion, I went to the police to make a complaint. I was told I would be investigated for the hate crime of racism made by the Australian manager, if I wanted to take it further. I kid you not! On that occasion, I made the wrong choice of letting it go.
And this summer on Queen Street in Cardiff I heard people singing “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack so get the bastards out”. I wasn’t sure if they were singing about me, since I don’t have African heritage. When I turned to look at them though, they said “yes you, you black bastard!” I confronted them, asked them what they meant and said “Union Jack is it boys? It’s a good job we’ve got a Welsh flag then isn’t it?” They had no response to that.
In politics the racism has always been there. When I used to attend Riverside Labour Party meetings, people would snigger when a member with a Caribbean accent spoke. The same thing happened to a member with a Bangladeshi accent. It wasn’t long until I was the only non-white person attending those meetings.
The same thing has been going on in the National Assembly too. Mohammad Asghar has spoken to me about the laughing he hears when he speaks in the Assembly. I wrote to the Presiding Officer about it. The Presiding Officer did not deny it happens, but did not see it as a major issue. The sniggering stopped so something must have been done behind the scenes, though it returned this week.
Given all this, it’s fair to say that I am sensitive about my race and background. I’m a working-class class guy from an estate in Fairwater with Irish, Catholic, Arab and Muslim heritage. These are some of the most persecuted groups there have been on these Islands in recent times. I’m more than aware that “people like me” do not often get in to their national parliament. I’ve done it by working hard at this, practically every day, for decades.
So when I was mocked by some kids – all white – on their meme page last week for being too “common” to be their ‘royalty’, in fact more than that, “just a common bitch”, it really bothered me. Yes it was a stupid meme, designed to be insulting, and aimed at a committed republican anyway. But something about the way it was done crossed a line for me and my immediate reaction was ‘this is racist!’. Having reflected on it, I think that even more so.
Here we had young white people mocking the only Welsh-born person with a BME background who’s ever been elected to the Assembly. Not just mocking me, but mocking me as too common for them.
And they were doing it using the images and language of black people. These kids aren’t black, but they seem to express themselves very frequently through black language and images. This is a phenomenon known as digital blackfacing. This only added to my feelings of racism. The images and language used in digital blackfacing don’t seem to be positive representations of people of colour, but confirm prejudices and stereotypes of being excessive, loud, emotional or aggressive.
One reaction post in particular bothered me. Another white person, using a black image and language to state “oh the shade of it all”. In the context, the word ‘shade’ was really jarring, given I felt there was a racist undertone to the meme and possibly a plausibly deniable double entendre. There was no shade being thrown anyway. This was as direct an insult and attack as there’s possible to be.
Lauren Michele Jackson has written about the problems of white people ‘playacting blackness’ and specifically mentions ‘recruiting images of black queer men to throw shade at one’s enemies’. She goes on to say: ‘No matter how brief the performance or playful the intent, summoning black images to play types means pirouetting on over 150 years of American blackface tradition.’ So it’s not like I’m the first person to have this thought.
To his credit, the person deleted the shade comment and messaged me about how people from different backgrounds might perceive language. But the page owners themselves have chosen to just insult me even more and dismissively refer to the whole episode as ‘shade-gate’. They boast about how many extra followers it’s got them. From most other supporters of the page that posted the meme, the backlash since has been extreme.
These guys would show a “red card to racism” all day long, until it’s me calling it out. Then those same people told me I was overreacting, I had got it wrong or was just “playing the race card” to discredit the people who posted the meme. These people who have not lived with racism suddenly became experts on what is and is not racist. They couldn’t see how it could be problematic for white people to use non-white language and images in order to mock a person of colour as too common for them.
As the backlash went on, the usual tropes of people of colour being too aggressive or emotional were used. I was told I should lighten up, learn to take a joke. It’s the exact same way far right Dutch people justify Black Pete, or Spanish people justify blacking up for Three Kings Day. Others claimed I was trying to make it so it’s only possible to make fun of white people and at one point an Orangeman from the north of Ireland joined in the attacks, accusing me of being a social justice warrior.
That does make a change from the usual attacks accusing against me of being a Trump and/or Tommy Robinson-style populist demagogue. Those labels come because I’ve spent time as an AM championing causes that are not acceptable to the polite society of Cardiff Bay. That includes the lack of support for male victims of domestic abuse and endemic suicide amongst young men. I have also spoken about the way poorer white communities are completely overlooked and called for it to stop. Men and white people are not meant to complain and so speaking about this causes problems for me. But speaking about race however, when you’re part-Arab, clearly does too. It’s probably the most unpopular thing I’ve ever done.
After the backlash, I obviously approached some people of colour for their opinion. There really aren’t many options in Welsh public life so I had to go to people I knew. Not all of them thought the post was racist but they did think the reaction was. They pointed out how it looked like people were much more concerned with being seen as not racist than actually being not racist, and so they smelt bigotry. And it was noted how quickly I was accused of “playing the race card”, a favoured tactic of turning the victim of racism into the accused.
Others I spoke to were certain that the post was racist. I was even told how they’d been advised against sending their children to Welsh language school by other people of colour. The reason for that was because “look at how they treat McEvoy. They’ll never accept us”.
There was no news story for me about my race when I was elected. After twenty years of devolution, I’m still the only Welsh-born BME politician to be elected to the Assembly. After two decades we’re still waiting for our first woman of colour to be elected and three out of the five political parties in the Assembly have exclusively white AMs.
But even though there was no public acknowledgement of my election, it didn’t go unnoticed. When I walked into Alice Street Mosque in Butetown for the first time after I got in, one of the elders said to me “Welcome home. Where have you been?” My answer was “Fairwater.” We all laughed. But they remembered stories of my Yemeni Grandfather and my Mother from when they lived and worked in the Docks and Tiger Bay. I addressed hundreds of people in the Mosque at the end of Friday prayers and many came to me and said how proud they were to have someone from the Yemeni community in the National Assembly for the first time. My election meant something to them.
But the thing is, I really felt like I came home in 2003 when I joined Plaid Cymru and the national movement. People were so welcoming and we started to achieve great things. In 2004 we won seats in Riverside, one of the most diverse areas in Wales. In 2008 we won all the seats in Riverside and Fairwater, a more working class area, as well as more rural Creigiau & St Fagans. We started running the Council that year too. In 2016 we came within 1,000 votes of beating the now First Minister in Cardiff West. We also won our first seat in Grangetown, again one of Wales’ most multicultural wards. We were starting to appeal to people from all different backgrounds.
But something has changed in the last couple of years. There’s a lot of hate around now. Hate is not going to get us to where we need to be. The people from the meme page themselves have written to tell me that they despise and hate me. They then, without irony, launched a fundraiser for Hope Not Hate. After three days, two people had donated a total of £30.
Quoting Martin Luther King at this stage is appropriate. When I was reading about these people’s hate I couldn’t forget this line: “I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councillors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” I’ve seen that hate ever since that 4 year old boy first attacked me. But we all love Wales and we need to remember that. We have more in common than divides us.
I didn’t really want to have to write all this, but I feel I have a duty to speak to so many people who have lived and live lives like mine. Their children also live those lives.
Since being elected to the Assembly, I have taken my job of holding the Government to account extremely seriously. I made a conscious effort to knuckle down and just work hard. I fought against mud from outside a nuclear reactor from being dumped in Wales and brought global attention to the issue. I led on bringing Safia Saleh back from the Yemen after she was abducted in the ‘80s, but I wonder what Wales she will be coming to.
When I’m attacked in a completely unprovoked way that felt racist, I have to respond. I always have.
There was just something in this post I could not let pass. People who have criticised me in the past did back me up and see the racism that was going on. I’d like to thank those people, they know who they are.
I just hope this doesn’t happen again. When you’re a minority you can have anxieties about being excluded and being targeted; that people like us won’t be allowed in or accepted. So for a meme page from the national movement to tell a politician from a minority background that they can’t be something they want to be because they’re just a common bitch is just not on. It’s not on to tell anyone that.
Overall, I think we all need to have a serious conversation about race in Wales.
You can read the response to Neil McEvoy’s prior complaint on the Facebook page Fiery Welsh Memes for Feisty Independent Dreams here.