I am proud of how so many people in my town in rural West Wales have rallied around the Black Lives Matter protests. Fighting for civil rights brings out the very best in some people. Activism has taken the form of marches, protests in towns, petitions, and a plethora of informative Twitter threads, online videos, and shared educational posts. Many people across Wales have been active in their support, as everyone should be.
However, as with any civil rights movement, there are some humans who display very little humanity as they condemn BLM and everything the movement stands for, even when this is done unwittingly. Entrenched, narrow-minded views permeate the mindsets of so many people in smaller, rural, Welsh communities around where I live and beyond. The fact that people feel compelled to criticise a movement with its foundations in equality makes it very clear that perspectives need to be changed. And it is the Welsh school system that lies at the heart of the problem. A complete overhaul of the curriculum we are taught in schools has never been so necessary; if we don’t know where we’re going wrong in what we’re saying and doing, we can’t bring about the radical change that is needed.
Over the centuries, the British government has consistently neglected and suppressed Welsh identities. In the mid-19th century, Welsh was demoted to the language of the crass and the uneducated by the British government in Wales’ schools. To improve pupils’ knowledge of English (considered the language of the educated middle class), some schools in Wales employed the ‘Welsh Not’ system. The ‘Welsh Not’ was a piece of wood on a string (often etched with W.N. or ‘Welsh Not’) given to a child who spoke Welsh in school to wear around the neck to dissuade children from speaking their native tongue. At the end of the school day or week, the child wearing the ‘Welsh Not’ would be punished, often with a beating. Though not in place in all schools, and not official government policy, its use was prevalent enough to be considered convention in the late Victorian era. To this day, remnants of the idea of the superiority of the English language persist.
The oppression experienced in Wales by the English is not solely confined to the Welsh language, nor is it confined to 19th century schools. Capel Celyn, a small rural community in the Tryweryn valley in North Wales, was flooded in 1965 to provide the city of Liverpool with water for industry. In displacing the residents of Capel Celyn, the flooding displaced an important, traditional, solely Welsh-speaking community. Forcing the residents to relocate undermined the value of the Welsh language and its heritage and subordinated the small community as well to the needs and whims of the larger nearby English city. This happened despite 35 of the 36 Welsh then-MPs voting against it (the 36th did not vote). The fact that Parliament directly opposed and overturned an effectively unanimous Welsh-MP decision not to flood the valley has become a national disgrace, and when it happened back in the tumultuous 1960s, it paved the way for the advancement of the fight for Welsh devolution. Today, there is a mural on a ruined old stone wall in Ceredigion, West Wales, stating ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn). The mural’s overtly political overtones mean that it has been subject to multiple instances of vandalism. In 2008, the words were altered to ‘Angofiwch Dryweryn’ (spelt incorrectly, but meaning ‘Forget Tryweryn’). It was daubed over in black paint and covered by the word ‘Elvis’ in February 2019. In April 2019 it was partly demolished. These are only a few examples of such instances. Each time, it has been repainted and rebuilt to retain its original form and message, to remind those who see and hear of it of the injustice suffered.
However, on the 30th June 2020, the mural was vandalised with a swastika and a white power symbol painted over the motto.
Undeniably a response to the international BLM protests, a vandal saw fit to denounce the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ motto, itself a reminder of historical injustice, with symbols pertaining to racial supremacy and domination. It is an inherently paradoxical act which Elin Jones, Ceredigion’s Member of the Welsh Senedd (the Welsh Parliament), described very well as ‘disgusting’, ‘sinister and dangerous’.
This is not an isolated event concerning race. Prior to the defacing of the mural, a black family living in North Wales suffered racial abuse in the form of a swastika painted on their garage door. Since moving to the area 13 years ago, Margaret Ogunbanwo and her family have been subject to racial hatred in the form of damage to their property – a window in their house has been smashed and their car keyed.
In a similar vein, a café in my town of Cardigan (in Ceredigion, West Wales – south of the mural) came under fire on social media for displaying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Mae Bywydau Du o Bwys’ (the Welsh translation) posters in their window. The owners have defended their stance against numerous locals who state that they will not visit the café again as a result of its public display of support for BLM. The majority of the social media condemnation of the business is based on the misunderstanding that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement undermines the value of all other lives. This is the fundamentally flawed argument behind the trending hashtag ‘All Lives Matter’.
But where humanity has shown its very worst, there have also been positives. Protests and marches have been held in the very same towns and villages that have witnessed racial hatred. Margaret Ogunbanwo’s business was flooded with orders as people showed support following her family’s ordeal. Similarly, in Cardigan, the café has been inundated with positive messages of support. However, instead of positive reactions to incidents of hate, we should be quelling these instances in the first place. Racism is so entrenched in our societies that we don’t realise that acts of racial hatred shouldn’t have to happen in order for the subsequent positives to manifest.
Wales is less ethnically diverse than any area or region in England as per the 2011 census. The smaller population and lower percentage of ethnic minorities as a fraction of the whole population drove the ONS to draft the original 2021 census with no option to tick Welsh & Black or Welsh & Minority Ethnic backgrounds; those identifying as both Welsh and BAME would have had to choose ‘British’ as their nationality because Welsh was only paired with white ethnicity. This has now been changed, but small acts like this, undermining the identities of BAME individuals, contribute to perpetuating systemic and covert racism in Wales.
The education system merely facilitates this erasure as it lacks any depth in matters of racial diversity, past or present. Parts of the Welsh curriculum within individual subjects address racial issues in America, for example, but these are always historic references. Coupled with the low racial diversity, this means that it is very easy for Welsh communities to announce that ‘there is no racism in Wales’ simply because they are not directly faced with it every day. This is not, of course, confined to Wales, but applies to any country or community where there is little racial diversity. In such circumstances, it is easy to proclaim that ‘I am not racist’ when, in reality, that proclamation is rarely tested. It’s a misconception that racism doesn’t exist in these instances, and if we look hard enough through the white veil under which we are taught in school, we must accept that we are complicit in covert and systemic ways.
Cardiff’s bay area, now named ‘Mermaid Quay’ was rebranded from the previous ‘Tiger Bay’ as part of the area’s redevelopment and gentrification at the turn of the millennium. According to a Wales Online article, ‘Tiger Bay was… a symbol of racial, ethnic, religious and ecumenical harmony’. Cardiff is home to nearly half of Wales’ BAME population, but its recent rebranding has stripped the area of its multicultural heritage and history. Its population had been so diverse because Cardiff’s docklands welcomed an influx of immigrants in the 1950s to support the coal-works and the active port. When the docklands became derelict as coal trade diminished, systemic and entrenched racism did not allow for the retraining of Tiger Bay’s ethnic residents into other lucrative job sectors; instead, ethnic minorities were pushed out as part of its rebranding. The gentrification of the entire area attracted mostly white residents and visitors at the expense of its historically diverse communities as house prices rose beyond what the previous communities were able to afford. To this day, this gentrification continues, resulting in a mass scattering of BAME groups in Cardiff from the areas in which they historically settled and made a living. After the coal trade slumped, it’s undeniable that the area was crying out for redevelopment; its old, empty warehouses were ugly, derelict reminders of its former booming industry. But in the redevelopment plans, there was no parallel desire to better the lives of the multicultural population already living there. Instead, a rich and white population was enticed to move in, displacing the previous residents that had kept Tiger Bay booming in its heyday.
We aren’t reminded of this every day because we don’t learn about it in school. White people aren’t reminded of it because they aren’t living its ruthless reality. And so long as predominantly white Welsh communities remain unaware and uninformed of the realities of the past and present, these racial injustices will continue to fly under the radar. This is especially the case if, like in cases of Tiger Bay’s gentrification, the racially charged changes are creeping and covert rather than overt abuse and violence.
The swastika and the white power symbol were swiftly removed from the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ mural, with the repainted motto restored to its original glory, serving as a reminder of the injustice served to the rural community of Capel Celyn. However, it is not so easy to wipe away the racism prevalent in many Welsh communities. Pressure washing painted slurs off a mural is one thing; dismantling years of prejudice and lack of awareness of systemic racism is quite another. Whenever I see the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ mural, it instils in me a nationalistic anger – an anger derived from years of historic injustice served to the Welsh. After its being vandalised with a swastika and a symbol of white power, I will now be doubly enraged whenever I see it. ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ will always remind me of injustice done to the Welsh community of Capel Celyn by Liverpool County Council. However, the mural and its message will now also remind me of the innumerable injustices served to black communities. The prejudices and hatred towards black communities and individuals are ones which the systems by which we live can all-too-easily perpetuate and repeat.
Our education system needs to change to reflect the fact that Wales has played its part in being complicit and active in perpetuating racism. When we discuss Patagonia, the Welsh colony in Argentina, it is with wonder and delight at there being another Welsh-speaking area in the world other than Wales itself. Because Welsh is a minority language, this is something to be celebrated. But we often don’t consider why Welsh is spoken by Patagonians. We don’t learn about the Welsh as colonisers, and we actively avoid the word ‘colonialism’; we learn of the ‘settlement’ in Patagonia as peaceful, virtuous and legitimate. We forget that ‘peaceful’ colonialism is still colonialism. What Lucy Taylor calls the ‘myth of friendship’ between the Welsh and the Patagonians glosses over the realities of how colonialism limits the livelihoods of those being colonised. Just because the Welsh have been oppressed by the English does not mean that the Welsh cannot actively and indirectly promote oppression over others. In light of current events, in light of current atrocities, and in light of past truths that have resurfaced, we would be wise to remember this.
Plaid Cymru has highlighted in the Senedd that education on Welsh and BAME history should be a compulsory part of the new curriculum being introduced in Wales, rather than subjects that can be taught at the discretion of individual teachers and schools. Teaching future generations about BAME history, and the systemic racism of Wales and Britain, is even more fundamental given the report commissioned by the Welsh Government examining the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the BAME communities. The report suggested including BAME and Commonwealth history in the new National Curriculum for Wales in 2022 for primary and secondary students to promote anti-racist behaviour and attitudes and encourage cultural understanding. A comprehensive study of the history of BAME communities and the Commonwealth in schools among the younger generations will go a long way in dismantling the structural racism in which white Welsh communities are complicit. Plaid Cymru’s argument is that Welsh and BAME history must be made compulsory because leaving the specifics of the teaching to the discretion of teachers and schools means that not every pupil will be able to learn about matters essential to shaping understanding citizens, essential to the makeup of a fair and equal society.
Welsh history goes beyond Wales being a part of Britain. We should think of Wales as a nation that has been oppressed, and as a nation that has oppressed. In the future, it should be neither of these things. Remembering Tryweryn and remembering Tiger Bay are not mutually exclusive. We shouldn’t make a choice to remember one; rather, we should remember both. Changing the course of history is impossible if we don’t acknowledge what we did wrongly in the past. A push to implement educational inclusivity and diversity in Welsh classrooms is the first step needed to dismantle narrow-minded views within our communities.
(Image rights: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61744436 by Dafydd Tomos)
 (“Drowned Tryweryn village slogan replaced by Elvis”. BBC. BBC News. 3 February 2019.)
 Lucy Taylor (2019) The Welsh Way of Colonisation in Patagonia: The International Politics of Moral Superiority, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47:6, 1073-1099