Despite protestations to the contrary, the structural imbalance of the Welsh public sphere can easily lead to situations where even a simple misunderstanding can reinforce some of the worst tropes latent in our collective culture. People of colour considered to have too much righteous energy for their own good and consequently having to qualify their right to Welshness; a moral panic about virtue-signaling lefties; Anglophones portrayed as being totally ignorant about a language that in actuality exists all around them.
The story goes like this: a Black Lives Matter protest was due to take place to object to the connotations of a certain street name. Some noticed this protest and misconstrued it as an accidental attack on another marginalised culture. As it turned out, the whole situation was largely built on a misunderstanding deriving from what appears to be little more than an administrative error by the local council – essentially a typo (or perhaps a careless mistranslation) on a street sign.
There the story should end. Unfortunately, the subsequent framing of this story – germinating from an article on a popular online Welsh website – had been generated from conversation between a tiny handful of (white) people. It shouldn’t be possible for public discourse (by which I largely mean, for better or worse, the Topic of the Day on Twitter) to be directed by the wills and opinions of a small number of people, but such is the nature of a public sphere dominated by the same old (types of) voices.
It is not the place of white people to police what, how or why people of colour should organise, or what their priorities should be. Nor is it right for white people to imply their support for Black Lives Matter is conditional, and can be retracted if it doesn’t meet their preconceived expectations. It is especially egregious when those who have the platform to steer a conversation use that power to stir up outrage and sow mistrust when no such outcome was desirable nor necessary.
We should resist the implication that there is finite energy to be divided up between movements, that solidarity can be conditional, and that overlapping movements with common goals can be pitted against each other when it becomes expedient for one form of social activism to be afforded prominence over another.
Gatekeepers are happy to tokenise people when it makes a movement look progressive, but when a perceived indiscretion arises it quickly turns to the familiar rhetoric of “I support BLM, but…”. This situation could have been easily cleared up between the protest and the council, but a few people with the means to boost themselves decided that their own views on the matter should be blown up beyond proportion, to a point where no positive outcome could be possible.
This is indicative of a problem that is absolutely endemic in the Welsh public sphere. With a few brilliant exceptions, media companies in Wales appear to only be interested in platforming non-white voices insofar as it launders their own reputations. When it comes to actions speaking louder than words they fall painfully short.
It happens time and again. A few months ago, a prominent Welsh journalist was ‘cancelled’ for acting aggressively and demeaningly towards those questioning his cynicism regarding the initial wave of Black Lives Matter solidarity demonstrations in Wales and beyond. Once again, the attempt to forward black voices and the structural oppressions they face – in our country and elsewhere – was recalibrated and directed instead towards the offended sensibilities of middle class white men and their anxieties at losing their perennial grip on power.
Real problems turn very easily to an issue of ‘tone policing’. There is too much importance placed on a vapid sense of ‘being kind’ without dismantling existing unequal power structures. We don’t need ‘kindness’. If some are shouting while others whisper, it speaks to the degree of effort the powerless need to take to get even close to being adequately heard. If some can talk calmly while others yell in anger, it only serves to show how comfortable one can be while others face endless struggle. The polite are not hard done by, quite the opposite. They only raise their voices when their own unearned power is at risk of being redistributed. That is a huge problem.
Welsh discourse has a kindness problem. Not a lack of it, but rather too much of it. Or, that is to say, its importance is way over-stated to such a degree that it becomes a form of coercion and social control in which those in positions of influence can stifle those with none.
The cruellest irony of being silenced is you can’t speak of it. Those who aren’t coerced into silence can speak freely in perpetuity. Those free speakers – despite claiming to be the silenced ones – are still free to create the most unsettling noise while the marginalised are forced to listen.
There is no clamour in Wales to give voice to the voiceless, to give power to the powerless, but rather an unceasing cry of ‘listen to me, as you have always done; let me go about my work without any regard for the consequences it has, as I have always done.’
This is just an angry outburst: I hope the incoherence becomes its own form of articulation. In lieu of a satisfactory conclusion, and because I don’t seek to platform my own white voice on this issue any further, here is a passage from Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race that is always worth returning to:
‘It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisal, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life. It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never-questioned entitlement, I suppose.’
I’d also recommend reading Jafar Iqbal’s article on systemic racism in Welsh arts institutions, which resonates with more truth with each passing day.