The following is an edited transcript of our conversation with one of Wales’ fastest rising performers, Mali Ann Rees. This conversation was recorded during the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, where Mail was performing almost every day, so I was grateful for the time. What I ended up getting, and what you’re about to read, was a very frank discussion about the relationship between race and privilege. Mali is a Welsh-speaking woman of colour, a rare find in the acting community, and it’s this interesting position that really fascinated me about her and why I wanted her on the show. It turned out to be a brilliant chat, and I think you’ll enjoy it too.
If you’d like to listen to the episode, click here.
Welcome to Episode Four of Critically Speaking.
Jafar Iqbal: So are you based in Wales now?
Mali Ann Rees: Yes.
JI: Because you weren’t, were you?
MAR: No, I was based in London, but I moved back to Cardiff about two, three months ago.
JI: And you’re from Cardiff.
MAR: From Cardiff – Canton girl.
JI: Is Canton how you remember it?
MAR: Uh, no. It’s posh now.
JI: Okay, it wasn’t before? I only know it as posh. I’ve only been in Wales for five years, under five years, and it’s only ever been posh.
MAR: When I was growing up you go to people, ‘I’m from Canton’, they’re like, ‘ohhh’.
JI: It’s a hub, isn’t it?
MAR: Yeah. Artisanal coffees and all kinds of shops… (laughs)
JI: Do you miss the way it was?
MAR: No, it’s quite nice that it’s a bit posh now. I think. I think it’s more diverse, actually.
JI: Than it used to be?
MAR: Yeah. Definitely. It’s not like Grangetown, Splott, all of these major diversity hubs and stuff…actually, I dunno. Maybe I’ve just got a skewed impression because I moved to London. If I think about it, I was hanging out with Pakistani kids and mixed-race kids on the street. Yeah, no, it was diverse. But now they’ve got a black hair shop…that’s exciting! (Jafar laughs) That’s all I look for, really.
JI: Did you miss Wales while you were away?
MAR: Yeah, I think I missed the Welsh accent…
MAR: …and my accent not being different, because I feel like people always would say…like, they wouldn’t take my points as seriously with the Welsh accent. It was as if it was something like a jokey accent. Like a Gavin and Stacey accent rather than, ‘I’m trying to make some really good intellectual points’, you know?
JI: Did you get that a lot? I didn’t think that was a thing.
MAR: In drama school, it was a big thing.
JI: That was East 15, right? I didn’t know that was a thing, okay.
MAR: Just people repeating your accent back to you when you’re trying to make a point in class, it’s just really frustrating. Yeah, there’s definitely that impression that Welsh people are stupid. I got that a lot.
JI: Is that just in the arts?
MAR: No, I think it’s an overall point of view from telly. Because the only thing, I guess, put on in England that’s from Wales is usually comedy characters, in the Valleys kind of voices. So they assume that’s what we’re all like. Not that there’s anything wrong with being like that, it’s just not a full picture of Wales at all.
JI: Are you someone who fights back?
MAR: Uhh, yes, when I’m not meant to. (laughs) I’m trying not to.
JI: You’re quite active on social media about saying stuff.
MAR: Am I?
JI: I think you are.
MAR: I share stuff, and I do…yeah, I do talk about it, I suppose.
JI: Do you think you’re deliberately trying not to do that anymore?
MAR: I think it’s just…finding the right time to have those conversations. I’ve been reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race…
MAR: …because sometimes it can be exhausting speaking to people that aren’t willing to listen, or don’t want to hear about privilege and stuff like that. I’m finding that, if you’re from two different viewpoints, it’s almost impossible to find a middle ground. I think I’m not willing to give up on my position.
JI: Like meet in the middle, basically.
MAR: Yeah! I think I’m…right…?
JI: What do you think you’re right about? What is this position that you speak of?
MAR: I think just, like, society in general. I don’t think it’s about being right or wrong, I just think you have to acknowledge that society has privileges, and that certain privileges are given to you. Like I know I have privileges as a mixed race girl. I know that I’ve got privileges over my darker-skinned counterparts. People find me more acceptable, stuff like that. I just think everybody should acknowledge their own privileges. I’m able-bodied, I’m straight, all these things play into so many other dynamics of society, and I think I find it difficult when people don’t acknowledge that that’s part of the world that we live in.
JI: Compare London to Wales. That idea of being more privileged because you’re mixed race…
JI: …is that more prominent in Wales?
MAR: No, in London.
JI: You found that more in London?
MAR: Yeah, definitely. Because I was just surrounded by more of a diverse group of people, and that’s why I learnt so much. I always called myself black and then, as soon as I got to London, my housemate told me that I’m not black.
JI: Because she was black?
MAR: Yep. And I had an identity crisis! (laughs) And then I kinda learnt more about it.
JI: How did that feel? How did it feel to be told, ‘you’re not black’?
MAR: Confusing. I was kind of angry at the time, because I was in such a white school. For them, I was black.
MAR: I’ve always been referred to as black, and I didn’t recognise my privileges as a mixed race person at all. Because I was always like, ‘oh, people are being racist to me, I get treated differently, I get followed around shops, I don’t see where all this privilege is’, but it definitely exists.
JI: But you find it less in Wales?
MAR: I think, in Wales, I could very easily go around calling myself black and not be told otherwise. Like, I used to be called ‘black Mali’ in school.
JI: Ooh, really?
MAR: Yeah. Because there’s a white Mali, so…
JI: Yeahhhh, but…
JI: Do you think that still happens?
MAR: I feel like the next generation are super woke.
JI: I hate that word. (Mali laughs) Sorry.
MAR: I don’t know what a better word for it is.
JI: It’s the best word right now.
MAR: Yeah. Uh, ‘awakened’ to many different issues. I’ve got little sister, she’s fifteen, she’s my half-sister. But her knowledge on all kinds of things, from LGBT rights to the right words to use and stuff, it seems like the school is completely different from when I was there.
JI: The same school?
MAR: The same school. I remember one of my friends was told she had a teatowel on her head because she had a hijab, Things like that, it’s just…yeah, I don’t think it’s the same anymore. I thinkk, in the age of social media, things are changing.
JI: Do you think you’re in a place where you understand your privilege, or do you think you are still learning?
MAR: Oh, still learning. I mean, it’s constant learning. Things are changing every day. So, like, different words people use, y’know, you just gotta keep up to date. And there’s some things you don’t realise are bad until you’ve got rid of some other things. And then it’s like, ‘oh, actually, this other thing is an issue as well’. It’s just a constant working through that.
JI: I mean, obviously, you’re still very young, and you’re quite young in your career as well…
MAR: Absolutely, yeah.
JI: …what’s it like as a black or mixed race actor in Wales?
MAR: That’s a huge question. That’s a massive, massive question.
JI: Because there aren’t a lot of you.
MAR: No, there aren’t.
JI: And there aren’t a lot of black women in the arts.
MAR: Absolutely. I think it has its benefits. There’s less competition, obviously, if they’re looking for a Welsh person of colour, who happens to be a girl, in Cardiff. It narrows down the pool quite a lot. But I find myself going for a lot of roles where it’s, kind of, blind casting. So I’d be competing against loads of white girls as well, for the same role. Which I don’t know whether it’s a positive or a negative.
JI: Do you feel that when you’re there in a room, and you’re the only non-white person there?
MAR: I’m very used to being the only non-white person in a room. Yeah, I feel like I’ve gotta prove myself sometimes. Like, ‘oh, I haven’t just got this because I’m mixed race’ or, ‘you’ve probably thought of this character as a white girl, let me convince you she can be mixed race’, that kind of battle. And it’s quite difficult. I think I’m awful for doubting myself. Like, ‘oh, now I don’t deserve to be here’. I think that’s quite a common acting thing – like, imposter syndrome.
JI: I think it’s quite a common minority thing as well.
MAR: Imposter syndrome?
JI: I have that.
MAR: Yeah? Yeah, I definitely get imposter syndrome, like, a lot. I think it depends on the kind of job I get. So, for example, Tourist Trap…I did get imposter syndrome before, being like, ‘oh my gosh, how have I ended up here?’, but not me being mixed race. It wasn’t about my race, it was like, ‘I’ve brought them this character and this has all been my work’, and there’s no doubt there. But yeah, it does need to stop. It’s ridiculous! It is ridiculous. I think I’m getting better at it, though. Learning more about black history, about black people’s place in society, in British society, listen to podcasts and stuff.
JI: What podcasts do you listen to?
MAR: The Receipts.
JI: I’ve not heard of that.
MAR: It’s three women of colour, and they just discuss daily life issues and boyfriends and stuff. But then, sometimes, they’ll just, as you do, talk about life, your race comes into your life every day, on a daily basis, so it’s quite nice to hear about that.
JI: Do you mind just talking about that a bit more, like, how does your race come into your daily life?
MAR: Umm…I dunno, I get asked a lot, like, ‘where are you from?’ ‘How do you speak Welsh?’
JI: What’s your answer to that question?
MAR: So I go ‘Wales’, and then they go, ‘where are you actually from?’ And I say, ‘ooh, my father’s from Jamaica’ and they go, ‘oh wow, Jamaica!’
JI: That’s the right answer! And then they can go off.
MAR: I’ve never even been to Jamaica. I do wanna go, though. But, yeah, things like that, people assume that I can’t speak Welsh. I do get followed around shops, depending on what I wear…
JI: What does that mean, though what do you mean? Just random people following you around shops? White men?
MAR: No, like, security guards.
MAR: So you’ll be down an aisle and, all of a sudden, he’s down that aisle. And then you can play a little bit of like…peekaboo! (laughs)
JI: Wow! That still happens now?
MAR: Yeah, absolutely. Like, it depends how I present myself, obviously. So if I come in trackie bottoms, just popping into Tesco’s…yeah, it happens a lot. And then, obviously, in specifically Welsh communities. My family are from West Wales, in a little village called Aberporth. And when I’m in those areas, it’s very much like the only black in the village. The only mixed race in the village.
JI: Do you go back to West Wales, or have you always just lived in Cardiff?
MAR: Always lived in Cardiff, but we go back to visit my nan.
JI: Do you find racism there, when you’re there?
JI: Because there’s curiosity and there’s racism. And I know they’re both the same thing, but are people curious or are they racist?
MAR: Curiosity’s the word. I can remember going shopping with my nan, I was about fifteen, and we’re just in the local Tesco’s. And some guy just came up to me and was like, ‘can you recommend any good Caribbean rum?’ And I was like, ‘what?’ And my nan was like… (puts on funny voice) ‘she can speak Welsh, she’s from Wales’, blah blah blah.
JI: That’s a good accent.
MAR: (laughs) But yeah, I think a lot of people see people of colour as being much older when they are much younger. I find that I’d get hit on by guys when I was fourteen, fifteen, it’s like they can’t tell. You’re assumed to be an adult all of a sudden, before you’ve had a chance to be a child.
JI: Because you’re not white?
MAR: I think so. I think it’s the inability to…maybe it’s because I’m taller, as well, I dunno. Maybe I just looked older.
JI: How did you get into the arts?
MAR: How did I get into the arts?
JI: Yeah. How does a black girl from Canton, horrible Canton, get into the arts?
MAR: Well, it was Chapter, actually. I remember Mum was really good at taking me to the Sherman [Theatre]. I think they had a children’s play every other weekend or something, so I used to go to that all the time and watch the performers. And I always wanted to be on the stage. And then we went to see something in the Everyman Festival, and then I applied for their youth theatre, because we went to see them and I was like, ‘I want to do it!’ And that’s when I was about eleven. And then I did that until I was seventeen – it was mainly improvisation and stuff. And then, when I was seventeen, I auditioned for National Youth Theatre and got into that. I think I knew then that I wanted to move to London and stuff, as well, I think it was really important for me to be amongst more people of colour.
JI: When you were going to see plays at the Sherman and the Everyman…
JI: …who were your role models? Did you have role models? Who did you look at and go, ‘that’s who I want to be?’
MAR: Angela Griffin! Because I used to watch Waterloo Road. I remember I tried to do blonde highlights like her and it just looked awful. I still like her, though. She was just recognisable to me, I think. She had similar hair to me. But I don’t think I thought very much about representation in the theatre I was watching or TV I was watching or everything, magazines, because it was just how it is.
JI: When did that change then? When did you start noticing?
MAR: I mean, I knew I was different. I guess representation…probably not until I started drama school, really. There was talk of it before, but it’s relatively new that it’s been in the media and stuff.
JI: It wasn’t anything that was discussed at home?
MAR: No. Not really. I don’t think we really discussed much about my race at home. I was just considered pretty much like everybody else, that sort of thing.
JI: How did it feel to be amongst diverse communities when you moved to London? Was it a culture shock?
MAR: I think, both ways. Because I think, some London diverse communities assume that London’s the only diverse place in the UK.
JI: Like my family.
MAR: Yeah! So they were like, ‘oh my god, so how do you have a Welsh accent?’ Like, surprise! But it was good for me, I think. I now have friends from many different cultures and ethnicities, very cultured. (Jafar laughs) But I also went to school in India for two years…
JI: Oh, wow, okay.
MAR: …before I went to drama school.
JI: How did that happen? What were you doing in India?
MAR: Do you know Atlantic College?
MAR: In South Wales. They basically have thirteen all around the world and they’re all about, like – shit, I’m going to explain this so badly – umm, cultural inclusion and diversity and getting people from all around the world together to create a peaceful and wonderful idyllic society. Sounds like a cult!
JI: Yeah, a little bit…
MAR: It wasn’t a cult, I promise.
JI: Like a global community. Still sounds like a cult but…
MAR: Sshh…I escaped! Yeah, I went there, and they could send me to any one of the thirteen and they sent me to India.
JI: Wow. Now that’s a culture shock.
MAR: Aw, yeah! Aw, yeah. London was a piece of cake.
JI: Were you treated differently while you were there?
MAR: I think, firstly, Indian people were confused because I was light brown. Because they knew what a black person looked like and they knew what a white person looked like, and they knew that I had a similar skin to Indian people, but curly hair. Yeah, I wasn’t treated the same as some of my white friends. You’d walk around and they’d want pictures of them, or they’d want pictures of me but…
JI: But it didn’t feel the same?
MAR: No, it didn’t feel the same, it was more like, admiration and…alien being. There was quite a lot of African students as well. I mean, there were students from everywhere around the world, which was just amazing. Obviously I learnt so much about everywhere, but it did feel a little bit excluded from the African students. Actually, I was told I wasn’t allowed to call myself black at that point, before I went to London. Because they were like, ‘if you’re black, what are we?’
JI: How do you think the arts in Wales is doing in terms of representation?
MAR: I think there needs to be more writing created for people of colour. But I guess we’re just gonna have to do it ourselves.
JI: It’s quite sad, in a way.
MAR: Yeah. It’s not my responsibility, it’s not my job. I wanna be an actress. I’m obviously very interested in writing, definitely something I want to do. I’m still young, still gaining experience. But, yeah, it would be great to audition for something that’s been written with that purpose. To be like, ‘oh, this character, I actually really get it’.
JI: Who do you think are the strong black writers in Wales at the moment?
MAR: I can’t name one.
JI: That’s fair.
JI: No, don’t be sorry.
MAR: That’s so bad. Can you name some?
JI: Umm…no. Not anyone that’s…not that they have to be established, but there’s nobody that you say, ‘this person is an ambassador for Wales’…
JI: …when it comes to writing. There’s no-one. Even direction.
MAR: Which is bizarre, because Cardiff has been diverse for many, many years. It’s not new in Cardiff. Although, often we think it is because nobody’s ever taught us that history. It’s something you have to go out and seek rather than something that’s just given to you. Yeah, it is bizarre.
JI: Do you feel a pressure as that person?
MAR: Absolutely. I feel like I’m expected to write something that will have to do with my race.
JI: That’ll change the world.
MAR: Yeah! And the pressure of being representative all the time. Like even doing podcasts like this…
JI: We shouldn’t be doing this.
MAR: No, no, not at all, it’s good to do it. But I gotta know my facts, I gotta be on top of it, I gotta know what I’m trying to say, and I’m twenty-four, like, I don’t quite know that yet. I don’t think I’m meant to, I think I’ve got so many years to find that out.
JI: It’s exhausting.
MAR: Yeah. It can be, it can be. But if I can speak about this stuff, it means it saves future generations from doing it as much, maybe? I dunno. I mean, it was wonderful when I was doing the…I was presenting the Eisteddfod, the Welsh cultural festival, and a little mixed race girl ran up to me and wanted a picture with me. And like, aww, that would have meant so much to me growing up, to see a Welsh mixed race person. I would have just, you know, looked up to them so much, and I never had that.
JI: She’ll remember that.
MAR: Hopefully! (laughs) Hopefully, yeah.
JI: Obviously, there is pressure about being an ambassador or representative, but do you take pride in that? Would you rather just concentrate on your work and not have to worry about…
MAR: That’s never been a choice for me, really, it’s not something you can just tap out of. People are always going to ask me about being a mixed race Welsh actress.
JI: How important is that to you? Are you a massive proud Welshie?
MAR: Yeah! It’s two minorities…
JI: Because one wasn’t enough!
MAR: The Welsh-language minority, yeah, I’m definitely super passionate about the language, and maintaining that and I’m really proud of my Welsh culture as well as my Jamaican culture, I just don’t know as much about it.
JI: Are you as ‘woke’ about gender equality as you are about racial equality and things like that?
MAR: I don’t think it’s possible to separate them.
JI: Okay! So being a black woman is a thing on its own?
MAR: Absolutely. Like, black feminism, which is obviously quite controversial but so true. You know, so many of the milestones that people say that we reach when it comes to Women’s Week or Day or whatever. So many people are like, ‘oh, well, in 1940, we got this’, and it’s like, ‘nope, white women got that, we were still waiting, do we not count as women, or are we not included in that conversation?’ I think there’s a lot, a lot, of work to be done there.
JI: Did you find that outside of Wales as well? That same feeling towards black women?
MAR: Yeah, absolutely.
JI: How do we make it better, Mali?
MAR: Ohh, well…I don’t bloody know! (laughs) Sorry. I think people just really need to start listening. And I’m gonna come back to what I said right at the start, acknowledging privilege is the immediate beginning of understanding the different levels in society. Class doesn’t mean as much anymore, because class can mean all kinds of things. I mean, my mum’s a Welsh teacher, but I was brought up by a single parent, but we would be considered middle class despite having one income rather than two.
JI: I’d argue that class is inherently guided by race.
JI: I feel like, if you’re black or South Asian, you are working class until you prove otherwise.
MAR: Yep, absolutely. You’ve gotta prove you’re intelligent, you’ve gotta prove you’re good enough.
JI: And it’s tied to being Welsh as well.
JI: Who gets to speak the Welsh language? I feel like that’s connected to class as well.
MAR: Absolutely. It’s become very middle class.
JI: What, the language?
MAR: Speaking Welsh in Cardiff, I think.
MAR: It can be quite a middle class thing, to send your kids to Welsh school, and that’s not the case in rural Wales at all. It’s just the language of the people, it’s not a choice.
JI: I like that phrase, ‘it’s the language of the people’. But it doesn’t feel like that, maybe because it’s been so…
MAR: Battered out of us?
JI: That too, historically, but now it’s the other way around.
MAR: (laughing) Battered into us…?
JI: Yeah, it is though! Like, we need this many people speaking Welsh by this time. But I feel like it’s artificial in a way.
MAR: What, the need to learn?
JI: Yeah, it’s almost like a cool thing to do, rather than it being, ‘we wanna get back in touch with our language’. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m reading it completely wrong.
MAR: I think maybe you are. I think it is about returning to our language. I mean, in Britain at the moment, there’s obviously a massive Welsh independence movement that’s growing day by day. And I think reconnecting to our roots in that way can only be beneficial. Have our own identity.
JI: Where do you stand on the whole Welsh independence thing?
MAR: Yes Cymru! I am, yeah. As long as it doesn’t stop me from working in England. (Jafar laughs) So like a very soft border. But no, I do want to be recognised as a country. We’ve got our own culture, we’ve got our own language, our own poetry, our own music, and that’s something to be proud of, I think, and hold on to.
JI: What do you love about Wales the most?
MAR: Yeah. Like, the understanding of family. Family and loyalty’s really important in Wales, I think. You stick with your family and you back them, no matter what. Okay, I’d never really thought about that before….
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