What a strange few days it’s been for the arts scene in Wales. At risk of jinxing it I’d go as far as saying that, for the first time in many years, it feels united. The solidarity behind black artists – many of them our friends, colleagues and collaborators – has been heartening to see but, certainly, there’s a long way to go. Racial inequality isn’t an American problem we watch from thousands of miles away. Violence and injustice against black lives is a reality in Wales too – one we must keep fighting against.
Watching events unfold over the last few days compelled me to challenge my own position as an ally for the black community. It also rekindled old sentiments I’ve expressed about Wales’ relationship with artists of colour. Luckily I’ve never had to experience violent discrimination myself but, like all people of colour, I fight ‘small’ battles every day. Sadly, many of the battles I have are with the very industry I love with all my heart.
I don’t need research to prove that systemic racism in Welsh art has been around for as long as Welsh art has been around, and it’s been very present in the five years I’ve lived in this country. When possible, I’ve tried to speak out about these issues, as have other people of colour and our white allies. Allyship is not easy – it requires effort and deep introspection – and I’m still learning to be a good ally myself. I thank the people who spoke up in the past, and encourage those who pledged to do so in the future to stick to their word. If you’ve previously liked, shared or retweeted posts calling out racism in Wales – now you should be the ones making those posts. Or, at the very least, you should be commenting on posts you see because solidarity won’t come from a thumbs-up or a heart emoji. While I’m cautiously optimistic about individuals wanting to be good allies, that optimism doesn’t extend to arts institutions, venues or the media – in fact, I have no faith in them at all right now. History tells me they will let me down.
Each time systemic racism has been exposed in the last few years, venues and institutions not directly involved all responded in the same way: by burying their heads in the sand as though nothing was wrong. When the Wales Theatre Awards yellowface controversy erupted, I don’t recall many leading venues or theatre companies condemning what happened. When it was suggested that consternation towards National Theatre Wales could, subconsciously, have a racial bias, no leading organisations stepped up to directly address and discuss it in an official capacity. I publicly called out systemic racism at a Seren Poetry Festival event in 2019 – I don’t recall any leading literature organisations or publishers giving their own public criticism of the affair. Wales Arts Review published a deeply insensitive and offensive review of Eric Ngalle Charles’ memoir, I, Eric Ngalle. Again, no leading organisations from the literature world came out publicly to criticise what it did. In 2018, the President of the Eisteddfod Court tried to make a joke about ‘savages’ when discussing Uganda – not long after that, he was reinstated as President for another year. At the 2019 Eisteddfod, Welsh-language comic Noel James compared Muslim women to ‘VHS boxes’, and later defended the comments on Twitter. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru chose not to remove James from its production of Y Cylch Sialc, and no other Welsh-language organisation challenged that decision. There are certainly more examples and, in every single one, it was left to individuals of colour and our allies to speak out.
My only guess is that getting involved in these discussions would have been seen as bad PR, so my counter is this. If your organisation’s brand is more important than the responsibility to your community then, frankly, your organisation doesn’t deserve the praise, the audiences and the funding that it receives. There are wider issues too. There’s a lot to be said about how representative senior management and board members are in these institutions. Why are they almost all white, and why hasn’t more been done to put people of colour into these positions? A comprehensive evaluation needs to be done of Arts Council of Wales’ Portfolio organisations – have they met the diversity and community engagement requirements set out in their contract? How much of that engagement was done with people of colour, and why has that not been reflected in the make-up of their staff and audiences? ACW itself needs to be held up to scrutiny. The current pandemic has brought the organisation’s new Arts Associates scheme (which, for full transparency, I am a part of) to a standstill. However, that doesn’t explain why their senior leadership team and board of trustees are predominantly, if not entirely, white. How has the organisation responsible for developing the arts for everyone not been able to reflect that in their own house?
The moment they dedicated their social media accounts to Blackout Tuesday every venue, organisation and media outlet in Wales declared themselves an ally to the black community. That means they now have a responsibility to confront the systemic racism that they themselves have been nurturing. Individuals become good allies by listening, learning and speaking up. Organisations, who hold the power and the money and the resource and the responsibility, become allies by taking action. You used to choose to remain silent when your peers were called out for systemic racism, but your actions this week suggest you’ve changed. You now have to prove to artists and audiences of colour, as well as the wider community in Wales, that your actions weren’t just another PR stunt. Will you choose to go back to silence, or will you choose to display leadership and transparency? Will you use your white privilege to fix our broken industry? Will you be the allies that you tell us you want to be?
I‘d like to thank Mali Ann Rees for giving me her time and her candour as a consultant during the writing process.