Geraint Rhys Whittaker reflects on the role of the Welsh language in debates about diversity in Wales.
In recent months, debates surrounding the Welsh language and ethnic diversity have been put in the spotlight. A December 2017 article in Wales Online by Oruj Defoite caused much controversy amongst the Welsh language community when the author argued that her inability to speak Welsh meant that she was discriminated against.
The resultant debates on social media became very divisive very quickly and what could have been a great opportunity to deliberate some fundamental points surrounding diversity, the Welsh language and modern definitions of “Welshness”, became a free-for-all which conflated the debates of racism in Wales with arguments surrounding the protection and promotion of the Welsh language, confusingly pitting them against each other.
Now, first of all, it must be emphasised that more of our Welsh Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population (particularly women) should have a voice in the Welsh media. We need to have more platforms where the stories of multiculturalism and migration, which have been so important for building the foundations of our nation, can be heard. There needs to be more articles detailing how our diverse populations in Wales contribute to our society today, so that Wales’s history isn’t whitewashed. An increased presence of diversity in our media and the arts is one of many ways that we can develop a more cohesive and just society, so that the wider population can accept that Wales is, and has for centuries been a place where diversity has existed.
Through hearing how Wales and Welshness is multifaceted and means different things to different people of all colours and creeds, we can continually re-construct a modern definition of Wales which celebrates diversity, and hopefully make our nation a more tolerant and accepting one. This will be an ongoing process and increasingly we need to ensure that Wales is inclusive of everyone in society, so that people from all backgrounds are not penalised because of who they are.
However, this move for equality must occur alongside the protection of the Welsh language, not in-spite of it. Having worked in the field of ethnic and religious diversity in Wales for many years, I have often seen first-hand how the language is treated as a separate issue. This perpetuates what Professor Roger Scully calls ‘progressive snobbery’; in other words, a frame of thinking which would rightly stand up for racial, religious and ethnic equality in Wales, but does not treat the Welsh language with the same level of seriousness. This creates a double standard which is oblivious to the fact that such attitudes reinforce a colonial claim that there is only one historical language in this country: English.
These attitudes further support the linguistic marginalisation of Welsh, as this version of equality is one where the Welsh language is considered not a ‘real’ diversity issue. But would those who argue that the promotion of the Welsh language is discriminatory not think that the Government of the United States should protect and promote the languages of the indigenous communities of North America, or would they argue that this discriminates against those who don’t speak it?
The reason we have bi-lingual signs, Welsh language schools and S4C is because they were the product of years of activism against the hegemonic order of society, which purposely excluded the Welsh language from public and private life. For so long, Welsh speakers have been made to feel like the ‘other’, and therefore the continual push for Welsh-language equality today is an official attempt to create spaces where the native language of Wales is given parity with English. It is not enough to say, I support the Welsh language in theory, but then not support its official protection.
There are many nations in the world, each with their own competing stories, cultures, histories, and languages which have made that country what it is. It just so happens that one of the many things which is unique to the fabric which makes up this place we call Wales is the Welsh language. The fact that I have to even clarify this, that all over the world different languages exist and that Wales is no acceptation, highlights the extent to which Welsh speakers have to continuously justify that in Wales (not Germany, not Australia, not Somalia) just Wales, that it should be expected for the government to protect the language. Nowhere in the world are Welsh speakers demanding that any other government provide provisions to protect the language, just Wales, and therefore I argue that you cannot support cultural diversity in Wales without the support of a vibrant Welsh language.
Now, of course this should not be an excuse to promote racism or a narrow-minded version of Welshness. You don’t have to speak Welsh to be Welsh. Of course you don’t. There are many ways to be Welsh and we must continuously strive to make sure that people from all backgrounds are a part of that narrative. Welshness must be accessible to all and we must strive every day to make Wales a more tolerant nation for all our population. We have a lot to do on this front.
But if we are to accept that there are many ways to be Welsh, we must also accept that the Welsh language is fundamental to that story, and that nowhere else in the world will Welsh speaker’s rights be protected by an official government other than in Wales. This is why Welsh must always have a unique status above all other languages in Wales, so that it can thrive in the only place in the world where it should. If we can do this whilst encouraging everyone regardless of social, economic, cultural and religious background to learn and love the language, it can become a tool for unity across diversity rather than being treated with suspicion and indifference.
Dr Geraint Rhys Whittaker is a political musician and Human Geography Lecturer at The University of Liverpool.