The following is an edited transcript of a statement read out by Associate Editor Jafar Iqbal at “How BAME Are You?” an event at the Seren Cornerstone Poetry Festival, on Saturday 9 February 2019.
Trawl through my social media from December last year and you’ll see several posts from me promoting this event and the festival. I was honoured to be a part of it at the time but, in the two months since those posts, my feelings have changed. They changed because I realised, very quickly, that I had mistakenly put myself in a situation that I didn’t want to be in. A situation that is very, very familiar to me. I was supporting what I now believe to be an act of institutional racism.
Institutional racism sometimes is allowed to exist simply because we do nothing about it even though we know it is there, because we fear for our position in society. I’m terrified that making this public statement will mean I won’t get invited to any future literary events, or that publishers in Wales will think twice about working with me. I’ve shied away from raising my concerns in the past because of that fear. I’ve pretended that everything was fine, but I won’t be pretending today.
The main reason I think this event is an example of institutional racism is because of the make-up of the festival. This is the only event with any BAME involvement and I believe it’s the only event that uses a protected characteristic as its centrepiece. I could talk to you about how I’ve been an arts critic for over a decade; I think that’d be perfect for a literary festival. I could talk to you about having epilepsy or how I suffer from loneliness. I could talk to you about my love for professional wrestling, or my relationship to London and to Wales. I could write and perform about so many of these things that are a crucial part of my identity, but we cannot get away from the fact that I’m actually here because of my ethnicity. Not only was I asked to perform here because of the colour of my skin, I was also given no choice but to write and perform about that skin colour.
If you look through the rest of the festival programme, you’ll find writers of different religions, different sexual orientations, different disabilities. None of those things are flagged up, though – they’re writers, they don’t need to be anything else. Why couldn’t I have been treated the same way? Why isn’t there an event called ‘How Disabled Are You?’ with six disabled performers? Or an event called ‘How Womanly Are You?’ with six performers who identify as women? I’d argue it’s because, at best, those hypothetical events are tokenistic and offensive. Hell, why not get six white writers and get them to talk about how white they are? That’s far more interesting and provocative than listening to BAME writers making the same arguments again and again, that fall on deaf ears anyway. You already know what it means for us to be BAME artists because that’s all you want us to talk about. You don’t need to keep making us talk about it. Yet here I am, a South Asian man at an event in 2019 called ‘How BAME Are You?’.
My experience of the BAME label is of that label being put upon me by society, whether I’ve wanted it or not. I’ve achieved things professionally that I didn’t think were possible, and a lot of that success was in spite of those institutional prejudices. However, my success comes at the price of always feeling like the other, like I don’t belong. I don’t think I’ll ever just be classed as ‘writer’ because I can’t shake the nagging insecurity that, rather than my talent as a writer, all institutions want is my BAME label to secure more funding and to boost their diversity reports. This is a concern shared by artists from all protected communities. Until you allow us to share the platform with you, we’ll carry on feeling like tokens. I just want to be known as a writer, with no other labels, but I’m not afforded that privilege here today.
What also worries me is the concerted effort made to not acknowledge or discuss the issue in public. The festival organisers have been fully aware of the controversy for a while, but have chosen to remain quiet. When a very serious concern like this is raised, it’s the responsibility of the parties involved to be proactive and lead by example. They haven’t thus far, and that’s unacceptable. Institutional racism, and institutional prejudice as a whole, continues to be prevalent in the arts and literary scenes in Wales, and its something that needs to be tackled immediately. We have to be transparent, we have to be honest, and we have to be prepared to listen. I hope efforts are made to reach out to those people, and that a willingness is shown to learn and grow from these unfortunate experiences.
Let’s stop talking about what it means to be a BAME writer in Wales, and let’s start having open and frank conversations about why that’s the only thing you ever want us to talk about. Let’s talk about how we can eradicate institutional prejudice of any kind. That’s the panel I want to be a part of. Not this one.
Jafar Iqbal is a writer, critic, and Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review.