Three weeks on from the racism controversy on stage at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff, Nia Edwards-Behi asks if the powers-that-be would prefer we all just conveniently forget that it ever happened.
Three weeks ago, at the National Eisteddfod’s Gymanfa Ganu, Eifion Lloyd Jones, President of the Eisteddfod Court – the Eisteddfod’s governing body – introduced, on stage, Iori Roberts, the new director of Cymru a’r Byd, an organisation that celebrates Welsh people around the world. In his introduction, Eifion Lloyd Jones outlined some of the places Iori Roberts has worked, including Uganda, Abergele and Northern England. Eifion Lloyd Jones wondered, aloud, in an apparently jokey ad-lib, which place had the ‘worst savages’.
It wasn’t until a few days after the fact that I heard about this incident at National Eisteddfod, on Twitter, when a few users were rightfully wondering where the reaction and condemnation to this most casual of racisms was. I confess, much as I enjoy the Eisteddfod as an event to dip my toes into, I can hardly claim to being a keen viewer of events such as the Gymanfa Ganu, so would not have been aware of this if not for others talking about it on social media. Even so, this was at least two days after it had happened. Perhaps Jones’ words had initially been overshadowed by another misguided adlib on the festival stage, this time by the current Archdruid, Geraint Llifon, who, while crowning Catrin Dafydd, declared that she couldn’t have achieved her win without the men in her life. The audience present for that utterance audibly groaned, and the Archdruid formally apologised a day later.
By contrast, Jones seemed to take much, much longer to even get his head around the issue with the racism in the language he used. His first response was to outright reject that there was anything racist in what he’d said. As further pressure mounted, notably from his fellow Court member Marc Phillips, who called for Jones’ resignation, he apologised, in the first of three formal statements, only for “anyone [who] misinterpreted my words and was offended”. Despite the calls for his resignation, a week after Eifion Lloyd Jones suggested Ugandan savagery, the Eisteddfod Court voted to reinstate him as its President for the coming year. Still, such was the on-going discussion that Jones was compelled to issue a further statement, elaborating upon his reasoning for saying what he said. This was again something of a non-apology, and included a frankly bizarre claim that his words were more offensive in translation, as though Welsh is somehow linguistically innocent when it comes to referring to colonised people as ‘anwariaid’.
What’s been somewhat reassuring in this is that there has been a significant and relatively sustained outpouring of dissatisfaction amongst ‘Welsh Twitter’ on this topic which, I hope, directly resulted in Jones’ statements. I’ve sometimes bemoaned the evident imbalance in responses to instances of the Welsh language being publicly belittled in contrast to when other minorities are targeted. Perhaps we are waking up to the not particularly radical idea that bigotry towards the Welsh language and Welsh culture is one part of a much bigger picture of bigotry and prejudice. I also hope that the pressure is, in this particular case, sustained.
A little over a week after the incident, Dr. Dylan Foster Evans, another member of the Court, resigned from his position due to the on-going issue. His reasoning was clear: he could not remain a member of the Court when its President had yet to issue a full and unambiguous apology “for the words themselves.” In the week or so since uttering the words, Eifion Lloyd Jones had taken no responsibility for his language. Evans’ resignation seemed to have the desired effect, though: at long last, the next day, Jones apologised “fully and unconditionally for the word that [he] used”. An unambiguous apology at last.
And yet, the apology is somehow unsatisfying. The statement is short and perfunctory, using almost exactly the wording previously suggested by Evans. Eifion Lloyd Jones has done the bare minimum required to absolve himself of guilt and responsibility. Having previously stated that he “find[s] it difficult to understand how people misunderstood the context and spirit” of what was said, his assurance in his final statement that he is “totally opposed to racism of any kind” doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that he’s listened to, understood or learned from the criticism that has been levelled toward him. I, too, am ‘totally opposed’ to racism, but does that mean that I’ll never say anything that’s racist? No. I might get it wrong one day. More likely, I willget it wrong one day. But how I respond to getting it wrong will be what proves my credentials as anti-racist or not.
I don’t believe this apology should let Jones or the National Eisteddfod off the hook, and nor should it signal the end of the conversation. Accepting the apology, if anything, should only signal a shift to a new stage in dealing with what happened; not forgetting it and moving on. This should never have happened in the first place, and it certainly should not have taken 10 days and 3 statements to receive an apology. Jones also made a comment to Radio Cymru’s Taro’r Post programme, when invited to make further comment, in which he said that the future of the Eisteddfod was important, not one word from him, and that he hoped this was ‘now’ the priority for others too.
Of course, he’s almost right – the future of the National Eisteddfod is important, and whether he likes it or not challenging a brazenly out-dated manner of talking about minorities, in jest or otherwise, is all-important to the Eisteddfod’s future. However, as damaging as this is or may be to the National Eisteddfod itself, undoing the damage such a comment will do to the communities it directly alienates is of utmost importance. The Eisteddfod Council has yet to make any direct statement on the incident. The Council’s remit is to consider the “development and evolution of the Eisteddfod”. For a festival which has taken such great pains to celebrate its open and inclusive event, it surely needs to do its most to condemn the use of racist language on its stage, and distance itself from such a casual and thoughtless occurrence. Relying only on Jones’ personal responsibility is not, at this stage, enough – had Jones immediately apologised, fully and unreservedly, then perhaps the Council need not have commented. But it is vital to see the Eisteddfod acknowledge that something went wrong here, commit to learning from it and doing right by those it has let down.
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Nia Edwards-Behi is an associate editor of Wales Arts Review.