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News > OB News > Identity: What does it mean to be Welsh?

Identity: What does it mean to be Welsh?

Welshness should be seen as "a spectrum rather than a hierarchy... a patchwork quilt",
7 Mar 2022
Written by Huw Richards
OB News
Kandace Siobhan Walker (DEW, 06-09)
Kandace Siobhan Walker (DEW, 06-09)

Rugby, rolling hills, castles, coal and choirs - these are some of the images often associated with Wales and the Welsh.

 But what are the experiences of Welsh people who have plural ethnic and cultural identities?

What preconceptions might a black child face in rural Powys or a hijab-wearing Muslim face in Cardiff?

Welshness should be seen as "a spectrum rather than a hierarchy... a patchwork quilt", said writer Hanan Issa.

She is one of a number of contributors to book Welsh Plural, a collection of essays "on the future of Wales" that offers "imaginative, radical perspectives that take us beyond the clichés and binaries that so often shape thinking about Wales and Welshness".

Writer and filmmaker Kandace Siobhan Walker, 27, said when she and her family moved from east London to Brecon Beacons National Park, Powys, in 2003 they were "poster children for multiculturalism, for globalisation".

From the age of nine until she left for university at 18, home was a remote house at the end of a bridleway.

She said it was difficult finding anyone who knew how to work with afro-textured hair so a hairdresser from over the border in Hereford would travel to see the family at home, her mother, who remains in the family home, found a man in Bristol who could order in Jamaican ingredients, and finding somewhere that stocked her favourite Caribbean drink sarsaparilla was a regular mission.

In her essay, Lights in the Dark: Notes towards a personal history of Wales in the 21st Century, Kandace writes about being "tolerated nowhere, questioned everywhere".

Asked about what experiences led her to write those words, she recalled a time when she was 14 and a woman stopped her in a supermarket carpark.

"She asked me what tribe I was, I was like, 'what you're talking about?'," she said.

She said hikers were often surprised to see a young black girl in the rural Welsh hills: "Even if I was just in my own garden, walkers would be thinking I'm another walker - and I'm like, 'I'm in a dressing gown'.

"There's that implicit idea, 'why is she here?'"

'Where are you from?

She also writes about the "everyday dispossession" of white strangers asking 'where are you from?' - "a classic".

"It's a very loaded question and I think people know that," she explained.

"'You come from somewhere else, maybe your family comes from somewhere else, or like your ancestors do' they know that history is fraught and so it feels often quite entitled... 'what trauma do you come from? Like, what's gone on there?'"

She said by the time she got into her 20s she started simply saying, 'I'm from here'.

"I don't want to get into it with strangers usually."

She said when a black person asks the same question "it's almost always a completely different conversation because they're going to tell me where they're from".

"It's more like an excitement, we're going to compare, take out our little family histories and be like 'look how kind of similar bit different they are'."

She said white people who ask her where she is from have usually "decided their history is kind of ubiquitous and uninteresting that they don't need to explain themselves to me".

Kandace, who now lives in south London, said she wrote her contribution to the book at a time when she was thinking more about "purposely identifying as Welsh" and "who decides that".

"What happens if I start telling people I'm Welsh and just letting them argue it out for themselves," she said.

She said for a long time she was "trying to let it not matter too much where I came from, or who I came from in terms of people - but eventually I just realised it was such an integral part of my life - my dad's family are African American and my mum's family are Jamaican Canadian...

"We moved to London but then moved to Wales so we've never fitted into a specific like pattern or group in terms of eras of migration."

She said through her writing she had realised "how much it meant to me to have grown up in Wales and be Welsh".

"I think Wales is just a fundamentally plural place, a place built on pluralities in its history and its culture and its language," she said.

"Despite kind of negative experiences I've had growing up, or even now, I always have hope and quite a lot of pride in Wales and Welsh culture."



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