Editors’ note: We asked 10 writers for their opinion on the classifications and terminology used to describe people. We stressed there was no right or wrong answer. Here are the results:
I’ve wondered for quite a while how Race politics has transformed from the passions of being “Black and Proud” to the insultingly bureaucratic BAME label. I found our history to be quite informative.
From 1960s to the mid 1980s, “Black” endured as a political term. Those from Britain’s former colonies faced daily persecutions endorsed by the White Establishment; Enoch Powell’s Negrophobia were officially denounced but secretly harboured. Second generation migrants formed resistance to State and Street Racism and cohered under the label “Black”. They were the Other who were not “going home”, whether as African-Caribbean youths in Brixton or as Indian and Pakistani workers of Bradford, they were all Black. It was their civil disobedience of both the organised and unstructured variety, which shook the Establishment. Cross-cultural solidarity built during the Miners’ strike started to change White Working Class perspectives on the State’s supposed humanity and even questioned the Police’s legitimacy having a monopoly on violence.
Black politics had unsettled the status quo, it was too strong. A solution came through Labour Party local politics, realising the changing demographics in certain urban areas, a technique of co-opting autonomous, self-reliant Black movements became a proven way of shoring up the vote. Working class activists and campaigns’ need for money and resources, afforded local government an opportunity to fragment the united Black politics into the politics of diffused and smaller ethnic communities. In order to apply for funding, a community had to prove a special or particular need, thus incentivising “diversity” and difference. What was once Black, decoupled to become Asian, also the importance of religious and hyphenated national identity grew with the pots for youth clubs and community centres. This special pleading also replaced self-reliance with State-dependency and a culture of service provision.
Whites were not ethnics (ethnic comes from “ethnikos” meaning “heathen” or “pagan” in Greek) only those who State bureaucrats deemed “national minorities” were. And so the industry of race relations blossomed, eloquent “ethnics” were to train less eloquent Whites about how not to insult them. Racism, a system of industrial and geopolitical subjugation, was to be dismantled by zealous bureaucrats striving to correct the nation’s vocabulary.
The term “People of Colour” however was never issued by a state official, this is perhaps why despite its American roots, I have come to prefer this term. The mythology of migrants as all equally Black has rightfully ended. Racists operate by picking on one group off before going for the rest. Also the label did not obscure divisions within “Black” communities. We are of different hues, have a common yet varied history of racism and colonialism. Through recognition of finding commonality amongst our diverse histories, we build new, stronger forms of racial liberation and victories.
There’s an almost perverse nature to language. How can words, these mere spattering of abstract phonemes, bear the voices of millions, how can the lives and deaths of existence be squashed into the mouth? Yet, it is these abstract syllables that have moved the earth. Liberty, Justice, Love – words that by their nature can never be big enough, but simultaneously couldn’t be bigger. And there are plenty of them.
So it comes as no surprise that for a lot of things, we’re still scrambling around for the right words. There’s ‘ethnic minority’, a problematic term for its inferences (smaller, and easier to dismiss) and factual inaccuracy depending on where you are in the world. There’s BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), a term more favoured in the UK to reflect its larger non-white communities, and a favourite of mine merely for its punchy onomatopoeic qualities- yet still wrought with inaccuracies.
The current term-du-jour is ‘PoC’. If the issue wasn’t opaque enough, the ‘P’ in ‘PoC’ can mean many things. Is it People or Persons? Do we prefer to highlight the collective unit, the shared struggle, or several singular identities, and individual liberty?
But at the heart of all these terms is a question of Otherness. How do we define ourselves, as what or against what? Minority/Majority, Black/White – opposing terms thick with connotations – Small/Big, Bad/Good. Where PoC triumphs is its isolation from this. In ‘colour’ we conjure up a feeling of vivacity, of depth and breadth. It has no immediate opposite, it exists by its own will not dependent on another for its definition. Does that justify its rekindling of 1950’s pre civil-liberties American rhetoric of ‘the coloureds’? That’s up to you. But words are most beautiful in their imperfections, much like the humans who created them.
The imposition of government-sanctioned labels on non-white communities is inherently problematic. These arbitrary “tags” soon become normalised, and those who openly oppose being branded are additionally labelled as “subversive” or “troublesome”. So, although terms like “ethnic minority” seem inoffensive, the truth is, being deliberately mislabelled is a massive problem to address.
Three of my Grandparents are of African descent, and one of my Grandparents was white British. I was born in the 1980s opposite Whitehall, and grew up self-identifying as “black” as opposed to “black British”. As a child, I argued with my teachers whenever they referred to people as “coloured”. I was brought up to know the colonial origins of the term, so it always triggered a negative response, even if that meant “punishment”.
Clearly, the right to self-determination begins with the right to determine our own identity. Being black in Britain can mean many inter-connected things, despite the homogenising efforts of the government. But we must remain determinative. For example, the term “coloured people” is often conflated with “people of colour”, despite the former being a colonial relic, and the latter being a broad political term, proven to unify and mobilise oppressed people internationally. Informed discussion is essential.
Growing up in a Congolese household, words like “black” and “people of colour” were never used. We were “African.” My mother, like most Congolese people of her generation, has mostly Congolese friends, the odd West African friend but she definitely does not have any Caribbean friends, and this is not a coincidence.
Growing up, the word “black” was reserved for the first and second generation Caribbeans who had perfected their white voices. Which is why terms like Afro-Caribbean, BME, POC seem incongruous; as though we are a homogenous group with a single identity, and as though we all get along.
Whilst I recognise the need for this terminology – I have utter respect for those who have fought for the eradication of words like “negro” – I believe that these terms allow white people to talk about race without actually taking any responsibility for their own personal and institutional racism. These terms are made up by people who have no connection and no intention of bettering the lives of “ethnic minorities”.
Whether it’s BME, IC3, BAME, Ethnic Minority, or whatever term white people decide to come up with, our situation remains the same: overrepresentation in prisons, underemployment and #AllWhiteFrontPages.
People of Colour: it’s a descriptive title that some embrace and some reject. I’ve often heard in retaliation that white is a colour (it is) and therefore, that makes whites a person of colour as well. Unfortunately, this is a bit like “having your cake and eating it” due in part to historical inertia.
What I think people of colour refers to is simply anyone who is not part of the racial demographic that society caters to first and foremost. A person of colour is part of the “ethnic minority” in a country where white people make up the lion’s share of the population. Look at countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, for example: each of these countries saw whites – the demographic with absolute power – separate themselves from those that had darker skin than them and consequently forge an environment that looks to actively exclude as many people of colour as possible. So it was then and so it is now… but will it always be like this? Not if people of colour band together, learn from our own mistakes, and make a push for real change.
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