In January 2014 we asked 10 writers on their opinions for terms and classifications used to describe traditionally marginalised people in the West. These were collected in our article series ‘Ethnic Minority? No, Global Majority’, Parts One and Two.
Since then the debate has raged on both sides of the pond.
The term ‘political blackness’ has become a huge flashpoint. In May 2015 the Guardian convened a panel on the term ‘BAME’, with the seeming consensus that the term ‘people of colour’ had sinister connotations.
We think it’s important that neither the government or the white owned and run mainstream media lead the conversation. So in this two-part series, we asked 10 writers from different backgrounds all currently living in the UK for their thoughts on this important issue.
Courttia Newland is the author of seven books, co-editor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, and an Impac Dublin Literary Award and Frank O’Connor Award nominee. @courttianewland
The question of what we as Black people in Britain call ourselves is a serious business. It’s something that’s weighed heavily on my mind since I (somewhat cynically) called my co-edited book of Black British writing IC3. Many people often say, ‘There’s no country called Black’. While I agree with this politically, that’s not strictly true.
Since antiquity, many African countries were indeed named with reference to Blackness. Kemet, the original name for Egypt (derived from ‘Kam’, the Egyptian word for ‘black’), means ‘the black land’. Ancient Greek scholars called the entire continent Ethiopia, meaning ‘The Land of the Burnt Faces’. And Arabian scholars called the continent Balad es-Sudan, meaning ‘land of the Blacks’. This was a seen as a positive, something I think we’d do well to reclaim. I personally don’t see black as negative, even if the English language does, so I see nothing wrong with being called it.
It’s been hypothesised that the word African comes from the Latin Afri, which means ‘all lands south of the Mediterranean’, or Ifri, a Berber word meaning ‘cave’. Ica, a suffix, comes from the Roman word denoting land. However, this has been called inaccurate, as Ivan van Setima claims the name comes from the Egyptian word Afru-ika meaning ‘birthplace’ or ‘motherland’.
Whatever the case, I believe Black should be reclaimed from its negative connotations. We shouldn’t allow something so fundamental (and let’s face it, so beautiful) to be used against us. Of course, the argument’s way more complex than I’ve given credit for here, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Black or African British suits me best. I’ve no doubt that will change by the time our children come of age and they define themselves. One thing’s for sure, it always does.
Kavita Bhanot is a short story and nonfiction author living between the UK and India, and the editor of the short fiction anthology Too Asian, Not Asian Enough.
I would reject any term that has been imposed on us for controlling, administrating, commodifying, any of those labels that we tick on forms; BME, BAME, diverse, Black-British, British-Asian, British-Muslim etc.
Black, as a political term from the 70s and 80s, served a purpose and has been important in anti-racist resistance. However, while it was due to the concerted effort of the British state, to label, categorise, divide-and-rule, and therefore break unity of resistance, that we began to identify ourselves instead in terms of regions and religions, through hyphenated identities (Black-British, British-Asian, British-Muslim) and acronyms, it seems to me disingenuous to continue using the label ‘black’. While we all suffer the consequences of colonialism, white supremacy, we don’t suffer equally; for example we can’t all lay claim to the degree of daily oppression and violence that black (and Muslim) men and women face, we have to engage with our privileges too, and racisms within.
However, there is something powerful and significant about those coming together, through alliance and solidarity, in the new wave of resistance to white supremacy. Perhaps we need a new self-created political identity to capture this. It is non-whiteness that unites us, but this defines us wholly through what we are not, through whiteness, therefore centring whiteness. This is also the case with ‘people of colour’; we are only ‘coloured’ insofar as the dominant norm is ‘white’, it was white people who referred to us (‘othered’ us) as ‘coloured’ – the word carries a racist history. Also some of us resisting white supremacy are not ‘coloured’. But this label seems to be the best option right now.
At the same time, I feel that this political identity is not enough on its own. Alongside this ‘anti’ identity that resists white supremacy, we also need something more positive, constructive (but also inevitable constructed) to rest our feet on. Something specific – one of the ways in which white supremacy dehumanises us is by homogenising us, our languages, cultures, art/music/literature, specific world-views and forms of faith. For some this identity might be connected to a religion/faith, a culture and history, a country or region of origin. I would refer to myself as Punjabi, which means something to me in terms of language, culture, identity, and because I reject, in terms of identity, the oppressive nations I am connected to – India and Britain.
The fear, however, is that in response to racism we can end up creating simplified fantasies out of complex lives, places, faiths, using these to serve a healing purpose for us, creating imaginary homelands, safe spaces. This can be a form of appropriation, colonisation, assertion of power over those who live in those places, who live the historically rooted intricacies as well as oppressions of those faiths and cultures.
Personally I’ve always leaned towards the suffix ‘of colour’, as I’m yet to hear a better qualification for any of the other suggested terms than the one given by Loretta Ross (which I’m sure most of us have already seen).
But there’s a problem with the entire PoC/BME/BAME/Ethnic minority discussion. Because not only do we have to untangle the knots of history, linguistics, as well as contemporary race theory and praxis to reach a degree of congruence, but we also have to deal with the assumptions, scepticism, and unhelpful contributions from others that come drenched in whiteness.
That’s why this conversation matters. Because identity matters. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t has clearly never had their identity questioned, scorned, or demeaned as a triviality. Toni Cade Bambara once said: ‘Words are to be taken seriously. I try to take seriously acts of language. Words set things in motion.’
So when trying to reach consensus and understanding of correct descriptors, it’s not to be argumentative. This isn’t a matter of semantics, but an important tool in shaping a more just, and less racist, world.
It’s often said – but I feel not fully comprehended – just how difficult life is. At times, it can feel like being engulfed in a thick fog. And it’s doubly difficult to find an escape when whiteness has released its hounds on you.
So while white opinions are superfluous and unproductive in this dialectic, white people do have a singular, important, and simple role to play: call off your hounds, and leave the rest of us to find our individual and collective way through the fog.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Meatspace, the Costa shortlisted novel Coconut Unlimited and the award-winning novella The Time Machine, and the editor of the forthcoming essay collection The Good Immigrant. Twitter: @nikeshshukla
I remember watching a talk by Farhad Dalal called ‘Where Discrimination Is Preferable To Tolerance’ where he asked us to look at him, a person of colour. ‘When you look at me,’ he asked, ‘do you see the things that make us the same? Or the things that make us different? Both involve erasure.’
That’s how I view the word ‘diversity’, the term ‘people of colour’, the government acronym ‘BAME’ or its predecessor ‘BME’. They all involve erasure. The homogenous mess that is the idea of being ‘not-white’, especially in a country that wants the world to see it as proudly multicultural, is dehumanising. Labels make things easier. Reductively so.
I’m always interested in how I’m described and how a writer like, say, Nick Hornby is described. He has never in his career been described as white writer Nick Hornby. I’ve been a British Asian author, an Indian author, even an author of colour. Never just an author on my own merit. I’ve won awards and had decent review for my work. But the way I’m described is still by ethnicity.
These labels become hoops for us to jump through. We’re still performing. We’re still subservient. We’re still simply not-white.
So I reject all these terms. I grew up listening to hip-hop. I remember hearing the adage, it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.
But I think it is actually where you’re from. And I’m from London. So until these labels cease to erase and dehumanise, call me a Londoner.
Daniel York is an actor, playwright and filmmaker who has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre (among many others), and is Chair of the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee. Twitter: @danielfyork
If anyone struggles under the weight of dodgy/misleading/exclusive terminology it’s surely people who are now being referred to as ‘East Asians’.
The Arts Council, after decades of stubborn resistance, have agreed to monitor the organisations they fund. A cause of celebration until we actually saw the list of ‘ethnicity categories’: whereas you can either be ‘Irish’ or ‘Northern Irish’, if you’re from anywhere east of India you’re either ‘Chinese’ or varying degrees of nefarious ‘Other’.
Let’s face it, the term ‘Asian’ in the UK (as opposed to the rest of the world) means people of exclusively South Asian descent. The rest was traditionally ‘Middle Eastern’ or, for us, ‘Oriental’. Make no bones about it whatsoever: ‘oriental’ is racist. It means, literally, ‘the further point East’. And you don’t get much more ‘Other’ than that. ‘Oriental’ began in the Ottoman Empire, shifted into ‘Arabia’ and then meant us mysterious, slant-eyed yellow people in the land of bamboo and setting sun. It can be used to refer to food and carpets and other inanimate objects but to people — i.e. real-life, living, breathing human beings — it cannot be used in all its exotifying colonialist tawdriness.
The fact it’s still being argued by some that there is nothing wrong with the term ‘oriental’ applied to all people from a geographic region larger than Europe says everything you need to know about the standing people of East and South-East Asian descent (yes, the two are actually distinct) are held in the UK. You surely wouldn’t describe us as ‘yellow’ with no irony either, would you? Yet as recently as 2010 the Arts Council saw fit to core-fund a theatre company called ‘Yellow Earth’ who christened everything else they did ‘yellow’ (Yellow Academy, Yellow Stage, Yellow Ink).
Yes, we have a long, long way to go.
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This feature was commissioned and edited by MD’s founder and Editor-in-Chief Samantha Asumadu.