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.
PART 2 (Read Part 1 here)
Growing up in the UAE, we had never heard the terms ‘People of Colour’ or ‘Ethnic Minorities’, because at the time the UAE really was a melting pot of cultures and nationalities and white people were in fact a minority (albeit a minority with a lot of influence). After moving to the UK I gradually and painfully became aware of my ‘colour’, I was no longer just another Dubai-born-Pakistani living in the UAE like the majority of my peers, I was a Dubai-born-Pakistani living in the UK; I had an ‘ethnic origin’ and belonged to an apparent minority.
It couldn’t be clearer to me that all of the terms used to describe non-white people are a product of white privilege and racism embedded so deep within white people that they don’t even know or realize it exists. The majority of the world’s population are not white, so why are we then being referred to as minorities? And who gets to decide this? The white people in positions of power?
There is no denying that the term ‘People of Colour’ presents a unified front and brings together all racialized groups and their experiences. It has been used as a means of solidarity in challenging whiteness and/or white power, so if I was going to pick one term to use I would use this. However, I also believe frequent use of abbreviations of these terms such as POC or BAME reduces us to just that, terms and abbreviations, and dehumanizes us further for the people who already think they have a say in how we should or should not be described — this Spectator article is just one such example.
To quote Shonda Rhimes, “I really hate the word ‘diversity’, it suggests something… other. As if it is something… special. Or rare.” We are special but we are certainly not rare, and like Rhimes is ‘normalizing’ TV, we need to start normalizing our identities in the global community.
Adam Elliott-Cooper is a PhD researcher focusing on black community-police relations in the UK. Twitter: @adamec87
‘The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into the familiar shape; that is, a single easily pronounced word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation.… It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.
The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune. The word Comintern, on the other hand, suggests merely a tightly-knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine. It refers to something almost as easily recognised, and as limited in purpose, as a chair or a table. Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily’. (George Orwell, 1984)
Whether or not we agree with Orwell’s description of ‘Communist International’ is irrelevant. For many people in the powerful anti-capitalist movements of the time, the words ‘Communist International’ contained huge significance and symbolism. This can be transposed to words like ‘African Caribbean’ or ‘Black’ in the field of race equality today. For me, ‘Black’ is an inherently political term. Being politically Black engenders ideas of Black Power, which emerged from people of African heritage in Africa and the Americas. From the Haitian Revolution, the independence movements in the Caribbean, the Black freedom struggles in North America and the anti-racist movements in Britain, Blackness is intrinsically linked with political struggle.
Among the myriad acronyms and abbreviations used in government and policy, BME now dominates the race equality sector. BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnic. The first thing this abbreviation does is separate Black people (in this case African and African-Caribbean people) from other ‘minority ethnic’ peoples, homogenising those of Asian or Latin American descent. The second thing it does is make the word ‘minority’ central; however, this is a disempowering word and is often avoided for this reason. If not using the word Black to describe non-Europeans, then the term ‘Global Majority’ is a far more accurate and empowering designation.
Finally, of course, the ‘BME’ tag reduces the identities of victims of white supremacy to a single, three-letter abbreviation which, as a relatively new word, is divorced from the long history of oppression and resistance to racial subjugation. As Orwell put it, ‘words of two or three syllables, with the stress distributed equally between the first syllable and the last. The use of them encouraged a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous. And this was exactly what was aimed at. The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness‘.
The ability to articulate our experiences, feelings and demands depends on us having the necessary language to formulate and communicate them, both to ourselves and to each other. Without this skill, it is near-impossible to think, organise and act. It is for this reason that those in power attempt to subtly water down the language of empowerment, and it is this subtlety which we must be aware and suspicious of. It is only through articulating our own politics that we have the agency to deliver accurate critiques and build our own alternatives.
I was asked to update some words I wrote on terminology. Since the last article, the emergence of movements such as Black Lives Matter has changed our discussion on race completely. Despite the prominence of these movements, the discussion has not progressed as much as I would like.
The same terminology issues remain, despite the slow acceptance of the term people of colour by mainstream publications. This acceptance, however, has not come without its issues. The use of people of colour has, on occasion, been deployed to erase specific struggles within the diaspora, such as anti-blackness.
The use of people of colour in this manner takes away from focusing on oppressions of specific groups and is extremely counterproductive. Having said all this, I still believe that people of colour remains the best collective term for all non-white that does not centre whiteness.
Eleanor Lisney is a disability and feminism campaigner and the founder of Sisters of Frida, an experimental collective of disabled women. Twitter: @e_lisney
I have had two intense conversations with friends over the BME classification – for me, it signifies people of colour, skin colour, but then Polish and other Europeans are often included and I consider them as white. My Italian friend considers herself to be of an ethnic minority and then I am confused. If that is the case, would the Irish, the Welsh and the Scottish also be classed as BAME folks in England? My American Indian friend tells me she’s a woman of colour, not BAME; she does not see herself in those categories and refuses to be categorised as BAME.
My Italian friend is upset with me because I see her primarily as a white woman. This is where I see the classification of BAME problematic. I think if we used the term ‘person of colour’ there would be less of a reason for her to see herself as BAME even if Italians are a minority in this country and she feels discriminated against as an Italian/foreigner.
To be honest, I am not sure what being labelled as BAME serves. I was at a loss to explain what racial discrimination means as opposed to not being welcomed into a community – a stranger can take years before being accepted into an established community even if they are white. Of course the post referendum makes that even more difficult when there is indiscriminate targeting of all perceived non English folk. Being white does not mean being spared the venom of racists or xenophobic folks anymore.
Once upon a time there was a term called ‘political blackness’, and all black and brown people in Britain lived together in revolutionary solidarity. The end. Or perhaps that time didn’t exist, because I’m told by those who lived through such a fabled point in history that black people – ethnically black people, of African descent – took issue with such terminology even then.
Nevertheless, it’s 2016 and this generation of ethnically black people has said, ‘You know what? This “politically black” thing – we’re really not feeling it!’ Why will you not listen? Why does your solidarity extend to calling yourself ‘politically black’ but not to taking us seriously when we voice our concerns about erasure, sidelining and hijacking. Why is the term ‘black’ so important to you? I’m told that it’s because you get juicy grant money, opportunities and platforms by aligning yourself with ‘blackness’. Is this true? Because as our ‘allies’, you obviously know the specific obstacles, microaggressions and prejudice that we face in academia and the like, don’t you? As ethnically black people of African descent we face anti-blackness not just from white supremacy, but also from other brown communities that call us ‘kalu’ and see us as ‘abeed’ – but as our partners in solidarity, you know that, don’t you?
So why won’t you listen when we say that ‘political blackness’ is not helpful, and that it can be in fact harmful when our voices and presence are pushed out, spoken over, or outright ignored by our Middle Eastern, East Asian, and South Asian ‘allies’. Do you know what ‘solidarity’ and ‘unity’ really means? Or is this more posturing, like your ‘blackness’?
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This feature was commissioned and edited by MD’s founder and Editor-in-Chief Samantha Asumadu.