Skip to main content

We need a new vocabulary for inclusivity - Sian Mantovani

25 August 2022

In a recent NPR podcast entitled “Is it time to say RIP to POC?”, host Shareen Marisol Meraji declared, “race doesn’t make any sense- so none of the terms associated with it do”. The podcast sought to address issues surrounding preferred terminology associated with “race” and “ethnicity”. For example, should I use the term BAME or is people of colour a preferable option? I like to think that working in education, we are well intentioned people who like to keep abreast of issues, stay informed and are guided by principles of inclusivity and egalitarianism. But, to be blunt, this subject matter is tricky. There is a plethora of discourse and debate about what we say and to whom. Academics with far more experience, time and expertise than I, spend lifetimes studying language and the significance of the labels we use. This is simply a short blog which attempts to address some key issues and to stimulate thought. The more I looked into the topic of preferred terminology, the more I came to agree with Ms Meraji’s sentiment. Making sense of ‘race’ is not easy. So why bother?

Let me provide some context. I am currently in the very early stages in my PhD journey. My proposed topic is: Narratives of non-belonging: An ethnographic study exposing a blind spot in current institutional awareness of the experience of students of colour in a predominantly white FE college. In brief, I aim to interview students from ethnic minority backgrounds in order to give a voice to their experiences. The hope is that this will uncover something of a research “blindspot”, improve understanding, and perhaps afford insights which could inform strategies and policies in FE settings.

You may have noticed, though, that this title includes some controversial terminology. I opted to use the aggregate term ‘students of colour’ in reference to my study population and the college setting as “predominantly white”. This was an early decision, but not one I was convinced was appropriate. I’m still not.

In part, this is because “colour” is a subjective concept and fraught with a range of meaning. What do we mean when we describe someone as “white” or “black” or “brown”. The meanings we associate with colour are therefore variable and can often be imbued with positive or negative connotations especially when used to describe people. Critics of the term “person of colour” would argue what even is a person of colour anyway? This blog seeks to explore some reasons why we find it so difficult to arrive at terminology which encapsulates not only what we want to say but maybe what we intend socially and politically. Do we aim to include or exclude? Are we seeking to merely “describe” or impose a hierarchy?

Many discourses on race and ethnicity are predicated on the view that race is a social construct. This idea is supported by the argument that there are no distinct genetic races. As human beings, we share 99.9 per cent of our DNA with one another. Therefore, there is little independent, objective basis which supports the claim that different “races” exist. It is not a simple, biological entity. It is an artificial construct used to separate. Race as a construct tends to focus on outward, physical differences.

Ethnicity as a concept is arguably more complex. Ethnicity tends to be based on traditions, language, nationality or cultural heritage. In the main, when you think of your ethnicity, you look beyond your physical characteristics to traits that you share with the culture around you.

If we accept that race is a social construction, this leads to the further question: why would we do this? Jeff Greenidge, director for diversity at AoC, suggests we should consider not just the question of what we say, but why we might say it. He asked me to think about the circumstances in which we might need collective terminology and, perhaps more significantly, why would we want aggregate terms? According to philosopher Ian Hacking, the answer is largely because “we want to excuse or justify the domination of one race by another”. In Why Race Still Matters, Hacking posits that the existence of racial categorisations and distinctions exists to support and perpetuate racism. As Jeff Greenidge commented: “Ethnicity has a plurality. But does this mean that race is binary?”. In other words, used to distinguish between white and “other”?

The relationship between the social construction of race and racism is described by Dexter Dias in We Need to Talk About Race. According to Dias, 1,100 years ago, race was not an issue. At least not in the way that it exists today. People recognised differences but they did not “feel” race in the same way as they do now. For example, ethnicity was not a significant barrier to leadership or power. Skin colour was not a hurdle to high office in Roman times. However, as the so called “Age of Discovery” dawned in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, arriving Europeans needed to “justify the appropriation of land, resources and bodies” which characterised the colonial era. This was achieved by “deploying a notion that these people were not human in the same way”. Ideas of “racial” difference, superiority and inferiority developed as means to excuse chattel slavery. Thus, the social construction of race began in earnest.

Philosopher Michel Foucault largely agrees, arguing that comprehending the emergence of “knowledge production” is to consider how, over time, “structures of power produce categories such as race” as a means of justifying oppression and exploitation by the powerful at the expense of the powerless. These categories generate their own “truths” such as white supremacy, the roots of which are not biological but sociological and political. We create categories in order to create “otherness”: to include and to exclude. The “history” of terminology associated with race and ethnicity is therefore a very troubling one, rooted in the colonial past. We must be mindful of the motivations behind these social constructions and tread carefully when seeking to label ourselves but others even more so.

So, what of racial and ethnic categorisations in contemporary society, especially those connected with aggregate terms such as the aforementioned BAME and people of colour? Given the politics of belonging and none belonging associated with labelling, there is much to consider.

As a starting point, ethnicity is ideally a matter of self-identification. Put simply, you are who you say you are. It is not the place of another person to determine how one identifies. If not you who determines if you are Black- African or, Asian Pakistani, then someone else will. Do we really want to place this power in the hands of another? The history of state control over racial or ethnic categorisation is littered with abuse of power. As a general rule, individuals should determine their own labels.

It is important to note that identity is subjective. When faced with an ethnic monitoring form we have decisions to take. It often involves broad strokes and obfuscation. In my own case, I consider how much I feel the influence of my Irish great grandparents and my first-generation Anglo-Irish migrant grandparents. There is a level to which I can see myself as Irish. That’s just two generations on my maternal side to consider as “inherited” identity. There’s a whole other “side” to me too! And what about the influence of lived experience? Do I feel my ethnic identity is shaped by having lived in Australia and becoming a citizen of that country as well my ties to the UK? Should I declare myself “other” because of this dual nationality? Or do I, in any way, feel that I should pay recognition to my half Italian and half English husband and the cultural influence that his heritage has on our family?

Generally, I categorise myself without much attention afforded to this complexity. I usually fill in a form and tick the reductive option. White British. Most of my “story” is hidden. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. We all have complex narratives that shape our cultural and ethnic identities - and in an ideal world we would be open to discussions with each other about who we see ourselves to be and how we would like to be identified. I understand that we are hindered to some extent by those aforementioned best intentions. Few of us would seek to make our colleagues and students feel ‘other’ and would shy away from demanding to know ‘How do you identify your ethnicity?’ for fear of ‘causing offence’ or exploiting a power dynamic. I honestly don’t have a strategy for how we get around the awkwardness and open up a more meaningful discourse. But I do feel that injustice and inequality feed off ignorance and misunderstanding. In that sense, finding ways to chat about our individual experience and sense of how we see ourselves could be a positive step.

However, we don’t always get to talk to people as individuals. There are circumstances in which collective terminology is unavoidable and may in fact be desirable. In a recent New Yorker article, E.Tammy Kim argues that the impact of both Covid 19 and the Black Lives Matter movement has raised the issue of “whiteness and non-whiteness” to the fore. This has generated a focus and politicisation of aggregate terms, kindling debate both in the UK and globally.

In the US especially, the debate concerning preferred collective terminology tends to centre of the options of “person of colour”, “black and brown” and the neologism “BIPOC” which stands for “black, indigenous and people of colour”.

The origins of the term people of colour dates back to the French “gens de couleur” which was a term applied to mixed-race colonial subjects. In South Africa, the term came to be associated with multiracial identities of all kinds, ultimately morphing into “coloured”. This term remained a common one and was used to describe people from minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK until the 1960s or so. The term “coloured” was common in the US until well into the twentieth century. Its connotation was one of “otherness” and stigmatisation as found in its use to demark the separation between “whites” and “coloureds” during the era of segregation.

According to Kim, the term was re-appropriated and politicised in a different direction through the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1960s and 70. Martin Luther King referred to “citizens of colour” in his 1963 March on Washington. In the subsequent decades, the purpose of “people of colour” or POC as preferred terminology has come to signify the shared experience of those who either have been or could be the victims of racial oppression in any form. Supporters of the term claim it implies solidarity, shared experiences of none- whiteness and is more inclusive than terms such as black. These were the ideas which led me to opt for this term as the preferred one in my research proposal proposal, albeit made somewhat more specific by the referencing “students of colour”.

However, critics claim the term POC creates more divisions than it eliminates. Tolyani Shoneye argues in a recent article in the Independent that, as a black woman, she “hates” the term POC. She argues that POC silences black people and tames their power; “like it’s being hushed to make our identity more palatable”. Controversy also surrounds the argument that POC fails to capture the disproportionate per capita harm committed against black people by the state and their agencies. Black history and continued struggles are ‘lost’ and go unrecognised in this “catch all” term.

In the UK, the government has recently addressed this challenging topic. The term BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic groups) originally developed out of the less popular BME (black and minority ethnic groups). The latter raised controversy mostly due to the lack of attention afforded those of Asian background which the term BAME sought to address. However, BAME is no longer seen as the preferred aggregate term. Many who identify themselves as black dislike terms involving use of the word minority. The rationale behind this is that black people are the true global majority. BAME is also problematic because in seeking to create a “unified” term, some minority groups are excluded. Furthermore, BAME can also be used as a proxy term for “non-white” which could be seen as divisive, binary and overly simplistic. Finally, the term was not popular amongst people from ethnic minority groups. A YouGov survey in 2022 found that 45 per cent of the ethnic minority Britons surveyed saw BAME as an over-simplified term, almost twice the number who think the term improves understanding of ethnic minority groups. Two to one ethnic minority Britons saw the term BAME as a temporary fix which avoids addressing systemic racial issues rather than being part of a sustained effort to tackle systemic racial problems.

The questionable usefulness of the term BAME led the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity to report in March 2021 that aggregate terms like BAME are no longer helpful and should be dropped. They advocate instead, a focus on understanding disparities and outcome of specific ethnic groups. Building on this idea, the government responded with the Inclusive Britain report in 2022 which includes a commitment to “no longer use the term BAME” in government. The report advises the use specific ethnic classifications where possible. It suggests the use of ethnic categories as agreed in the Census e.g. Asian or Asian British with the subgroups, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Any other Asian background. Specificity is key. However, where grouping people together is absolutely necessary, “ethnic minorities” or people from ethnic minority backgrounds’ are the preferred terms. But again, the reference to “minority groups” is subject to the criticism of being a misleading term.

Interestingly, the Black Leadership Group has eschewed complex aggregate terminology: with a mission to “challenge systemic racism for the benefit of all black communities and the wider UK society as a whole” and “to further the interests of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds who share a lived experience of the effects of racism”, the emphasis is on tackling racism and those impacted by it. This seems to have resulted in the use of language that can potentially help create solidarity and focus on shared lived experience. No doubt, as with all aggregate terminology, there will be those who criticise the lack of specificity that is advocated by the government, for example.

This takes us back to the NPR podcast on the use of aggregate terms. Host Meraji cautions against their use, claiming that homogenising leads to erasing of unique characteristics and experience between groups. She too advocates specificity wherever possible. If you want to know how she identifies, just ask, she declares. Whilst this opens up another avenue of debate i.e. how to tackle this conversation in a way which causes least offense and greatest clarity, at least there is a guideline to follow. We need to afford consideration to who we ask, how we ask, when we ask and in what circumstances it is necessary or relevant to ask. But seeking to establish how others self-identify could be a baseline act of politeness.

For me, I’m thinking that all terms have their supporters and critics. Living in the UK, I will follow the advice of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity, focusing on being as specific in my use of terminology as I can and staying open to the discourse.

Despite the criticisms of so-called “wokeness” on the one hand and the concerns of the well intentioned of being “caught out” saying the “wrong thing”, staying up to date with terminology is actually an exciting and optimistic endeavour. It means that we are reconsidering and re-evaluating our past and present and taking steps to create a better, more egalitarian future. Obviously, there is a long way to go and racism still plagues society. However, ever evolving language is a positive sign that we are evolving. We must make the effort to keep up!


NPR podcast 30 Sept 2020. ‘Is it time to say RIP to POC?’, host Shareen Marisol Meraji and Gene Denby

‘Why Race Still Matters’, Ian Hacking. Daedelus. Winter 2005. Vol 134. No 1. On Race (Winter 2005). Pp 102-116. Published by : The MIT press on behalf of American Academy of Arts and Sceinces. URL: 20027965

‘We Need to Talk About Race’. Dexter Dias QC in Sociology Review. Vol 30. 2020-21

Michel Foucault in ‘We Need to Talk About Race’. Dexter Dias QC in Sociology Review. Vol 30. 2020-21

The Perils of People of Colour; E.Tammy Kim In New Yorker magazine. Annals of Activism July 29 2020

‘As a black woman, I hate the term people of colour’ Tolyani Shoneye in the Independent

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparity report. March 2021

A You topics/politics/articles/ reports/ 2022/01/18- how-do-ethic-minority-britons-feel-about-the-term-bame? Survey in 2022

Inclusive Britain report 2022

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.