A Critique of Ethnicity Taxonomies

By way of introduction: should you not already be familiar with how posts work on this blog, please be advised that quite a lot of people think that ‘blog post’ is not an accurate description for what one tends to find herein. At the same time, even if ‘essay’ is preferable, this word would not obtain in the strict ‘academic’ sense. What follows is essentially an informal piece of writing, but one with rather more teeth than the word ‘informal’ might suggest. It is motivated by the fact that in the ongoing debate about what I am characterising as ‘ethnicity taxonomies’ (which include but are not limited to what I characterise as ‘colour taxonomies’), I have not yet seen a discussion which raises the concerns that I will be trying to address in this post.

Please be advised that I completely disavow the document entitled Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report.

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I hold the following:

  • ‘BAME’ is imperfect by definition, but not for the reasons people tend to think and I accept it and use it given the circumstances in which we live under and cannot change. But to use ‘BAME’ as a ‘word’ that rhymes with ‘game’ is the height of disrespect. All four letters every single time, please!
  • I reject ‘BIPOC’ completely. I accept other people’s right to use it, but that is as much as I can say. Lexically, it makes no sense. Semantically, it is bankrupt and it is also less intrinsically inclusive than BAME. A defence of this position will follow further in this text.
  • I am (a) ‘of Guyanese heritage’, (b) Tanzanian birth; and I hold (c) British citizenship – and all of those are necessarily capitalised. By virtue of post-Enlightenment modernity – itself built upon slavery, imperialism and exploitation – I am also ‘black’. With caveats, I would also happily identify as ‘BGM’ (Black and Global Majority), My Guyanese parents were British citizens from birth. I have also held British citizenship and a British passport from birth and have now also lived in the UK for most of my life. As such, I am indisputably part of ‘Black Britain’ and therefore (happily) also ‘Black British’. BUT in the matter of cricket, I do support the West Indies as opposed to England, because Guyana is a co-opted part of the West Indies (despite the colonial issues in this rubric) – and so I also identify as both ‘West Indian’ and ‘Caribbean’ (more on this anon).
  • However, I am absolutely not ‘Black’ (as a stand-alone word). This relates to my rejection of BIPOC. More on all of this anon.
  • A person who thinks that ‘BAME’ can always be substituted by ‘BGM’ has not given sufficient attention to questions that arise about how identity is constructed in the ‘West’ and elsewhere. As a ‘Black South American’ I am proud to be part of a ‘global majority’ but here in the UK the function of my identity inhabits a human geographical landscape in which people of my ethnicity are indisputably in the minority.
  • The experience of the ‘Black Diaspora’ for Caribbean people/s and Black South Americans (who happen to be English-speaking rather than Spanish-or-Portuguese-speaking) is not the same as it is for African-Americans. Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ strikes yet again through the fact that the world is increasingly conditioned to define ‘b/Blackness’ solely (or at the very least, primarily) through the specific cultural apropos of the North American continent. This has had – and continues to have – a profound and deleterious effect on how other global communities whose identities are ethnically ‘b/Black’ understand and articulate their own senses of ethnic and racial (and even cultural) identity/ies.
  • It is possible that ‘brown’ and ‘yellow’ and other colour taxonomies can be used without insult, injury or any other form of epistemic violence – but to simply say that this would also be ‘contextually determined’ runs the risk of ignoring the fact that it is the ethical positionality of those in the discursive moment that is also critical to reference, meaning and understanding. ‘Single-word’ approaches are conceptually bankrupt – another place of insight that philosophers of language reached a long time ago, and one that actually empowers those of us for whom ‘colonial languages’ are not part of our ‘native’ identities.
  • Irrespective of who anyone might read/hear/see saying what (including world-famous academics): ‘b/Blacks’ is deeply offensive, and so (albeit differently) is ‘whites’. If we’re going there, we can at least say ‘b/Black people’ and ‘white people. Also, just because W.E.B. DuBois used ‘Negro’ in 1903 and LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) used the same word in 1963 does not mean that this word is acceptable in the 21st century (so yes, it’s ‘African-American spirituals’ as opposed to ‘Negro spirituals’, thank you kindly!). We now also prefer ‘African-Caribbean’ to ‘Afro-Caribbean’ and same is true for ‘African-American’ – and to that end, ‘African American’ in this un-hyphenated state makes much less sense grammatically than ‘African-American’ – so where popular use flouts grammar that badly, I go with grammar because once we start abusing grammar, we abdicate any right to being understood. [Also, in The Autobiography of Malcolm X a sordid anecdote is told in which disctinctions are made between ‘real’ Negroes – who are ‘black’ (he did not capitalise) – as opposed to ‘brown Negroes’ or ‘red Negroes’. This history of terminology is deeper and darker than we are ready for…]

Let us go down this road together and see how far we get!

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Before we get to what this blog post is characterising as ‘ethnicity taxonomies’, let us begin with an acronym that has now become de rigeur in the English-speaking West: ‘EDI’, which originally stood – and in most cases still stands – for ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’. Since the murder (how we needed a court case to decide a matter for which there was incontrovertible evidence globally available to anybody with access to the internet is another matter, but…) of George Perry Floyd, Jr. (1973-2020), I seem to have become rather more involved in enterprises with the label ‘EDI’. Prior to this heinous event I was very pleased to be the Board Champion for EDI for Jazz North. Since then I have become part of multiple working groups (WGs) within EDIMS (the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion In Music Studies Network, covering the entire vanguard of tertiary music education in the UK). In addition to having been appointed as the inaugural EDI Lead and Chair of the EDI Working Group for the British Forum for Ethnomusicology, I have also been invited to join the Committee of the Royal Musical Association Music Philosophy Study Group to lead on EDI issues. I now also sit on the EDI Steering Committee of the Ivors Academy.

Were you to think that this little roll-call of activity is an attempt to bolster some notional sense that my involvement with these enterprises (in and of itself) constitutes evidence that I should be taken seriously as somebody knowledgeable about EDI, you would be making a very understandable but totally egregious error. As a professional musician and educator, I have endeavoured to get people to understand the following principle: something is not good because other people say it is good; it is good because it is good. Full stop (period). However, that does not mean that when other people say something is good, it is automatically not true. It does mean that what makes something good is not the fact that other people recognise it as such. So people can decide to promote an individual to a position of authority in a given context (or more than one), but that is not the proof that the person possesses the competence upon which their authority is built. And of course, a person may have authority by virtue of competence and maybe even also wisdom – but they may never be recognised by others in the way that society tends to insist upon. The point I am making is that whatever positivities that inhere within the fact that I have now finally been given a handful of opportunities to try and do something to make a difference are only what they are. White professional and academic gatekeepers are not qualified to judge aspects of my character with specific regard to the question of whether or not I have abdicated my cultural and ethnic identities or otherwise; so my competence in the discursive arena that we typify as ‘EDI’ does not depend on the acknowledgement of people without my lived experience – and it also does not depend on the acknowledgement of those who do share my lived experience. For A to know 100% if B actually knows who they (B) are and lives genuinely and sincerely by that, A would have to have the ability to inhabit B’s head – and that is of course impossible. If I make these appointments proof to my own cognition that I am competent in the area of EDI, I will have abdicated more – and lost more still – than I have gained.

In the aftermath of the death of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. the development of the discipline we now know as African-American Studies was quickly understood as a vanguard of academic activity in which white people were not supposed to speak on behalf of black people. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that it is not unknown for white scholars to make academic specialisms out of African-American music – but notwithstanding, across the entire North American continent, somebody who professes to hold a title such as ‘Professor of African-American Studies’ would be expected to be b/Black. This does not mean that there are no serious issues with white ownership and exploitation of EDI issues in the US (and the case of Robin DiAngelo will be referenced later in this document) – but in the context of African-American Studies no white person can credibly expect to speak on behalf of (Black) people, and this discipline is established.

This is simply not the case here in the UK, where I am based and from where I write. At the time this post is being written, Black British Studies does not exist, and neither does African-Caribbean Studies (‘Black Studies’ is being tried out in one or two HEIs, but I am not sure that rubric has any real future despite the good work of people like Kehinde Andrews et al). White people have been ‘speaking on behalf of’ b/Black and BAME people for as long as I can remember, and continue to set agendas and act as gatekeepers of the academic studies that involve postcolonial and decolonial theories, as well as how we should understand racism in every research context from psychiatry to criminology to literature to Frantz Fanon’s legacy – in many cases, actively repressing b/Black and BAME researchers whose ideas threaten the status quo. I was a legal adult for twenty years attending EDI training events and at no stage were they ever delivered by someone who was not white – until George Floyd died. And now there is an entirely inchoate flurry of activity in the cause of presenting various forms of ‘wokeness’ and expressing various forms of ‘allyship’ – but if one looks at the people who are directing EDI enterprises here in the UK, the majority are still white. And so what I wish to communicate very carefully at this moment is that I can see that a significant number of fellow citizens here in the UK who, like me, are not white, have decided that there is no point in becoming involved in any sort of EDI and EDI-esque activity because our voices are not privileged in these conversations.

However, if all of us take this approach, then there is no possible way that the status quo can change; and so I am investing my time and affective labour into these enterprises for reasons which include genuine hope that in doing so I can play some part in improving things for generations to come. Recently, I have been invited to work with a national organisation working at an intersection of arts and health and they have stressed ‘EDIB’ as opposed to ‘EDI’, with the ‘B’ denoting ‘belonging’. I really believe that this is potentially a good way forward, but I am not investing any time and effort into pushing anyone to try and adopt the extra ‘character’ – because there is far too much work already involved in trying to help people understand that we need to talk about ‘equity’ as well as (and at certain times, instead of) ‘equality’. This does not mean, however, that I do not hope that a time will come when more of us will feel that we do really and truly ‘belong’ wherever we choose to make a home for ourselves.

It does mean, however, that I do not believe that the mere fact of creating, espousing and even enforcing rubrics such as ‘EDI’ and ‘EDIB’ – in and of themselves – constitute manifestations of increased equity, diversity, inclusivity and belonging. For that to happen, something much more than short-scale lexical assignation is required.

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I recently attended a fabulous gathering of the Ethnomusicology Reading Group in which we began this term’s discussion on music, disability and dance. Unsurprisingly, the discussion included observations such as the fact that although we no longer use the word ‘handicapped’ in the English language (along with other notorious words of bygone eras such as ‘caste’, its even more nefarious cognate ‘half-caste’ and ‘Negro’ etc), the word ‘disabled’ is increasingly offensive. I wish to use this situation to illustrate a particularly important ‘shift of attention from words to sentences… [t]he the primary vehicle of meaning is seen no longer as the word but as the sentence… [t]he meanings of words are abstractions from the truth conditions of sentences that contain them’ (Quine 1981: 69-70) that took place in twentieth-century philosophy of language, but one that seems to be remarkably unknown (even in a broad academic landscape in which meniscus-level lexical gluttony is all but pathological – by which I mean that exponents of different disciplines whimsically appropriate word-concepts from other disciplines without any real interest in the semantic and syntactic verities that inhere within the words/lexemes as used in their original contexts). Perhaps one reason for this is the simple fact that the level of effort required to appraise clarity in sentences is much greater than that required to seemingly appraise clarity in single words. In an age where words are dropping out of languages and not being replaced – and the role of technology in this phenomenon (increasing numbers of people will simply choose not to use a word that their spellchecker cannot guarantee the correct spelling thereof), a single word is a low-hanging fruit. And so we replace words with other words when the original words are deemed no longer fit for purpose and deceive ourselves into thinking that this is the practice of equity. White liberals commit this mistake from one set of perspectival lenses. Everyone else commits the same mistake from different-and-respective sets of perspectival lenses. And so circumstances obtain where a black (as I stated at the outset, I am not ‘Black’ but I hereby acknowledge the right of fellow diasporic black/Black people to choose differently hence my decision – inspired in part by the situation of d/Deafness – to use b/Black at certain times; more on this later) person such as myself who happens to be male, cisgender and heterosexual finds himself occasionally oppressed by someone who is white and gender non-binary who insists that I must construct my own articulation of my gender identity in the exact same way that they do – failing to recognise that this very positionality is emblematic of white privilege. And if one ‘calls out’ such a person on this, one is almost guaranteed to see white fragility manifest itself.

What applies to single words also applies to acronyms. Now, while there is a certain childlike delight in an acronym the letters of which can correspond to a word that is deemed in some way appropriate to the context that is espoused by various people, it would appear to be the case that any acronym that contains a sufficiently fertile combination of consonants and vowels will automatically become some type of ‘new’ ‘word’ (and yes, both of those words are supposed to be in their individual quotation marks). No prizes for guessing which acronym I now have in mind. Here is an excerpt from a BBC News article entitled ‘Don’t Call Me BAME’:

‘Professor Ted Cantle, who chairs cohesion and integration charity Belong, says the origin of the term goes back to the 60s and 70s when people referred to the ‘black community’.

“But, gradually, people said, ‘Well, the Asian community is not represented’ so it became ‘black and Asian’.

“Then, it was pointed out there were other minority ethnic groups in the country as well. So it became ‘BME [Black and Minority Ethnic]’. But not all of those minority ethnic groups were black. So it became ‘BAME’ [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic].”

He says although, on the face of it, the term “does lump a lot of minorities together”, in practical terms, that is not always the case.

“We often find that a particular organisation or institution wouldn’t actually just focus on that broad BAME group. They would try and break it down.

“So if it was a school for example, identifying which particular children needed support, they would look at black Caribbeans, perhaps the Chinese community, or Eastern Europeans who didn’t have English as the first language.

“They would, in other words… target it towards particular needs.”

But the practical use of the term isn’t always felt by those who are labelled with it.’

Now, as far as I am concerned, this is quite coherent. I wish to suggest that one way to improve the level of thinking about these issues could be to make a distinction between ‘positive’ assertions of ethnic identity and ‘negative’ assertions of ethnic identity – but it will still always be the context that determines how any individual words or acronyms should be understood. ‘BME’ (still used today in contexts where one would expect better, such as academic job advertisements at Russell Group universities) is anachronistic, and I offer just two reasons for now: (a) both black Caribbean and African people groups and all Asian people groups (representing an even wider variety of ‘ethnicities’) merit their own individual identity markers in an acronym of this sort as the most populous of the ‘minority communities’ here in the UK); (b) the idea that any Asian people could be conflated into ‘black’ is disrespectful in the extreme to both Asian people and black people. [The question of whether or not Asian people and their histories should be included in ‘Black History Month’ is a supremely vexed and loaded question, but even where one takes the answer to be ‘yes’, Asians are still never ‘b/Black’.]

When Professor Cantle observes that ‘BAME’ seems to ‘lump a lot of minorities together’ on the face of it, he is pointing to what I wish to characterise as a ‘negative assertion of identity’. There is more material to consider before an argument is more seriously developed, but let me begin that process by identifying the following: if a person is going to disavow the validity of ‘BAME’, then that is fine – but for their argument to succeed, they would have to be able to unambiguously demonstrate that there is a ‘superior’ assignation (whether in the form of a word, lexeme or acronym) that is more instrumentally successful than ‘BAME’. Not only that: the argument will also have to show that there is no context whatsoever in which it is valid to make a reference to anyone and everyone who is ‘other-than-white’. As a researcher who is now beginning to work on questions of how ‘whiteness’ is understood, it is no longer possible for me to even begin to take seriously the idea that whiteness ‘others’ in layered and nuanced ways. The ‘sophisticated’ racism of John Locke (whose anthropological hierarchy placed Native American peoples higher up the food chain than ‘Negroes’) with its theological (or to be more accurate, pseudo-theological) overtones and nuances should have been a relic of a bygone era, but the insidious truth is that more aspects of Locke’s anthropology have survived and (continue to) thrive than many white liberal people – Christians included – care to think about (reference to a similar phenomenon re: Belgium in Rwanda will be made later). However, there is a way for a person with the wrong amount of melanin to become accepted in white societies: simply abdicate one’s ethnic and cultural identity/ies. This raises the critical issue of class – both separate and distinct from but yet also directly related to race. Class processing takes place within communities of ALL ethnicities and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And it is part of what makes it possible for white people who choose to ‘other’ everyone else to make individual decisions as to which members of minority communities they will accept (on the basis of those individuals’ willingness to live in mimetic thrall to whiteness).

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In the process of writing this post, I have continued to experience that unique situation whereby the type of thinking one does ‘in one’s head’ is not quite the same as the type of thinking that one does when ‘thinking out loud’ – which is again qualitatively different from the type of thinking that takes place in the specific act of writing. I am starting to think (in ways that were not possible before I began writing this blog post) that class itself is playing a much bigger role in some of these disavowals of ‘BAME’. But it is not a superficially normative understanding of ‘class’ that I have in mind; I am starting to discern a framework that lives a ghost-like existence (yes, there is indeed a lexical allusive relationship to Gilbert Ryle’s ‘ghost in the machine’ being leveraged here) that subsists primarily outside the reach of language processing, thus making it extraordinarily difficult – indeed, impossible – for those who think in that way to ‘own’ this fact. And to begin the process of explicating what I have in mind, let us consider three examples of ‘partition’:

  • INDIA (‘British India’): becomes the Dominions of India and Pakistan, which in turn become ‘Republics’, with Pakistan later splitting into ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Bangladesh’.
  • CYPRUS: this is an absolute hornets’ nest of a situation, not easily summarised without distorting the facts. It is easy to say that the island is divided into ‘Greek’ and ‘Cypriot’ territories, and this is not an occasion in which colonial powers imposed ‘partition’ – but the challenges the country has faced since gaining its independence from Britain in 1960 are more profound and more disturbing than many have understood.
  • RWANDA: it is unfortunate that the only story told in recent times is that of the ‘1994 genocide’. Some versions of the story hold that colonising powers (i.e. the Belgians) were responsible for ‘partitioning’ the Rwandan people into ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’. This is a situation in which one has to decide which sources to believe; some are much more academically credible than others. A heavily truncated version of what I personally understand would be as follows: however we understand the actual origins of the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, the consequences of two successive colonial powers (Germany and Belgium) favouring one of these groups over the other led to a series of circumstances that culminated in the 1994 genocide (an event denied by some, just as with the Nazi genocide). One leading African academic (Mahmood Mamdani, 2001) has argued that the Belgians designated people as Tutsi or Hutu on the basis of cattle ownership, physical measurements and church records. This would have been another enforced ‘partition’ that did not necessarily involve the specificity of ‘geography’.

I wonder why it is so easy for us to forget that class divisions are not unique to colonising powers? Social stratification really would appear to be a uniquely human phenomenon manifested in different ways across different regional territories and people groups. I once studied theology alongside a female scholar from Indonesia and another female scholar from India, both of whom had done their Masters-level theological training in Germany (learning German in the process). Both of them were cardinally concerned with questions of caste and class in general. The Indonesian lady was researching the issue of ‘inter-caste’ marriages within Christian communities, and that is how I came to learn that missionaries to both Indonesia and India decided that it would be prudent to allow the indigenous people to keep the caste system if that meant they would accept Christianity. Given that Christian theology and teachings really and truly do not allow for any sort of caste system, there is no simple answer to a cynic who chooses to decry Christianity on the basis of the decisions made by these missionaries. But then, it turns out that the Indian lady had a very specific story to tell about how Christian teachings had enabled her people – on the lowest level of the caste ladder – to understand themselves as not being anthropologically inferior to those of higher castes. This was true despite the fact that Indian people had also been allowed to keep the caste system in the context of their practice of Christianity; and in the specific territory that her research was focusing upon, this message of non-inferiority was really driven home, and this obviously contrasted with the ways in which ideas about Christianity and class have been promulgated elsewhere in the same country.

I have all of these things in mind (and more) as I think about the fact that a policeman of ‘Asian heritage’ was also complicit in the death of George Floyd, and there are several words that could describe the feelings I have about the fact that almost no attention has been paid to this aspect of the story. So if you will forgive me being stupendously ‘incorrect’ in order to drive home this point: non-white people do not need white people to tell them how to divide and stratify other human beings, and as I listen to the rhetoric of certain Asian politicians in Boris Johnson’s government, I can only wonder if there are some people of Asian heritage who have no interest in any linguistic emblem that would see them on the same level of both anthropos and ethnos as b/Black people. I can only wonder. I could not be more aware of the loaded and contested nature of this question, but it is time to stop playing the fool and going round and round the proverbial mulberry bushes – because inter-ethnic-minority solidarity should be more advanced than it is. And if (again, this is deliberately wrong to make the point) non-white people make the mistake of blaming white people for this, then we have committed the same extraordinary, scarcely-believable fallacy committed by the authors of the Runnymede Trust’s public response to the Sewell Report: the argument that it is ultimately the Prime Minister who is responsible for this report suggests that Tony Sewell and his colleagues had no choice but to write what they wrote, and that they did not possess the agency to either write a different report or say ‘no’ to the opportunity. Boris Johnson is responsible for a number of terrible things, but anybody who says ‘yes’ to his agenda has to be held accountable for their own actions. And for that reason, I have not been able to sign that particular open letter. This is, very sadly, a great example for an undergraduate class in critical thinking of how not to think.

What I hope is becoming clear includes the following: there are varieties of ways in which human beings model themselves on each other within societies and on other people from other societies, and there are also many ways in which human beings look to distinguish themselves from other people. The fact that ‘colourism’ has become a thing is of course based on historicity: in certain contexts and environments, slaves with lighter skin tone/s were privileged over those who were much darker. So those light-skinned slaves may have enjoyed a better quality-of-life than others, but it would be a mistake to even begin to think that they were considered to be higher up the anthropological food chain than others (although, interestingly and weirdly, the Belgian preference for the Tutsi people of Rwanda appears to have been based on some idea that they were of Ethiopian ‘extraction’  – another less than helpful word-concept – and therefore actually somehow ‘racially superior’ to the Hutu). And so both the types of attachment and disavowal that we are seeing in relation to all of these ‘ethnicity taxonomies’ should be serving as a massive cautionary tale – because the consequences of colonialism and imperialism now mean that it is almost impossible to find a single rubric or broader taxonomic schema that is not in and of itself emblematic of systemic injustice to someone, somewhere. So the sordid reality is: (with aforementioned caveats) non-white people protest against the taxonomic assignations of white people and offer alternatives, only for one to find that these alternatives are no less redolent with colonial-anthropological presuppositions – because in actual fact, the instinct for class processing is – in the final analysis – the opposite of a uniquely Western phenomenon.

Let us take a look at one of the more important and specific campaigns against ‘BAME’: #BAMEOver, whose manifesto can be found here.

BAMEOver: Our terms of reference

We do not want to be grouped into a meaningless, collective term, or reduced to acronyms.

We are African Diaspora people

We are South, East, and South East Asian diaspora people.

We are Middle East and North African people.

We are ethnically diverse.

We are people who experience racism.

Use these terms in any order you choose.

Just don’t call us BAME.

This is one of many pieces of writing that have given me a massive headache. Yes, there are many areas in which I would be 100% in accord with this campaign. But this entire document is representative of a type of thinking that as a black person standing in solidarity with Black persons and all others from ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘BGM’ communities I am totally unable to promote. This is not the standard of thinking that will take us to any kind of ‘promised land’ and it will ensure that the concerns of ‘non-white’ (do not forget my previous-and-ongoing caveat) people continue to not be taken seriously by white people with power. Let us consider a few of these problems.

  1. What exactly is the definition of an ‘African Diaspora person’? If the idea here is to not simply use the word ‘b/Black’, then the principle of that is fine, but how is this superior? What is the difference between a black person born in Kingston, Jamaica and a black person born in Kingston, Surrey (UK)? Technically, both are ‘African Diaspora people’, and so is an African-American. But what about the case of a person such as the academic I previously mentioned, Mahmood Mamdani, who self-identifies as ‘Ugandan’ despite having been born in India? This man has given his life to the development of thought, politics and societies of Africa. When he went abroad to study as the holder of a Ugandan passport, was he part of the ‘African diaspora’ in the US? Or is that not possible because he was not born on the continent – or is not ethnically ‘black’? This means that we would also have to distinguish between ‘African Diaspora people’ and ‘African people’ – and at this point in history, what would be the point of doing that? Why have the authors of this manifesto not recognised that fact?! If Mamdani is a Ugandan who was born in India, we have a situation in which ‘citizenship’ supersedes ‘ethnicity’, and where although Uganda is in Africa, we could feasibly avoid describing Mamdani as ‘African’ – but are we sure we really want to insist that a person who is ‘African’ must be black?! The importance and necessity of referencing the African diaspora is not up for debate, but the insistence that the rubric ‘African Diaspora person’ is actually useful makes no sense to me as a South American Caribbean of African birth.
  2. I recall one academic conference in which several scholars from ‘South Asia’ spoke out against this rubric, and I understand that the same types of conversations take place in Sinophone academic circles. ‘East Asia’ and ‘Southeast Asia’ are also socio-geographic inventions that have been imposed externally – so the idea that ‘BAME’ is qualitatively inferior to ‘South Asia’ (for example) will not bear scrutiny – at least, not in a genuinely academic context.
  3. ‘Diaspora’: a complicated word by virtue of its complicated history. Encoded in the Greek etymological origins of this word is the understanding that the ‘dispersal’ of people is enforced. In the iconic text Blues People, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) makes the point that African-Americans are the only immigrant population in the US who did not choose to be there. So the fact that this word has now changed meaning – by virtue of a widening of definition to include all sort of dispersal/migration/displacement of people – has actually weakened the force of the original word quite considerably. The migration of Eastern European Jews to the US is a completely different anthropological phenomenon to the migration of Italians to the US. It is not clear to me that the word ‘diaspora’ is actually being understood for what it should be understood to mean when one talks about the African-American spirituals as an ‘African diasporic genre’ – because the so-called ‘white spirituals’ (yes, there really was and is a separate canon of spirituals that were not the aesthetic production of Black people) represent a type of (in this instance, ‘so-called’) diasporic experience that is as far away from that of Black people in America as the east is from the west. The writers of this manifesto really should have done the homework on this before choosing to use a word like ‘diaspora’ in this kind of way. It is obviously not meant to be offensive, but speaking for myself: I find the use of ‘diaspora’ outside the context of suffering, oppression and enforced migration to be entirely repugnant.
  4. ‘Ethnically diverse’: one of the most interesting things about the black author Caryl Phillips’ White Tribe is his personal account of various types of ethnic diversity found within white European communities. There is no way that an ethnically white person from Argentina or Paraguay and an ethnically white Ashkenazi Jew inhabit the same framework of ethnicity as a white English person or a white person from anywhere in Scandinavia (and even in this context, the Finns do not inhabit ‘Scandinavia’ in the same way as the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians; there are more nuances at work here than some of us want to deal with, and outside this part of Europe, the concept of ‘Scandinavia’ plays very differently to how it is understood, articulated and experienced in these four countries). As you can see, I have made indisputably legitimate use of the lexeme ‘ethnically diverse’ whilst successfully avoiding any mention of non-white identities. Another model of conceptual bankruptcy, and we will come back to the first word of this lexeme very shortly.
  5. ‘People who experience racism’ as a substitute for BAME? Just because there are serious problems of structural inequity and systematic racism that people who are not white face on a daily basis does not mean that no white person experiences racism. I am tired of those who argue that – especially if we are b/Black – the racism that other people may undergo is of no concern to us because we have it worse than anyone else. As a black person, I do not deny for a second that b/Black people are at the very bottom of the food chain, but I am going to once again flout (albeit VERY advisedly) the conventions of political correctness to use a negative word; and I will do so in the context of saying that this idea is a supreme example of what at one time we would have called a ‘ghetto mentality’. I am sympathetic to the reasons why we no longer use the word ‘ghetto’ even within strict parameters; like the word ‘Negro’, it can only be justifiably used in the context of an explication such as this. But one problem that has been created is that whereas at the time it became no longer appropriate to use the word ‘ghetto’, diasporic b/Black people were in no confusion as to the meaning of ‘ghetto mindset’, we are now struggling to talk about that exact phenomenon because we have no replacement lexeme. Of course, one of the reasons why the authors of this manifesto will have thought it was a good idea to include this criterion is the pseudo-argument that it is not possible for a b/Black person to be racist because they lack the social capital to be racist – and so then by extension, it seems entirely reasonable that white people cannot experience racism. I am just about to marry a white English lady and I can certainly tell you that white people experience racism – and shame upon every non-white person (remember my caveat – and I have to keep referring to this because somebody who does not like the trajectory of this blog post may well try to quote me out of context and conveniently ignore the fact that ‘non-white’ is being used in a very specific way within the context of this narrative) who does not accept this. Why have we failed to understand that if we abdicate our moral authority in these kinds of ways, we ensure that we cannot be taken seriously outside our own little enclaves?!?!

Let us look at one more stake in this manifesto:

BAMEOver: Rules for engagement

#1: Language is evolving. Deal with it. The terms we’ve agreed today may change in the future. Times change: come with us.

#2: If you don’t know and need to know, ASK. We are now comfortable with asking people, ‘What is your preferred pronoun?’. We can do the same with ‘How do you describe your ethnicity?’.

#3: Collective terminology is necessary: acronyms are not. Nobody wants to be reduced to an acronym. Especially an acronym that is inaccurate.

#4: We reject BAME. The term unhelpfully blends ethnicity, geography, nationality – and in doing so erases our identity and reduces us to an ‘other’.

#5: We reject ‘Minority: we are the global majority. And we reject ‘ethnic’. This terminology is centred on you seeing us as different.

#6: Call us by our name. Be specific. Understand the terms you use.

#7: We’re people first. Not a colour. Not a continent. Never say ‘blacks’ just as you wouldn’t say ‘whites’ (unless you’re talking about washing).

#8: People of Colour is a US term, as is ‘Black, Indigenous and People of Colour’. In the UK for many people over 35 this has uncomfortable resonance with the racist terminology ‘coloureds’. The ‘colour’ of one’s skin is not what we have in common, it is our lived experience of racism directed against us.

  1. #1 is one of the better parts of the manifesto. But that does not mean I am going with these guys. The times have already changed and they are behind the curve.
  2. #2 seems straightforward enough; but then if ‘ethnicity’ is accepted, how should we understand the last clause of #5? What possible justification is there for accepting a noun but not the cognate adjective?! If one is going to reject ‘ethnic’, then that is understandable given the slipshod ways in which this adjective continues to be used, but it makes absolutely no sense to reject the adjective but accept the noun when it is the exact same ‘word-concept’ that inheres in both…!!! There is no dimension in which that can actually make sense, but the fact that both outside and inside academia growing numbers of people want to disavow the adjective ‘ethnic’ without disavowing the noun (i.e. the concept of) ‘ethnicity’ points to yet more disturbing examples of what I have described elsewhere as ‘functionally irrational language use’. Ethnos has a history; look it up for yourself if necessary. Of course, if we get rid of ‘ethnicity’ and we have already disavowed ‘race’, we will have something of a quandary – which is why the aforementioned observation by Quine (and Frege, and Russell, and others) concerning the importance of deriving meaning from sentences rather than single words is so important. Here is another example of what is not really a cardinal obsession with single words, but rather an example of cardinal unwillingness to do the hard work of thinking carefully about language, meaning, reference – etc.
  3. #3 is another example of an idea that flatters to deceive. The idea that an acronym is inherently less respectful than a term can only come from people who have no real idea how language – and power – actually work. Nobody wants to be ‘reduced’ – full stop. But we are – and making an enemy out of acronyms as opposed to ‘collective terminology’ without offering a technical argument as to exactly what makes an acronym so offensive is another example of an (non)argument that would be gutted beyond redemption by a bunch of undergraduates studying critical thinking.
  4. Re #4: All (remember the caveat) non-white people ARE othered. This cannot be avoided. BAME is not a paragon of positivity, but given what I have said earlier there is no need to repeat myself on this occasion.
  5. #5 has already been mentioned on more than one occasion, and it is time to make a qualitative comparison between ‘BIPOC’ and ‘BAME’. ‘Black, Indigenous (and) People of Colour’ is specious and misrepresentative by virtue of the fact that the lexeme implies that ‘Black’ is intrinsically separate to both ‘indigeneity’ and ‘personhood of colour’ (yes, there IS a reason why that doesn’t work!). Given that it is of course possible for one to be either black or white and also ‘indigenous‘, this can ONLY make sense in the specific context of the US human-geographical landscape – which means that in the same way that the writers of this (UK) manifesto say ‘we’ in the context of rejecting ‘minority’, the BIPOC formulation can only be for ‘other-than-white’ – except that immigrant Nigerians and Haitians will not be externally-visually perceived as ‘indigenous’, only as ‘Black’. Must these people be denied their indigeneity for the ‘First Nation’ peoples of the US to have their own identity markers?! Maybe not – but then ‘people of colour’ of course includes ‘Black’ and so any other ethnicity is not represented. Do people from the Middle East accept ‘brown’ in the way/s that some (Southern) Asian people do? And what about people of Jewish ethnicity as well as heritage? Again, ‘we reject ‘minority’ unambiguously situates everyone who is not in the ‘majority’ and that can only include people of different ethnicities – but the problem is that if one rejects an overall umbrella term for all ‘other-than-white’ people, this sentence beginning ‘we’ has no meaning, because no such ‘we’ exists! So context determines ‘majority’ and ‘minority’. In the UK, I am indeed an ‘ethnic minority’. On the African continent and in the Caribbean, I would be part of BGM – but in Latin America, a country like Brazil has people who are both ‘ethnically white’ and ‘ethnically black’ and various other ‘ethnicities’ all inhabiting the same space – and the ‘majority-minority’ axis is not the same binary formulative reality as in the ‘West’ (should we say ‘North?!’). It makes no sense to behave as if the lexeme ‘ethnic minority’ has no purchase power when we are talking about the lived experiences of immigrant communities in Britain – and it makes equally no sense to use the lexeme ‘ethnic minority’ when talking about the experience of the Twi or Ewe people of Ghana in Ghana (for example). BAME (further explication of this acronym will follow later in this text) has the capacity to include: (a) all ethnically b/Black people; (b) all people from the vast continent of Asia; (c) all Jewish people (including those who are ethnically white); (d) all people from the so-called ‘Global South’ who are not already represented (again, including those who are ethnically white); (e) all Roma (still ‘Gypsy’ in certain specific contexts) and Travellers of Irish Heritage (would some of these people see themselves as ‘white’ even if they look that way to others?! More below…); (f) people of mixed ethnicities and identities which include any of the foregoing, irrespective of whether or not part of their identity is ‘white’; (g) even people who may be ethnically white but who are not native-language speakers of ‘Western European’ languages and who are ‘othered’ by virtue of their accents etc. There is indeed a ‘we’ and all these folks are part of that ‘we’ and in the context of a native English-speaking country called ‘England’ (who knew?!) we are all part of the ‘minority’. And so I repeat once again: this unreflective, superficial binary thinking must be disavowed.
  6. On a more positive note: #7 is one of the most important observations in this manifesto, and one I am happy to endorse. This does not mean that I am going to hurt anybody who uses the words ‘African’ or ‘Asian’ just because they have done so – again, context determines use and validity of meaning. But on many occasions where ‘African’ and ‘Asian’ is used, people can definitely be more specific. And while there is no context in which we will be able to get away from ‘colour taxonomies’ completely, we do not have to make them ‘alpha’. This links to the next point, but before we get there, one should note that it is unfortunately more customary than would be ideal for African-Americans to talk about (in their context) ‘Blacks’ and ‘whites’ (where the former is intentionally capitalised and the latter equally intentionally not). I have not ever done this and will continue to fight all people – including fellow diasporic b/Black people – who do so.
  7. #8 is also one of the most important observations of this manifesto. It really is essential that here in the UK we absolutely disavow BIPOC and ‘people of colour’. In a previous draft of this post I had included a statement from the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the question of whether or not black and white are colours. This can be Googled by anyone interested – but what British people of all ethnicities need to bear in mind include two very important points: (a) African-Americans argue that ‘black’ is a colour (‘color’) and ‘Black’ is the only appropriate way to designate their ethnicity – and some do not even believe that anybody else in the world should be designated as ‘b/Black’ (yes, you read that correctly: for some African-Americans, I do not get to be b/Black). You will see more on this below, but to say that I am offended and angry that fellow diasporic b/Black people should think like this is an understatement – and it is also a sign of the ways in which we have been colonised so effectively that we cannot even see the ways in which we oppress those who are just like us. What is also really not very clever about any of this includes the fact that if you were my friend giving me a lift to the train station and having dropped me off you then discover that I have left my wallet on the floor of the front passenger seat, and you drive back to the station, park in a ‘short-stay’ bay and hotfoot it to the station concourse and cannot see me, and are then spotted by a helpful member of staff who asks what is wrong, and you say that your friend has left their wallet, and they ask you ‘what does your friend look like?’ – what are you going to say? If I was that helpful member of staff and you said to me, ‘he is South American’, I would immediately start scanning the platforms for a Latin American person. You might not want to say that I am Tanzanian because you know that I was ‘only’ born there, and you do not want to say ‘West Indian’ because you recognise the colonial overtones of that assignation. The problem is that technically speaking, Guyana is not in the Caribbean and so I am actually not Caribbean. Technically, my identity is ‘Black Other’ for purposes of form-filling, and when I can be specific I self-identify as ‘Black South American’. All of which means that if I have left my wallet in the front seat of your car and you have managed to get back to the station in time to potentially find me before my train leaves, I will be more than happy for you to describe me as ‘quite a big black guy wearing….’ rather than trying to explain my ethnicity using more words and taking up more time, thereby running the risk that you all don’t find me in time for no other reason than the fact that you were trying to be politically correct….!!!! And so if I would not be offended at being described as ‘black’ in that context, then ‘black’ cannot actually be intrinsically offensive in any (other) context – because if we consider the fact that there are NO circumstances where I would ever be happy being called (for example) a ‘nigger’ – then perhaps we can see that the depth of thinking behind the argumentation at work here is profoundly limited. I am more than ‘black’. I am more than ‘BAME’. But I am also both of those things – by virtue of the consequences of modernity, and we cannot dial back the clock.

~           

I have no problem with the fact that some of you will stop reading here. I genuinely thank you for getting this far. But there is more work to do. The Sewell Report has disavowed ‘BAME’ and many other things, so let us take a look at how the current UK Government is thinking about these matters. In 2019, Zamila Bunglawala (in her role as Deputy Head of Unit & Deputy Director Policy and Strategy, Race Disparity Unit, Cabinet Office) wrote a blog post which contained the following:

The problem with using BAME and BME

The acronym BAME and the initialism BME are, I feel, a good case in point. ‘BAME’ stands for ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ and ‘BME’ stands for Black and Minority Ethnic’. The terms are widely used by government departments, public bodies, the media and others when referring to ethnic minority groups. Yet during research we carried out with nearly 300 people across the UK, we found that only a couple recognised the acronyms and only one knew vaguely what they actually stood for!

There is also a problem in that the terms ‘BAME’ and ‘BME’ aren’t always associated with White ethnic minorities such as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller of Irish Heritage groups, which we know are among some of our most marginalised and disadvantaged communities. To leave these communities out of the very language we use is to marginalise them even further.  

Personally, I have never referred to my ethnicity using BAME or BME, and I don’t like it when they are used to describe me. Like many ethnic minorities, I proudly refer to my specific ethnic identity – my background is Indian. That’s obviously my personal preference, but the fact that the acceptability of BAME and BME has been called into question by The BBCThe Times and The Guardian, suggests I am not alone. 

Similarly, the term ‘non-White’ was not well received by ethnic minorities during our research, as it defines ethnic minorities solely by reference to the White majority. We do not use the term ‘non-Black’ when describing the White group, so why should we say ‘non-White’ when describing ethnic minorities?

The language we should all be using

On our Ethnicity facts and figures website, we use the term ‘ethnic minorities’. We also make sure we always use capital letters when writing about individual ethnic groups. Ethnicity is not a colour palette. It is a technical term used in the Census, as well as an important part of an individual’s identity.  Most people rightly recognise that using a lower-case ‘i’ for Indian or ‘b’ for Bangladeshi is wrong, so why wouldn’t we use ‘W’ for White and ‘B’ for Black ethnic groups? For those looking for more information, below is a short list of dos and don’ts. We have also developed a short guide on how we write about ethnicity that details our rationale.

DoDo not
Use the term ‘ethnic minorities’ rather than BAME or BME peopleUse the terms ‘Non-White’ or ‘Non-Black’ 
Use capital letters when referring to ethnic groups, for example, “In comparison, Black staff felt…”Use ‘race’ instead of ‘ethnicity’ – research by the Office for National Statistics found that race was considered a less acceptable term by respondents
Spell out acronyms if you really need to use themForget that ethnic minorities include White minorities 

The government recognises that we must ‘shine a light on burning injustices and ethnic disparities’ so that they can be tackled. But if policy makers, programme providers and those tasked with communicating this work use acronyms and terms that people do not understand, their efforts will have a limited impact. Worse still, if we use terms that offend people then we may unintentionally be doing more harm than good. Understanding what is and isn’t appropriate language is the first step to helping us have more confident and respectful discussions about these issues.

A significant number of issues present themselves herein. From one viewpoint, Bunglawala appears not to have clocked that ‘gypsy/Gypsy’ is no longer taken to be ‘politically correct’ (and this was current at least a decade before this blog post was written). But I am surely not the only person who laboured for years under the misapprehension that ‘g/Gypsy’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Traveller’ were essentially synonyms. It turns out that the first two rubrics are synonyms, with the third being specific to Irish ethnic identity/ies. The fact that ‘Gypsy’ is a legally valid rubric means nothing in terms of general vernacular use and understanding – so why would a woman of (proudly) Indian heritage who works for the British Civil Service disavow both ‘BME’ and ‘BAME’ when in both cases the ‘ME’ stands for ‘minority ethnic’, insist on ‘ethnic minority’ and then use both ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Roma’ when one of those could have been avoided (along with the concomitant risk of offence)?!

It could be argued that a significant clue that might provide an answer to that question is found on the Civil Service webpage entitled ‘Writing about ethnicity’, where we discover that the government makes a distinction between ‘White Gypsy’ and ‘Roma’. I would argue that grammatically speaking, this suggests that we have two different ethnic possibilities within ‘Gypsy’ with one being denoted as ‘White’ and the other as ‘Roma(ny)’ – which makes sense when we remember that the origin of the Romany people is understood to be Indian. But on closer inspection of the 18 ethnicity taxonomies approved by the government for use across England and Wales, it becomes clear that ‘White Gypsy’ = ‘Irish Traveller’ with ‘Roma’ being separate. And so Bunglawala could indeed have avoided the use of ‘Gypsy’ – because the general social understanding that this is a pejorative has existed long before the 2019 date of this blog post. There are a great deal of words in this post which make a lot less sense in light of such a rookie error from such a senior civil servant.

It does not get better. With apologies to those who do not know the UK context, this is for those who do: who believes that out of 300 people who happen to be living in the UK at the moment of survey, only two of them would recognise either acronym, and only one have a ‘vague’ idea of what they stand for?! Sure, if you survey the residents of coastal fishing villages or urban areas populated by mostly white people suffering economic (and social) deprivation, or areas where significant numbers of immigrants have gathered including a proportion whose English language skills are genuinely limited, or areas where irrespective of ethnicity demographic the education situation is significantly below average, then one could imagine that these acronyms might well have no meaning for more people than not. But as someone who moved to the UK prior to reaching double figures in age, I am struggling to remember when I was not aware of the fact that the first basic criterion for the experience of racism was to be anything other than white. By adolescence I had understood – along with pretty much everybody else I knew who was also black or (Southern) Asian – that there were a significant number of Caribbean people who actively disliked or distrusted Southern Asians just as much as white people, and the reverse positionality also held. In addition to cornering the market in the ‘corner shop’ industry, Southern Asians were also the primary demographic in the taxi industry in the Northern city in which I grew up and for years there was a situation where Asian cab drivers would routinely pass black people on the streets trying to hail them. For some of us in black families, we understood that if we were not going to engage in romantic relationships with people of our own ethnicities, then being with somebody white was preferable to being with somebody Asian – and we all understood at these moments that ‘Asian’ did not include ‘East Asians’. None of this internecine warfare between people groups who were and are not white changed their (our) social status in relation to whiteness. We were and are still all other-than-white and therefore still ‘other’ as far as the UK is concerned. And so even if an ‘other-than-white’ person had not heard of BAME or BME, it is hard to see how such a person would not understand that white society puts everyone else into another box. Certain types of West African mind may try to create ‘caste’ distinctions between themselves and West Indians. Certain types of Southern Asian and East Asian mind may try to do the same for themselves and b/Black people in general. In one city in the UK where I have lived, the West Indians have felt that the more recent Somali immigrants have been better treated than they were and so that creates ‘intra-black’ tensions – but neither community is anything other than ‘black-and-other’ as far as the dominant white population of that city and region is concerned (and this is hopefully another way for people to see why ‘Black’ is offensive for many thinking black people outside the USA – which does not excuse the utter calumny and conceptually bankruptcy of the position that only African-Americans get to be ‘b/Black’).

One would hope that it would be obvious that ‘non-white’ would be deeply offensive – and I might even suggest that to even ask that question in the context of qualitative research is an ethical mea culpa. This reminds me of a presentation I heard at a research conference where the researcher in question was investigating the lived experiences of a certain constituency within a given society in relation to ‘censorship’. Because a significant number of her research conversation partners espoused the idea that the specific censorship activity under investigation was not de facto negative, it was suggested that perhaps the concept of censorship as intrinsically non-positive needed to be re-evaluated. I wish to be careful here; I have no doubt that the researcher in question has done some very important work and that there are things for all of us to learn when more of that work is disseminated publicly. So it is with genuine respect – but with equally genuine academic commitment – that I wondered aloud then (and still do now) whether or not the fact that several stakeholders did not want to say to this researcher that censorship was negative actually means that (a) this was really what they thought; (b) constitutes sufficient warrant for a re-evaluation of our understanding of censorship as something intrinsically non-positive. [Please be advised that I am mindful of the fact that ‘censorship’ is a highly loaded and contested concept and I am not trying to minimise it on its own terms – but the same time, my point is that we do not get to say that censorship is bad when the Chinese government enforce it against their own citizens but it is good if it is the word used to describe the eviction of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. Our language needs to be worthy of everyone’s time and mental effort (including our own) – which means our thinking needs to be worthy of everyone’s time and mental effort (including our own). What is the Chinese government doing? Ensuring that there is no free speech in any public context. What are these social media giants doing? Finally denying a public platform to people whose rhetoric of hatred is truly hateful. The latter does not constitute a negation of any individual’s right to ‘free speech’ including being critical of the government – and so if the word ‘censorship’ is being used in the context of the denial of people’s right to be and become whoever they choose (yes yes, if you want to argue that a person should be allowed the right to become an axe murderer, then it is quite likely that this entire blog post is wasted on you…) – that is a serious problem, and that fact does not change even if people in a given context accept the reality of censorship and endeavour to cast it in a positive light – all of which means that if that aforementioned researcher does decide that we should re-evaluate our understanding of ‘censorship’ as intrinsically negative because it is a Western hegemonic positionality, then I look forward to discovering the details of that argument when its time comes.]

On a more positive note, Bunglawala is winning all the way to the bank when she notes that if acronyms have to be used, they should ALWAYS be spelled out fully. Truncating them into words is an major ethical failure.

There is just one more thing that we need to deal with that emerges from the excerpt above:

Most people rightly recognise that using a lower-case ‘i’ for Indian or ‘b’ for Bangladeshi is wrong, so why wouldn’t we use ‘W’ for White and ‘B’ for Black ethnic groups?

Here is another example of technically-underpowered reasoning. ‘Wrong’ in the sense of any answer other than ‘4’ to the question ‘2+2=…’ is not the same as ‘wrong’ as an example of a wholly appropriate adjective with which to describe racism. Here the lines have been badly blurred. Using a lowercase ‘i’ for ‘Indian’ in English is grammatically incorrect before there is any prospect of it being construed as ethically incorrect. Unlike just about any other language one can think of, English has ‘proper adjectives’ which are always capitalised, just as in the case of ‘proper nouns’. What we refer to as ‘common nouns’ in English are only ever capitalised at the beginning of sentences, because they are emblematic of ‘general’ rather than ‘specific’ entities. For some reason, in the last twenty years it is slowly becoming increasingly standard that any noun is capitalised if somebody decides that it should be – and so the distinction between ‘proper’ and ‘common’ nouns is being lost. I do suspect that one part of this involves the fact that in German all nouns are capitalised (and of course there is a grammatical framework for that, given the use of cases in German grammar) and that the rise of publications in English by ESL speakers who not only erase the distinction between both types of nouns/adjectives but who also occasionally create gender assignations in English where none exist is emblematic of the concerns held by these writers/researchers that if they cannot communicate in English, they will not be heard (yet another consequence of the generations of complacency of native English speakers with regard to other languages). So there are quirks of ESL writing that are not just applicable to Germans – and all these folks need to be commended for the work they have done in getting English to this sort of standard!

I can just hear someone with left-leaning sensibilities muttering something about how we should not have these distinctions between ‘proper’ and ‘common’ because this is all part of the imperialistic baggage that we need to get shot of. I totally agree that we could almost certainly find taxonomic constructions that we prefer, but that is not the same as endorsing a collapsing of the distinction between two types of noun. One could conceivably argue that the German language respects more people and more entities in more ways than English because all nouns are capitalised – and the descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims might have something to say about that…

It gets worse. ‘Indian’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ are obviously proper adjectives – and there is a specificity that obtains with them that cannot possibly obtain with ‘white’ and ‘black’. Despite a certain measure of sympathy for their positionality, no-one who has read and understood all of the foregoing should be surprised to learn that I do not endorse the argument presented by Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), an excerpt from which reads as follows:

In addition to capitalizing Black, CSSP has also made the decision to capitalize White. We will do this when referring to people who are racialized as White in the United States, including those who identify with ethnicities and nationalities that can be traced back to Europe. To not name “White” as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard. In sociologist Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she writes, “White people get to be ‘just people,’” without having their race named, whereas people of color are often described with their race.

Now, earlier in that paper is a quotation from a New York Times article written by the African-American professor Lori L. Tharps that I really wish I had taken a screenshot of, or at least saved a copy of in some other way – because I have a funny feeling that what you would now read as ‘Black with a capital B refers to people of the African diaspora’ was originally written as follows: ‘Black with a capital B refers to people of the African-American diaspora’. I will avoid making a categorical statement as I have no proof, but I have a very strong sense of recollection of absolutely hitting the roof when I read those words for the first time. On the date that this blog post is published, the closing words of that article are as follows:

‘Black should always be written with a capital B. We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe. It’s only correct.

Seriously?!

We are in the 21st century and an African-American academic is given an opportunity to write an opinion piece in one of the world’s best known newspapers and suggests that all b/Black people are a single ethnological entity; a single race, a single tribe?!?! Particularly to white liberal British people – academics and otherwise: this should be understood as yet another reason why many of the assumptions that many of you have about the authority that should be granted to African-Americans pontificating about race – especially when this comes at the expense of the authority of African-Caribbean people – need to be shredded with unremitting force. And a significant number of those of you whom I have in mind – whether I know you personally or not – are actively involved in ‘EDI’ enterprises. I am not at all happy about the weaknesses of thought being exemplified here in Black Britain about these and other issues, but that does not mean that anyone is justified in privileging the epistemological valency of Black America over Black Britain. And for someone like Tharps to use a word like ‘tribe’ at a time like this is an even more deplorable error than Bunglawala using ‘Gypsy’.

However, let us get back to Nguyễn and Pendleton, who offer support for their earlier-stated  position through Robin DiAngelo (‘white people get to be just ‘people’). DiAngelo is absolutely right about this and none of the African-American female activists who are trying to ‘cancel’ her changes that fact. [For the record, I am clear that there are some questions that can justifiably be asked of DiAngelo’s ethics and personhood, but the awful stupidity manifested by all those who have invested time and effort into making disgusting ad hominem arguments is a blight on genuine and rigorous activism. Dr King was not a perfect saint either (and as a Christian I am saddened by some of his moral capitulations), but I struggle to believe that anybody actually thinks he was – and that this is why we are justified in remembering his legacy. And the British activists and academics who have bought into the ‘anti-DiAngelo’ rhetoric definitely need to rethink their understanding of ‘allyship’ because if you do not understand what I have just said on its own terms, then it is inconceivable that you could be a bona fide ally; you can only be a liability. Having now gotten that off my chest, I do apologise for the withering force of these remarks but I am TIRED of the ongoing folly, so maybe it is time to stop offering a British version of polite response that does nothing to contribute to stemming the tide of this madness.] Of course we need to acknowledge ‘white’ along with ‘black’ as valid paradigms at specific moments of contextual propriety. But that does not mean that we need to inflate them to the status of ‘proper adjectives’ – not least because they are ‘negative assertions of ethnic identity’. They are a consequence that we have to live with and manage – not an alpha reality that we acknowledge and celebrate. ‘Indian’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ and ‘Somali’ and ‘Nigerian’ are identities that should be celebrated. From a grammatical point of view, ‘African’ and ‘Asian’ only make sense as ‘proper adjectives’, and we need to be very careful in how we use them. But ‘black’ and ‘white’ are less intrinsically meaningful than even ‘Asian’ and ‘African’ – and this is why it is simply not a good idea for people to quote Wittgenstein’s aphorism ‘meaning is use’ without doing the homework to discover exactly what he meant. One could abuse such an aphorism and claim to have ‘philosophical’ justification…

Please note that I have no problem with the fact that a number of people will disagree with the position/s I have espoused. I am placing no burden on them to offer an argument for their positions. But if you are going to say that I am wrong – which is not the same thing as saying that you disagree with me (although I understand why some of you may not appreciate this distinction), then you do need to bring an ARGUMENT. I have done my very best to do just that even in this non-academic context – out of respect for the necessity of rigour without the erasure of personal identity in public conversation.

~

In one of his more intriguing publications, the British Asian educator and writer Alom Shaha reminisces about a teacher (older, white, male) who used to refer to him as ‘Sabu, the elephant boy’. This could be taken as paternalistic at best and racist at worst (and arguably both simultaneously), but Shaha goes on to tell us that when at one stage he hurt himself very badly, this same teacher showed him real kindness and sympathy. As I reflected on this anecdote, it occurred to me that I know some people who look like me (in terms of ethnicity) who would refuse to be treated by somebody who used any type of racial language that they found offensive for whatever reason, be it ‘reasonable’ or not. Sometimes people do use the wrong words and say the wrong things – but in fact their hearts are in the right place. What we now have is a situation in which many people have learned how to say all the right things – but they may not actually care for anyone’s lives (b/Black or otherwise). The assumption that saying the right things means that someone actually cares – in and of itself – is misplaced in the extreme, and it is a sign that people remain profoundly colonised in ways their own language and cognition have completely failed to apprehend (and worse yet, may remain incapable of apprehending for the duration of their time on this planet). People who live in the UK who have any modicum of intelligence and emotional intelligence and who do not live with differences that are now nicely typified as ‘neurodiversity’ (which come with different types of challenges with regard to contrived social norms) have no choice but to work with the reality that the way in which the English language is used offers the perennial possibility that one can communicate something very specific by saying quite the opposite in lexical and semantic terms. Many American academics bandy titles around even in the context of academic conferences in which doctoral students are in fact in the minority (i.e. virtually everyone present has a doctorate, leaving one to wonder why a decision is not made to simply use first names). I can think of one Harvard female academic who was very offended when I did not use her title despite my efforts to convey respect. This individual does not appear to understand that where I come from (i.e the UK), the use of formal titles can sometimes be the safest way to express utter contempt for a person.

~

The point should now be clear: people are free to make their own demands with regard to how they want to be addressed, but (a) adherence to specific linguistic norms (or better, ‘lexical’ norms, as there really is no genuinely ‘linguistic’ concept at work here) is not the proof that one is being respected as a human being possessive of full anthropological parity; (b) it will never be possible to make decisions about terminology that will not eventually be contested, and (c) it is impossible to demonstrate that every bit of contested terminology is actually born out of genuine warrant (i.e. the arguments in which the ‘contesting’ is taking place can actually be justified).

2 Comments

  1. Food for thinking, Alexander, even if the British context is foreign for me. Thank you for every nuance. I still travel through your text. Offending words and sentences reveal offending circumstances and make them even more injust. Lazy thinking is everywhere, and oppression can and should be unmasked. A language-and-practice that not just describes or even explains but changes the oppressing ways people relate to each other and to themselves … we’re trying to find, hear, speak, sing, experience it.

    1. As always, many thanks, Dick, for taking the time to engage. And I continue to marvel at how you find coherent ways to express yourself in English at this level…you are an inspiration in more ways than you realise.

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