Thursday, June 20Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

‘Positive’ Discrimination: Race, Language and Labels

… “Reverse discrimination”, which translates to “Keep those Negroes running – but in their same old place”.’

 – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics). POC and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour). Catch-all, pre-packaged tags ready to slap on those boxes we call ‘people’, when we feel so inclined. Establishment guarantee included, free of charge. My gripe with race terminology has long been one of passive resistance yet complicit subscription. This is my guilty confession; more so, this is a personal attempt to unravel the netting of politically correct and functionally useless labels which colour (pun intended) our ever-growing vocabulary of racial identification. 

A few mandatory disclaimers before I let loose. Conversations about ‘race’ are typically sensitive and often fraught with triggers. This article does not intend to offend nor absolve, simply observe. Conversations about ‘race’ are, also, largely cyclical and tend to converge towards a spiraling resolution of mutual disagreement and overall paralysis. A final disclaimer, I promise. I am mixed-race, half-English and half-Indo Caribbean, although this specificity does not really matter (which is somewhat the problem I am alluding to). I don’t personally identify as one who is notably ethnically ‘diverse’; my ethnic roots manifest as, at best, a ticket to inclusivity schemes and a tick on a census form. This is not me disowning my racial heritage but simply a factual recognition of who I am as a person and how I have been raised. 

What follows is a personal vendetta I have long held, privately, against workplace diversity programmes and generalised race terminology. A vendetta which has been aroused to a point of needing to write about it, thanks to re-visiting the phrase ‘reverse/positive discrimination’ when reading a bit of Ralph Ellison (no prizes for guessing my degree then) and, more unexpectedly, being confronted with racially-motivated political correctness after watching new rom-com You People (Netflix). Really bad, by the way, would not recommend (unless you like Eddy Murphy).

The so-called ‘ethnic diversity’ which I, apparently, represent leads me into the actual subject of this article: the prevalence of so-called ‘inclusivity schemes’ and its accompanying race terminology. Specifically, the lifeless acronyms so popular in political lexicon, such as ‘BAME’ or ‘BIPOC’ (more American), and, more recently, a shift to more inclusive legal phraseology where ‘Ethnic Minority’ and ‘Global Majority’ are fan favourites. These are labels that, in essence, allude to an overall sense of being ‘not white’. Or to put it more bluntly, of otherness. Race terminology is a problem that is inherently paradoxical; it captures and describes categories of ‘race’ which do not exist (I refer to the essential truth of ‘race’ being a social construct), yet are no less necessary in documenting racial discrimination, which very much does exist. Therefore, pre-packaged labels of non-whiteness, be it ‘BAME’ or even ‘Global Majority’, serve to only further racial segregation, to deepen social divides between racial borders. This runs alongside the oft overlooked fact that White ethnic minorities tend to be sidelined, although census forms now include options for ‘Gypsy’, ‘Roma’ and ‘Traveler of Irish Heritage Groups’. These are ethnicities who also face marginalisation and social disadvantages yet tend to fall to the wayside in racial discourses.

The branding of inclusivity schemes often is accompanied by this kind of exclusive terminology, typically entry-level vacancies targeted at ‘ethnic minority candidates’, or ‘BAME and other minority individuals’, alongside the intersectional appeals to ‘low income households’, or ‘members part of the LGBTQ+ community’. Now, it is undeniably a good thing to bolster workplace diversity and further efforts in social equity. But, and this is an emphatic ‘but’, these schemes are often run at the expense of excluding those who do not sufficiently fit within the social criteria, those who do not tick enough boxes. 

As someone who has personally benefited from such schemes, at the cheap cost of my moral conscience, it is entirely baffling how the push for employment inclusivity is operated under by means of explicit exclusivity. It is a juxtaposition which is embodied in the championing of terms such as ‘BAME’ or ‘BIPOC’. Being a benefactor of inclusivity schemes, as good as it may look on my CV or for career development, leaves a sour taste behind as the employment position bears the implicit, seldom mentioned truth that your selection was due to your skin colour, or financial difficulties, or sexual orientation, or anything else rather than your merit. In a movement geared towards diversifying the workforce, we instead exclude both those who fail to meet the politically correct requisites (i.e. White individuals, or I suppose ‘ethnic majority’ candidates) but also the scheme benefactor themselves. 

There is one deeper, more insidious implication here. These are schemes which legally can be considered examples of ‘positive action’, although I believe this is merely the polite cousin to ‘positive discrimination’, with the two often being interchangeable outside of legal contexts. These phrases, respectively, refer to actions carried out to encourage diversity in candidates for a vacancy and the intentional favour paid to diverse candidates. ‘Positive action’ is lawful while ‘positive discrimination’ is illegal. Diversity schemes ostensibly operate as agents of ‘positive action’ given that they tend to use a model of anonymous submission (thereby bypassing any accusation of ‘intentional’ favour) yet there remains the fact that, under the banner of equity, entire swathes of non-minority employees are looked over. In an echo of Ellison’s criticisms against his ‘reverse discrimination’, these modern diversity schemes are institutionally misaligned and serve not to improve social equity, but rather to create a visual impression of workplace diversity that fails to tackle the root of the issue. That is, of course, ‘race’.   

So, how do we move forward from here? This is a question which requires addressing the elephant in the room, race terminology itself. I am personally a proponent of a kind of mindful antipathy. By this I mean allowing for the kind of dismissal of significance an individual’s skin colour may play in our personal biases; no means an easy feat but certainly possible, evidenced in the fact that infants display a distinct lack of racially motivated behaviour. Clearly, racism is an issue of nurture rather than nature. This isn’t to say one should not celebrate their ethnic heritage or cultural practices, but rather aim to adopt a stance of divorce from the ‘race’ system entirely. 

Race is, ultimately, deeply rooted social conditioning with colonial origins and it does strike me as utterly bizarre that in a post-colonial world, societies insist on the entrenchment of colonial rhetoric. By this I mean how ‘BAME’, ‘BIPOC’ and ‘Global Majority’ are essentially the latest, accepted renditions of prior, distasteful racially charged language: ‘coloureds’, ‘Negros’ and so on. The stamping of actual people with these racial tags, tags which germinate from parliamentary sounding rooms rather than the ethnic groups themselves no less, is more than a little objectifying. BME, the precursor to BAME, stands for ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ and ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’, originated in 1980s and 1990s governmental discourses regarding census forms and racial inequality. However this racial discourse has permeated into everyday language, and now dominates workplace policy and socio-political commentary alike. Rather than offering a means of unification and community identity, racial labels alienate and detach ethnic groups from a wider whole. 

The sterilising quality of census forms, a dehumanising process for everyone (regardless of race), made racial categorization permissible. Extending this language such that it becomes a defining trait of my very being, prior to the consideration of myself as an individual, is not. It is time to encourage language that supersedes racial constraints, where people are treated as a collective entity rather than subdivided on the basis of their genetic makeup. If the call for workplace diversity and the push for social equity is to be successful, then addressing race terminology is the first battlefront. Language shapes the thoughts we think, and by extension, the biases we undeniably possess. I suppose the recent shift away from openly endorsing ‘BAME’ as a suitable term is a start; the backlash following the publication of the Sewell report, which commented on racial inequalities across Britain, is to thank for this. 

Racial terminology inherently gravitates towards narrowing ethnic minority voices, homogenising the lived experiences and characteristics across a spectrum of ethnicities and nationalities. This has always been reductive and disrespectful. It feels fitting to close with another Ralph Ellison quote, if only to bookend this diatribe of mine: ‘we [speaking on behalf of African-Americans] are bound by our common suffering more than our pigmentation’ (Ellison, Shadow and Act). Racial language needs specificity and breadth, not some misguided generalisation or sweeping sense of commonality. It is time to move beyond race and instead be bold, not BAME. 

Image Credit: CHUTTERSNAP via Unsplash