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Green Spaces Issue

Issue 5 Terminology matters

Guidance Paper 5

Terminology matters

Black Environment Network - June '03

This discussion and guidance paper is written in response to the recently increased use of the phrase “Black and Asian” in the press and media and within major institutions when referring to issues which relate to all ethnic minority communities. It also aims to stimulate consideration when using terminology to describe social groups within our society who originating from different parts of the world.

The meaning of terms used in day to day language is constantly evolving. It also changes according to the local context. The consequence is that there is a range of terms and meanings across the country. It is therefore important at a national level to use terms which result in a common meaning as far as is possible.

  • “Black and Asian“ is not inclusive terminology with regard to the diverse cultures in multicultural Britain. It makes many groups feel excluded, and indeed offended as a result of feeling excluded by those who they see as people who have been given the responsibility to work towards including them. It excludes people from white minority ethnic cultures in Britain.
  • BEN has found that the term “Black” used on its own, particularly if not capitalised, is felt by different dark-skinned groups from different origins to be unrepresentative of their identity. How black is “Black” ? How does it relate to mixed race persons ? Here lies one of the major issues of the day - multicultural diversity embodied in single persons.
  • Many Africans feel that the term “Black” means Afro-Caribbean and excludes them. Most of the population feel that “Black” means Afro-Caribbean. Caribbean ethnic groups such as the Chinese and Asians hailing from Trinidad, or Arabs from Jamaica feel they are always excluded under the term “Afro-Caribbean”.
  • To add to the confusion, various organisations and researchers are using the word “Black” as defining only particular ethnic groups of their choice. They feel it is acceptable because the groups they refer to are clearly identified in each document.
  • If “Black and Asian “ is seen as an adequate term because Asians (defined as Asians from the Indian Sub-continent) and Afro-Caribbean are recognised as the majority in numbers among ethnic minorities, we would then be falling into line with institutions which claim that as white people are in the majority it is OK to ignore the rest, since most people are included.
  • “Asian” is an accepted popularised British misuse of the original word which is a geographical term. Before this misuse of the term “Asian” had become accepted, many ethnic minority groups which originate from the continent of Asia were extremely upset. Ambiguity still remains in the popular understanding of the meaning of the term. Awareness of this scenario has led to the term “South Asian” or the full phrase “Asians from the Indian Sub-continent” to express what the popularised term “Asian” means in Britain - it excludes the Chinese, the Thai etc. who also come from the continent of Asia.
  • The Indian sub-continent itself embraces many politically, ethnically and cultural diverse groups with distinct identities.

Certain people propose that the term `ethnic' describes everyone. Technically it is true that everyone has an `ethnic origin' - it appears in everyone's doctor's case notes for example. But in the real world, the day to day use of the term “ethnic” and “minority ethnic” describes cultures other than the majority white British culture. In the main, everyone is able to cite correctly who is being talked about when the terms “ethnic communities”, “ethnic minorities”, “minority ethnic cultures”, or “ethnic cultural heritage” are used. Of course we need to discuss and develop terminology. However, we cannot ignore the fact that we can communicate to society at large only through contemporary popular language. For the time being, “ethnic” and “minority ethnic” are still the most useful, inclusive and socially meaningful descriptive terms.

When Black Environment Network was first formed, we went into prolonged discussions re terms, and found that the terms “Black” and “ethnic minorities” change in meaning and acceptability as one moved across the regions of Britain. In highly politicised Merseyside, nearly all ethnic minority groups united under the term “Black” used as a political term to describe all those who do not belong to the white mainstream population. However, in other areas such as in the West Midlands, we were told by many groups that as they were not dark enough to be deemed “black” they found it very awkward to ever identify with the term. Various groups also resented the term “ethnic” because they understood it to describe “peasants”, “exotic but uneducated people”. Many groups ultimately want to be accurately described as themselves, for example Bangladeshi, Nigerian or Iraqi, and not as a homogenous group of “ethnic minorities”. They rightly feel that their specific needs are often not attended to because they are described as a general mythical other.

It is true that we cannot get it right for everyone and the aim of this paper is to stimulate the necessary discussion. The national debate is at an early stage. Maybe more consensus or even new terms may emerge as the conversation matures. In the meantime, for all of us, a decision has to be made re the terminology which one uses. The position of an organisation is ultimately known by promoting the context within which it works. By all means gravitate to a term of your choice. Include your definition in key leaflets and papers, and promote it in association with your work. BEN itself gravitated to using the term “black” symbolically in its name, always stating what we mean by it - BEN uses the term “black” symbolically, recognising that the Black communities are the most visible of all ethnic communities. We work with black, white and other ethnic communities.

When referring to research or academic documents, look for a definition when the terms “ Black”, “Black and Asian”, “multicultural” etc. are used. The meaning of terminology vary, for reasons ranging from particular academic definitions, differing understandings and positioning of the organisations concerned, to the practical declaration of boundaries for a piece of research. Certain organisations may define terms in relation to the issue they are trying to address. When referring to older documents, it is useful to be aware of the definition/understanding of the terms as used at that time. Definitions do put the content in context for you, e.g. The Arts Council document “Achieving the Arts of England's Culturally Diverse Communities (1999)” defines “Black” as follows: “Black refers to people of African, Caribbean, Asian and Chinese origins in accordance with the Arts Council's 1994 definition of cultural diversity”.

In the main, BEN has moved away from the term “ethnic minorities”, preferring to use the term “ethnic communities” and “ethnic community groups”, because although in the UK context its meaning is clear, when working regionally or locally, in a significant number of cases, the ethnic `minorities' are the majority local population. In all, our opinion is that “ethnic communities”, “ethnic groups”, “minority ethnic culture” and “ethnic minorities” still feature as the most useful and inclusive terms.

“Black and minority ethnic groups” or BMEgroups has recently become an officially preferred term. There are many valid reasons for which “Black” groups fought to gain the status of being named as needing a separateness within the range of ethnic minority groups.

This, understandably creates tension within the range of ethnic minority groups, as the contemporary socio-political scenario is constantly shifting the balance. For example, at the present times, since September 11, there is a real case for giving particular attention to Muslim groups. The fact is, that being named as a category within officialdom does switch on targeted strategic action and resources.

When one is working locally, the best policy is to approach community groups to assess the local picture and find out exactly how they wish to be described.

Download Guidance Paper 5

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