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Use of language: race and ethnicity

Guidance on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity

There are a number of terms in use around race and ethnicity. Using these terms depends on the context in which you are using them, why you are using them and how you have decided which terms to use.

ECU is focussed on advancing equality and eliminating discrimination and as a consequence regularly refers to the barriers and discrimination faced by minority ethnic groups.

For our data and research to be relevant and useful, we adopt ‘BME’ (Black and minority ethnic) as a commonly used term to ensure consistency with other public bodies and to benchmark against their data. However, we are aware of the limitations of this term and try wherever possible to put information in context, or disaggregate the data where relevant.

If your institution is trying to decide on terminology to use then it’s best to involve your staff and students and carry out an impact assessment. This will ensure you are using appropriate terms, highlight to people that your institution is aware of the sensitivities and complexities involved and has a good rationale for why it uses the terms it does.

Involvement and consultation may also have the added benefits of getting people talking about race equality and possibly improving disclosure rates.

Race >

ECU approaches race equality from the assumption that 'race' is a social construct. It has been found that genetic differences within ethnic groups are actually greater than the genetic differences between different ethnic groups. Therefore there is no biological basis for defining differences by race.

‘ 'Race' is a social construct. Its changing manifestations reflect ideological attempts to legitimate domination in different social and historical contexts. Racism is therefore not about objective measurable physical and social characteristics, but about relationships of domination and subordination.’

Tackling the roots of racism

Bhavnani, R., Mirza, H. S., Meetoo, V. 2005. The Policy Press (p.15)

Consequently, many organisations put the word ‘race’ in inverted commas to emphasise the fact that it is a social construct.

ECU agrees with the rationale for this approach. However, we use the terms  race and ethnicity so frequently that we have chosen not to use inverted commas.

Ethnicity >

Race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably but it is useful to be clear about the difference. As described above, race is a socially constructed term without biological merit that has historically been used to categorise different groups of people based on perceived physical differences.

Universities Scotland refer to a 1983 House of Lords decision that suggests an ethnic group would have the following features:

  • a long shared history of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups and the memory of which it keeps alive
  • a cultural tradition of its own including family and social manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance
  • a common, however distant, geographical origin
  • a common language and literature

It is important to remember that everyone has an ethnicity and 'white British' is an ethnic group. Bhavnani et al (2005, p. 213) point out that it is common in British culture for 'ethnic' to be wrongly used as synonymous with non-white or not-western, for example with 'ethnic clothes' or 'ethnic restaurants'.

BME and BAME >

BME stands for Black and minority ethnic. BAME stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic.

Both there terms have their limitations, including:

  • They imply that BME/BAME individuals are a homogeneous group.
  • Both BME and BAME single out specific ethnic groups, this can be divisive and exclusionary.
  • They can be perceived as convenient labels that are placed on minority ethnic groups of people, rather than identities with which people have chosen to identify.
  • It is generally perceived that these terms refer only to non-white people, which does not consider white minority ethnic groups.
Minority ethnic or ethnic minority? >

'Ethnic minority' places the emphasis on ethnicity as the main issue. There can be a tendency in our media and language to see 'ethnic' as synonymous with not-white and so the term could be perceived as implying the issue is with people being not-white, or non-white people being the issue.

As a consequence the term tends to be reversed to refer to 'minority ethnic groups' to highlight the fact that everyone has an ethnicity and the issues being referred to relate to minority groups in a UK context and the discrimination and barriers that they face.