A Note on Language

A statement from the Centre for Equity & Inclusion team on the use and challenges of language in this project.

A statement from the Centre for Equity & Inclusion team on the use and challenges of language in this project.

The Centre for Equity & Inclusion was established from funds provided by the Office for Students and Research England, supplemented by additional funds from the University of Sheffield. The funds were specifically for the purpose of “increasing access and participation for Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in postgraduate research study”, and so during its conception, we used the term “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic” (or the common acronym “BAME”) to describe the students we aim work with. However, we recognise that “BAME” not only fails to represent the wide diversity of ethnic groups to which our students belong, but is increasingly viewed as a homogenising and alienating term.

We do not believe this problem can be resolved by using an alternative label. The crux of the issue is that no ‘umbrella’ descriptor can be sufficiently meaningful and inclusive. This is supported by our discussions with current postgraduate students of diverse ethnicities. During our first month of activity, we held several focus groups with PGRs to discuss the Centre’s use of language and determine preferences for how researchers working with us would be referred to. As might be expected given the complexity of racial identity, there was no singular term that unanimously spoke to individual or collective identity formation. Several other key insights emerged from conversations with students. While there was a general dissatisfaction with BAME, few students were familiar with the term “global majority” (which we presented as an alternative) or saw it as something that applied to the UK context. However, they did appreciate its apparent emphasis on empowerment rather than victimisation.

Generally, the terms “people of colour” and “racially marginalised” were considered acceptable and fine to use as broad identifiers. This was mainly because the former is widely recognised and used in the UK by those it refers to (unlike BAME) and the latter emphasises the role of power in racial relations. Nevertheless, they were both still seen to have limitations.  “People of colour” continues to homogenise a broad and complex group, centring whiteness in the process, and “racially marginalised” limits the development of an individual/collective sense of agency. 

Some students felt we should not get too distracted by language and remain focused on addressing material conditions.   Others indicated they did not identify at all with racial identifiers and instead preferred to be categorised (if necessary) by their specific nationality and/or ethnicity. Ultimately, there was consensus that where specificity was possible, it should be utilised at all times. 

Some degree of classification is required if we are to examine how effective the Centre’s activities are in enhancing the experience and progression of participating students. Based on the feedback we have received, we have decided to proceed with using the general terms “people of colour” and “racially marginalised” where necessary and/or appropriate, but will ultimately strive for a greater level of specificity in not only our language but also our approach. This will include disaggregation of our evaluation data, to ensure that we better understand the distinct experiences of people from specific ethnic groups, as well as appropriately tailored support and opportunities for people of diverse and intersecting identities. Where we can, we will also ensure all documents and forms requesting data allow PGRs to use their own language when recording racial identity.

 We recognise that language is constantly evolving and so we will strive to constantly review and discuss these issues around language in consultation with students and partners.

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