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Equality & Diversity Language and the bsa: Ethnicity & Race

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Equality & Diversity
Language and the BSA: Ethnicity & Race

The BSA grants free non-commercial use and non-commercial photocopying rights of these guidelines, to promote good practice; we only ask that you acknowledge the BSA when you publish them.

The following guidelines were originally drawn up by the BSA Black Women’s Sub-Committee and revised by the BSA Race Forum. They represent the views of these groups on the common uses of these terms in everyday language and by social scientists when writing about ethnicity and race.
Language and terminology are changeable and contested. Words can reinforce beliefs and prejudices, but can also be used to challenge racism. As such, it must be recognised that the meaning of these terms will be subject to revision and/or change at a faster rate than these or any other guidelines or sources may be issued.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list or a definitive guide. We would refer you to the short list of sources at the end of the guidelines for further information about the meaning of these terms and how they have changed over time.
These guidelines should act as a prompt to social scientists and others to consider carefully their choice of terminology.

African, Caribbean and/or African-Caribbean

African-Caribbean has replaced the term Afro-Caribbean to refer to Caribbean peoples and those of Caribbean origin who are of African descent. There is now a view that that the term should not be hyphenated and that indeed, the differences between such groups mean the people of African and Caribbean origins should be referred to separately.
When referring to America, it is important to be aware of the fact that there is a North America and a South America - not just the USA. Consequently, when referring to the USA, it is best to explicitly say so.
Asian/South Asian
In the UK Asian generally refers to people from the Asian sub-continent- namely, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir. However, under some circumstances there may be objections to bracketing together a wide variety of different cultural and ethnic groups often with very different positions within British society. The term South Asian is more precise and Asian on its own should not be used if it risk conflating South Asian people with those from other parts of Asia, such as Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese people.
Some members of particular ethnic groups may object to being referred to by their "country of origin" when they have been living for several generations in Britain (see 'British' section below).
Black is a -term that embraces people who experience structural and institutional discrimination because of their skin colour and is often used politically to refer to people of African, Caribbean and South Asian origin to imply solidarity against racism.
The term originally took on political connotations with the rise of black activism in the USA in the 1960s when it was reclaimed as a source of pride and identity in opposition to the many negative connotations relating to the word "black" in the English language (black leg, black list etc.). In the UK however, there is an on-going debate about the use of this term to define South Asian peoples because of the existence of diverse South Asian cultural identities. In the USA, the term 'people of colour' is increasingly used instead of, or alongside black.
Some South Asian groups in Britain object to the use of the word "black" being applied to them. Some sociologists argue that it also conflates a number of ethnic groups that should be regarded separately - Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and so on.
Whilst there are many differences between and within each of the groups, the inclusive term black refers to those who have a shared history of European colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, ethnocentrism and racism. One solution to this is to refer to "black peoples", "black communities" etc., in the plural to imply that there are a variety of such groups.

It is also important to be aware of the fact that in some contexts "black" can also be used in a racist sense.

The capitalisation of the letter "B" in the term "Black British", "British Asian" are shifting ground and it should be stressed that social scientists need to be very clear that the use of these terms does not prioritise nor indeed conflate ethnicity and citizenship.
Hyphenated or twinned designations such as 'Black British' British Asian and 'Chinese British" are becoming more common ways to refer to second and third generation people, many of whom have been born in Britain, but wish to retain a sense of their origins. One advantage of such designations is that it avoids a suggestion that a person has to choose between them for their identity.
However, the idea of "British" can imply a false sense of unity. Many Scots, Welsh and Irish resist being identified as British and the territory denoted by the term contains a wide variety of cultures, language and religions.


This term can still carry racist overtones that derive from a colonialist perception of the world. It is often associated with social Darwinist thought and is full of implicit value judgements and ignorance of the history of the non-industrialised world. However, in some cases, such as the work of Norbert Elias, civilisation takes on a different meaning without racist overtones.
This term is regarded as outdated in the UK and should be avoided as it generally viewed as offensive to many black people. When applied to South Africa, the term reflects issues of ethnic divide and apartheid, and needs to be contextualised and used with specificity.
In the United States of America, the term "people of colour" is often used as a form self-reference for people who suffer from racism and discrimination on the basis of visible skin colour difference to the white Anglo-Saxon (WASP) politically dominant population.


For the purpose of Equal Opportunities policies and benchmarking most employers are now using the categories devised for the 2001 Census in the UK. However, no single classification system is universally accepted and there may be other terms that are required in specific contexts.
Ethnic and/or racial classifications are often a confused mixture of skin colour and geographical origins. It is clear that there are problems when accounting for people of mixed heritage and the "other" category sometimes becomes an amalgam of people who do not feel they fit anywhere.
Developing Nations/Less developed countries
These terms are used to refer to less-industrialised, non-western or Southern parts of the world. They are questionable where an implicit hierarchy with developed countries is placed at the top.


(diasporic- adj.) In its contemporary use it refers to colonial and now post-colonial peoples who have been dislocated and scattered to other lands from their countries of origin through the process of voluntary and involuntary migration. Now settled for many generations in other countries, people of the (black) diaspora bring with them their own history and cultural experiences from which new (hybrid) group and individual subjectivities emerge.
It must also be remembered that the migratory process can occur more than once in the same person's lifetime, and that there needs to be a concept of multiple migratory processes and diasporizations.
The assumption that groups such as different "races" and sexes have transhistorical, immutable, invariable properties which are fixed in nature (see Race/'Race').
Anti essentialism is a position that rejects this philosophy of pre-existent human essences, and instead asserts a constructionist notion of social, psychical and historical "difference" in understanding the human subject.

Refers to cultural groups of various kinds. Although it is often erroneously used to refer to Black communities only, all people have ethnicity so that white people are also part of particular ethnic groups. To avoid this confusion, it is best to spell out the relevant ethnic groups explicitly, where this is appropriate depends upon the context.

A tendency to perceive the world from the point of view of one's own culture. Ethnocentrism can lead to racism when applied to issues of race.
A dated racist term which is to be avoided. (See also 'Mixed Race').
Host Society
An outdated term that implies a false sense of unity in the "host" society and conveys a sense of incomers as being somehow alien. It is preferable to talk of a society receiving migrants.
see "Mixed Race" and Diaspora


Under some circumstances people could correctly be described as immigrants - if they are in-migrants from one place to another. However, this is not a useful term for referring to ethnic groups which have been in Britain since the early post-war period and in the British context has racist overtones, being associated with immigration legislation.
In a US context, this word is often used to refer to indigenous Americans. However, the term is associated with racism and is also confusing since it also describes people from India. Use Native American instead.
Under some circumstances this can be used to describe particular ethnic groups originating and remaining in a particular region. The United Nations uses the idea of "indigenous groups" to obtain rights for native North Americans, Aborigines and other groups whose situation has suffered from invading colonists. However, in the British context, it is not a helpful term since it would be difficult to identify the indigenous British in this sense.

Minorities/ethnic minorities

Some argue that the use of 'ethnic minority' overlooks or ignores the ethnicity of majority groups. .
The use of the term 'minorities' should specify in what sense the group is a minority. It is worth noting that groups traditionally defined, as ethnic minorities in the UK are not necessarily a minority in Europe or the world. When addressing a US audience, it is important to take into account the fact that US sociologists use the term not in a numerical sense, but as a minority if they have minimal power.
Minority Ethnic/ Black and minority ethnic (BME)
These terms are commonly used in public policy and in voluntary services. Minority ethnic is preferred to ethnic minority because it stresses that everyone belongs to an ethnic group. Minority ethnic places the emphasis on the minority status rather than the ethnicity, whereas ethnic minority places the emphasis on the minority status of the group.
Mixed Race
This is a misleading term since it implies that a "pure race" exists. Alternatives include "mixed parentage", "dual heritage", or metis (se) (metis) masculine: metisse feminine). .
It should be recognised that the idea of race mixture or being 'mixed race' is informed by a racial discourse that privileges the notion of essential races. Some social scientists aim to to establish a new vocabulary other than the highly contentious notion of "race".
The mixing of "races", or the mixing of cultures defined by racial difference, which the current terminology allures to, explains the use of quotation marks. .
Often described in terms of hybridity, borderlands, shifting boundaries and multiplicity, emerging metis identities produce new cultural forms and practices that can rarely be defined by race and/or ethnicity. (See also Diaspora)
This is thought by some to be a neutral way of describing the variety of ethnic cultures and peoples in Britain. However, others object to this term on the grounds that it assumes that they all cultures are equal and overlooks relations of power and domination that rank cultures differentially. .
Native-born is an acceptable term if used to refer to people born in a particular place. Otherwise it has strong colonialist connotations.
A dated term with racist overtones unless used historically. African-American is the preferred in the US.


This is a problematic term because it groups and homogenises a large part of the world's population by what they are not. It also implies that "white" is the norm against which 'otherness' is measured. .
Some view this as s a neutral term, while others argue that it is pejorative term when used to refer to Britain's former overseas possessions.
It is also rather vague - French people are from overseas as are those from Jersey and the Isle of Man.
This term used to be used as a term to denote someone of no belief or a non-Christian, and was generally spelt ‘pagan’. This usage is a rather derogatory term with racist overtones (unless used to refer to ancient paganisms). Its modern usage, spelt ‘Pagan’ denotes a person who is following one of the revived Pagan religions (such as Wicca, Druidry or Heathenry) or an indigenous religion (such as Romuva, Voudun or Santeria).
This has derogatory overtones and implies an ignorance of the complex nature of many non-industrial societies.
Race/ 'Race'
Originally associated with social Darwinism, eugenics and in these cases, highly pejorative. In a biological sense the word is unhelpful since it does not describe the variety of ethnic groups which sociologists would normally wish to identify. Some have felt that it is necessary to put the word into inverted commas ('race') in order to make it clear that these are social distinctions being referred to rather than biological ones and in order to distance themselves from the original meaning of the term.
In the nineteenth century, the concept of "race" was used to argue that there were distinct physical and genetic differences between groups that constituted humankind. It was suggested that these "fixed" biological "differences" were "natural" and evident in skin colour, head shape, facial features, hair type and physique.
This led scientists to assert that there was a racial typology with a hierarchy of "races", and that certain 'races" were innately superior to others. The lack of scientific evidence for a racial typology led to such theories being discredited.
In contemporary times "race" is seen as a dynamic social, historical and variable category which is constantly recreated and modified through human interaction. Social attitudes to "race" vary as a way of making sense of the world, their experiences and of organising their lives in terms of it.
An ideology, structure and process in which inequalities inherent in the wider social structure are related in a deterministic way to biological and cultural factors attributed to those who are seen as a different "race" or ethnic group.
Racism is created and reproduced out of a complex set of circumstances. A variety of attitudes, practices and types of behaviour which may not necessarily be overt or intentional but which serve to discriminate against or to marginalise people judged to be of another "race".
The New Racism
This is premised on the notion of cultural difference and cultural incompatibility. In the discourse of the new racism customary practices including speech, domestic life and worship are taken to be signs of coextensive difference.

Despite the discrediting of "fixed" biological differences between "racial" groups, in the new racism culture serves as a euphemism for "race". Cultural differences are regarded as constituting real grounds for cultural incompatibility, while cultural similarities are often overlooked.

The new racism implies that there is a unified white nation state and a shared British culture, history and identity with a common sense of belonging. Particular groups, often racially or ethnically defined are e seen as threatening that idea of a shared culture. . This is the frame of reference through which majority ethnic groups construct their own identities and the identities of those designated Other. The new racism sees alien (Black) cultures as posing a threat to the national way of life.
Third World
This has been a term used to refer to countries outside Europe and the "new world" (USA, Australia, etc.). It usually simply means poor nations. However, some feel that it is outdated, and groups too many diverse nations and cultures unproblematically. North/South may be a better alternative.
A rather Victorian term for referring to non-western ethnic groups. It can have derogatory and racist overtones.

Visible Minority/Visible Ethnic Minority

Terms deriving from the USA and used to describe particular groups who are visually distinctive from the majority white group and generally have less political power.
West Indian
This term is used to refer to people from the West Indian territories, a region that is highly culturally diverse. "African Caribbean" has generally replaced it when referring to people of African descent. However, caution must be applied in using this term as it also homogenises distinct groups of Black people.
Whiteness refers to a dominant but usually unquestioned cultural space that is neutral and normative.
Whiteness, because it is an unnamed, hegemonic position of privilege and power, becomes the point of reference for measuring others, unlike "blackness" which has been the predominant term of racial signification. Whiteness has largely defied scrutiny as it has escaped raciology.

Guide to further reading

Back, L and Solomos, J (eds) (2000) Theories of Race and Racism: a reader, London: Routledge

Bulmer, M and Solomos, J (eds) (1999) Racism, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bolaffi, G, Bracelenti, R, Braham, P, and Gindro, S (eds) (2003) Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity and Culture, London: Sage
Cashmore, E (ed) (1996) Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations, 4th edition, London Routledge
Parekh, B (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, London:Profile Books
Patterns of Prejudice (1998) Special issue on ‘The Ethnic and Religious Questions in the British Census, vol.32 (2)

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