Some key terms currently in common use within race equality discourse are offered below to encourage reflection on the vocabulary we might use to talk about race. Language changes constantly and what was acceptable at one time, may become unacceptable. In choosing language to discuss race and racial inequality, be guided by whether the term is acceptable to members of the groups you are describing, rather than by the practice you are used to or your own personal preferences.
This document draws from the Equality Challenge Unit’s guidance ‘on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity’ and the Universities of Scotland ‘Race Equality Toolkit’. For a fuller discussion of terms related to race see:
The Universities of Scotland’s race equality toolkit and the Equality Challenge Unit’s guidance on approaching terminology around race and ethnicity.
This is a term that has undergone considerable change and development since the 1950s. As several different meanings are currently in use, it should be used with caution and understanding.
The North American Civil Rights Movement challenged the term’s earlier negative connotations and redefined it to refer to those peoples who suffered from and struggled against white racism, and whose cause was justice and equality. ‘Black’ replaced the derogatory terminology applied to African-Americans such as the n-word and gained positive connotations for its users. In Britain there has been an attempt to use this socio-political meaning to unite the victims of racism (whatever the specific gradation of their skin colour, or their geographical or ethnic origins) in opposition to its perpetuation and effects.
In recent years ‘black’ has been used less often in this all-encompassing sense, being replaced by such terms as ‘black and Asian’, ‘black and ethnic minority’, ‘black/minority ethnic’. There has been a growing desire from visible minority ethnic peoples to self-define themselves, including being defined as members of groups distinguished by ethnicity, nationality or religion..
However, the use of the word ‘black’ by bureaucrats and law makers to classify people has been challenged by some African communities in Britain as being particularly divisive and unhelpful. For instance, in the 2001 Census, some ethnic groups were categorised under ‘colour’, as in ‘Black African/Black Caribbean’ or ‘White British’, and other ethnic groups were categorised according to national origins such as ‘Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani’.