Last year, the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry did what felt unthinkable at the time and proclaimed that it would no longer use the term BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic).
It highlighted four reasons for doing so: umbrella terms like that deny individuality; they assume all groups under that banner share similar experiences when they do not; they conflate physical characteristics with regional identities (so you can’t be black and Asian?); and it reinforces the sense that “white British” is the norm.
As an Asian male who’s experienced racism but knows it would be much worse if I was black or female, I’d long resented being called BAME (or worse, BAMER, because as a second-generation British Indian son of economic migrants, my life is supposedly comparable to a refugee’s).
I’m glad that BAME is finding its way to the bureaucratic diversity graveyard. But I think it’s time to set our sights even higher. That’s right, I’m going after EDI – equality, diversity, and inclusion.
The problem with equality
Equality is the language of people who profess to not seeing colour – they’ll often throw in a colour that no human could ever be, such as purple, just to show how frivolous the use of colour can be.
It’s obvious now that treating everyone equally does not lead to fair outcomes. If “levelling up” is to mean anything – and admittedly, that’s a big if – surely it means an acknowledgement that some groups in our country have inherited privilege due to the possession of certain geographic and biological characteristics which do not reflect merit. Some people have a head start. So firing the starting gun at the same time for everyone won’t level the playing field.
The language of equality perpetuates inequalities. The term equality in fact fails to acknowledge those inequalities in the first place.
In the context of UK higher education, that means ignoring the fact that there are more black women employed as cleaners and porters than as academics. It means ignoring the fact that only one per cent of history lecturers are black, and that people of colour remain stubbornly underrepresented at senior levels across the sector.
More broadly, it ignores the fact that people of black and South Asian origin must send 60 per cent more job applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin.
Equality also opens the back door to those most pernicious denials of structural inequalities: reverse racism and reverse sexism. It legitimises situations where if a white man isn’t allowed into a black interest group or isn’t considered as the chair for a discussion about gender equality, there’s a hate crime underway.
Inclusion and involvement
Inclusion implies three things which are unacceptable. Firstly, it suggests that the presence of diverse people changes nothing; they’re allowed in but that’s about it. Their presence, their views, their desires don’t alter the heart of the organisation.
But those of us who have never been in the inner circle don’t want to be included. We don’t want to be ushered in with the key to the Masonic lodge, told where to sit, and where not to. We want to demolish it, and remake it in our collective image.
Inclusion also doesn’t speak to the quality of participation. You can be given a seat at the table but squashed into a dark corner on a stool with your hand raised for hours while other people dominate the conversation.
Lastly, inclusion implies some kind of gatekeeper: the person who lets Others in. Who gets to choose who is included? On what basis? These are questions that can’t be left to the discretion of people who have at worst presided, and at best colluded, in the systematic disempowerment of whole groups of the population.
So, if EDI is dead, what’s the alternative?
Introducing Equity, Diversity, and Belonging
Since equality and inclusion are loaded with problems, here are two alternative suggestions: equity and belonging.
Equality has long been dislodged by equity in the American social justice lexicon but we’ve been slow to catch up in the UK and Europe. Partly that’s because we’ve been in thrall to deficit thinking, where we’ve blamed minorities and the otherwise excluded for apparent “underperformance”.
That’s why in education, it’s only recently that we’ve realised that the disparity between graduate degree qualifications for white and non-white students is not the result of an attainment gap but an awarding gap.
The language might seem subtle but it points to a recognition that a multiplicity of factors contribute to student success, including institutional structures and discrimination. It highlights how the pedagogical and student experience architecture has failed them. (By the way, at the current rate of change, it will take 66 years to close the white-black awarding gap.)
The reality is that some people need different or greater resources – and treatment more broadly – than others. That can only lead to the conclusion that we need equity or fairness, not equality.
In the spirit of diversity
In this new formulation, diversity remains but it only comes to life when elevated by the twin pillars of equity and belonging. Without those two concepts, the spirit of diversity is decorative at best; it’s saying we want diversity but we imagine diversity without an acknowledgement that diverse peoples, cultures, and ideas are not created equal. It means failing to realise that, across the spectrum, some are already brighter and louder than others.
It’s important to recognise you can be formally included – whatever that means – without feeling that you belong. Inclusion is a technocratic process. Belonging is an emotion and an outcome.
Imagine creating an organisation where people feel psychologically safe. The upsides are enormous: people feel liberated to be creative, they take fewer sick days, and they don’t have to leave their real selves at home.
As a working-class person of colour in an overwhelmingly middle-class white sector, I want to belong. Not because I need to feel warm and fuzzy but because I know that when I feel at home, I can do my best work.
I know I’m not the only one. According to Deloitte, 61 per cent of African Americans feel they have to “cover” themselves at work – suppressing their identity either by changing their appearance, removing themselves from conversations, avoiding others from their identity group, or accepting comments about their group which might be hurtful.
Language always sets the agenda, and the agenda either reproduces power structures or challenges them. After decades of dissatisfaction, we’ve finally seen the back of BAME. Now it’s time to blow up equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Decades on, we know it doesn’t change anything that matters. Throw it on the fire and watch it burn, along with all the complacency and half-hearted commitments it has bred. Let’s start again, with language which challenges us to build a world in which we can all thrive.