Glossary of terms
Have you noticed a lot of new terms being used when we discuss anything to do with race these days? We think these terms are a canny attempt to change the narrative, to skew our national debate in the direction of one – and only one – political view. A new ideology is percolating in Britain’s workplaces, museums, universities and schools. It piggybacks off an established, liberal, universal or colourblind anti-racism which puts anyone who wants to question it in a very awkward situation. No-one wants to be seen as a racist right? But it is vitally important that we don’t let ourselves be silenced – freedom of thought and speech are the bedrock of liberal, democratic societies.
It helps if you understand the terms. So, whether you’ve been asked to account for your ‘unconscious bias’ at work, watch out for your neighbour’s ‘microaggressions’ or your child has been given homework on ‘white privilege’, our handy glossary, with our commentary, can help you to unpick the meaning behind these contentious turns of phrase.
Unfortunately, to decipher these expressions, we do have to refer to groups of people by their skin colour. This is NOT our preference but it IS the new language of activists, so bear with us as we attempt to unpick this divisive world view.
This is usually introduced as anti-racism Mark II: an improved version of the older colourblind anti-racism. Colourblind anti-racism straightforwardly meant not being racist, but now everyone is supposed to know that this view is outdated or even racist itself. The implication is that if you don’t know this, you might as well be a dinosaur.
Don’t Divide Us Says: Colourblind anti- racism means accepting the belief that we are fundamentally equal as moral human beings – we are unique because we have free-will. Our differences may, or may not, be important, but they are not what makes us all uniquely human. Active anti-racism denies or ignores this. Colour, and the ways this is supposed to map onto privilege/oppression, and power in general, is believed to be the most important thing about us. The liberal, colourblind approach to anti-racism is what the majority of people believe in, which is why the minority of activists don’t like it! We are not dinosaurs, but they are anti-democrats.
These were once academic terms from Sociology used to describe power relationships in society and patterns of discrimination across different areas of social life. Today these terms mean accepting the belief that all institutions and cultural spaces, including schools and nurseries, are hard-wired with racism, usually due to historic legacies of colonialism or slavery. Unlike explicit racist acts of the past, systemic or structural racism can be invisible to the uninitiated, usually white (but not always) people who live in the structures or systems and cannot see the truth behind statistical disparities. Fans of these beliefs claim that disparities exist due to the intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious, racism of the majority who are said to have power in society.
DDU Says: No society is fixed or determined by its history – good or bad. Societies change because people are not fixed objects either, and history shows us that people across lines of sex and ethnicity, religions and politics, have combined their efforts in a shared goal to make more people equal and/or free. Whatever structures operate in any particular society are not God-given: they can be changed by people with the will, wit and tolerance to see the world in a more rounded, deeper way than the active anti-racists do. In fact, new active anti-racists don’t want to change structures, they want to change people’s thoughts and values to effect a change in power relations, but without democratic politics.
Disparities and discrimination are often conflated and a single statistic will frequently be used to imply that the cause of a given disparity must be racism. For example, this is from a 2019 Report called The Broken Pipeline:
‘In 2017/2018, there were a total of 15,560 full time UK domiciled PhD students in their first year of study and just 3% of those students were Black (HESA, 2019).’
There is no attempt to consider a range of reasons for this ‘just 3%’: it is used to forestall any critical questions to activist educators who aim to change established practices and standards in order to close this gap between graduate attainment, PhD funding and the small number of black professors. Mainstream media, as well as schools and universities, often use statistics in this way: to impose a particular interpretation of a number that could have several reasonable interpretations.
DDU Says: Disparities arise from multiple causes, including individuals’ personal life choices. In the example above, the 3% of black PhD students in 2017/2018 is meaningless without knowing the proportion of black graduates applying for doctoral study in 2017 compared to their white counterparts. 3% of 15,560 is approximately 467 students. If the total number of black graduates, achieving the class of degree needed for PhD study, was, say 2,000, then we could just as plausibly say that nearly 25% of black students went on to study at PhD level. We would need to compare these figures with those of white students, and then undertake further multivariate analyses (such as particular courses, institutions, number of applications and so forth). Using statistics of a single factor – skin-colour- leads to predictably simplistic and reductive accounts of social facts that have multiple, different types of reasons.
Finally, the term racial disparities often leads to people being grouped into binary blocs: black or white or BAME. When the statistics are disaggregated, that is broken down into other factors such as socio-economic position, class, prior educational experience, age of entry into employment/higher education; and when compared with overall demographic figures for people from ethnic minority groups, a disparity that seemed huge, is often reduced or disappears. This doesn’t mean that acts of discrimination don’t exist, but that they are unlikely to occur so frequently, and/or across several areas of social life, and so may not show up in flawed statistical analyses.
The belief that the majority of people in the Western world have been white. The Western world has achieved its economic and cultural superiority because of its historical acts of violence during colonialism and slavery. This superiority is reinforced in, and by, cultural and educational norms. That’s why believers of this ideology think that Western culture – everything from Enid Blyton, Shakespeare or Beethoven – is oppressive: it exists at the expense of recognising the values of the black other. In a context where it would be laughable to say that a working-class family in a de-industrialised part of Britain had more privilege than, say, the family of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the ideologues have given the term a psychological twist so that today it means that a white (majority) person cannot know what it feels like to be a black (minority) person.
DDU Says: It is true that no white person can directly know what it feels like to be a black person. But this is true of every individual – we can’t know directly what’s going on inside the mind of someone else. But our human, cultural achievements of language, art, entertainment, as well as shared social experiences as workers, bosses, mothers, and so forth mean we can imagine the experiences of others. American activist Peggy MacIntosh’s original knapsack of privileges includes trivialities such as having a wider range of skin-coloured plasters. This is a consumer choice, not a struggle against racism, and the lack of a correct-coloured plaster doesn’t merit an existential crisis. Another privilege is being sure ‘the neighbours will be nice to me’. Good neighbours can be down to luck as well as your own actions. To pose human interactions in politicised terms of privilege just makes normal everyday relationships even more fraught and open to external policing by race experts and self-censoring.
In short, white privilege trivialises racism, attempts to foster guilt in white people for a sin they haven’t committed, and virtuous entitlement in black people for a victimhood they may not have suffered. Attributing moral worth according to skin colour was something 19th century racists used to argue. Today, accepting white privilege means endorsing patronage not equality because ethnic minorities remain reliant on white people making space for/ celebrating/respecting them just because of skin colour.
This is closely related to structural racism and white privilege. It refers to white people’s thoughts and feelings which, believers claim, are wholly determined by the racist structures of society. Therefore, these biases make white people think and act prejudicially against non-white people. The only cure is to expose the biases through various forms of (often pricey) unconscious bias training courses that re-educate you in the right language.
DDU Says: This idea sees no difference between preferences, biases and discrimination. It is not racist to prefer the company of people of your own background, class, culture, religion or ethnicity! This is freedom of association – a fundamental part of liberal democracies. You might think such a person is a bit odd, parochial or plain unlikeable – all of which are part of being human. We all have biases, but we can also review, and sometimes change or reject our pre-judgments/biases. Most importantly, we are not compelled to act on our biases: we can have a bias but still consciously act without discrimination – again, it’s what humans can do! Discrimination is rightly illegal, and informal acts of prejudice that are intentionally or unintentionally hurtful can be dealt with on a case by case basis. We don’t need to pretend everyone is racist to deal with a single act of discrimination!
This is the idea that because of unconscious bias (see above), any everyday action, from raising an eyebrow to showing too much, or too little, interest in an ethnic minority person’s background, is an act of symbolic violence and an exertion of your power at the expense of the other’s psychological well-being. This encourages everyday relationships to be seen through the prism of race to the point where asking someone where they come from is fine if it’s part of a conversation between people of equal power due to their skin colour (i.e. between white people), but if the questioner is white and the person being asked is not, then the question is a microaggression. Whether a white person knows it or not, their prejudice will find ways to reveal itself. If you can’t see it, then you need to educate yourself by reading from a selection of ‘sacred texts’ from Robin di Angelo, Reni Eddo Lodge or others who promote this unprovable allegation dependent on the subjective judgement of someone whose politics likely differ from yours.
This is the idea that the normal, everyday world and relationships inevitably pose a threat to individuals from certain minority groups. Such individuals, oppressed by white supremacy and facing an onslaught of daily microaggressions, are therefore unable to participate in life on an equal basis. That is why they need spaces that have been made safe just for them, so that their self-esteem can be boosted, and they can then participate on an equal footing. Safe spaces are where people encounter no critical questions or demands for evidence: they are places where ‘lived experience’ is the ultimate guarantor of truth and cannot be questioned. To question is to make the space unsafe.
DDU Says: This is a very negative view of people which sees most people as inherently a threat, unless they agree with you and then they are either allies or fellow victims. It is also based on a skewed idea of how we form our identity or sense of self. Accepting the ideas of safe spaces means rejecting the idea that we could learn from engaging in conversations with people whose views are different, or even opposed, to ours. We can only develop our sense of self if we never encounter things -or engage in conversations- that upset us. This flies in the face of Erik Erikson’s established theory of identity formation which sees crises or disruptions as events that need to be worked through in order to achieve a unified sense of self. From Erikson’s perspective, removing all disruptions or problems – aka safe spaces – is likely to result in more fragile identities. The idea of safe spaces is not only incompatible with conventional everyday ideas of meritocracy; it is also at odds with its own origins in the field of psychology, and is incompatible with freedom of speech.[SR1]
This idea is that formal knowledge as it exists in universities, schools and other institutions, is tainted by its past because the schools, universities, publishing companies and so forth were only possible because of profits made through production slavery or colonisation. This moral imperfection rolls out into the methods and standards used to make knowledge more reliable and closer to truth. This is a core traditional role of universities, with schools having a related role in transmitting careful selections of this knowledge and making it fit for school curriculum purposes. But as all of this is morally flawed, advocates offer the idea of ‘lived experience’ as a substitute .
DDU Says: The term is nonsense. All experience is lived for a start! You can’t argue or reason against someone’s experience of their life. But who decides which person’s lived experience counts more than another’s in cases where there are competing interests? Enter the new cliques of race experts and diversity organisations who arbitrate between competing interests. They are careful in their selection of whose lived experiences count most, which is usually the almost prescribed experience of people from ethnic minority groups who hold the correct political view about structural racism, white privilege etc.