Talking point: Appropriate terminology

One of issues that has come up in discussion with one of our case studies is the question of appropriate terminology: how should we talk about what we, in our project outline, have labelled ‘BME communities’? This term is currently being contested on two fronts, from those who think it should be expanded to ‘BAME’ (Black & Asian Minority Ethnic) and those who want to see it binned altogether. The term is basically a bureaucratic shorthand; local councils (and grant-giving bodies, for that matter) use it to mean… well, what exactly? An awful lot of the time I think it is used to mean people-with-darker-skin-not-like-us (‘us’ being ‘the people who run this show’, in whatever context). It is also a way of labelling a group of people who, broadly speaking, suffer from a range of forms of social and economic disadvantage arising from both indirect structural and structural discrimination. So it can be very useful, but it’s not exactly empowering. But not to have a label for communities of different ethnic or ‘racial’ background is however equally problematic; culturally diverse groups soon become invisible and the spiral of discrimination and marginalisation continues (as is arguably the case in France – I’ve written about this before here and here, see also this article from the BBC).

Appropriate terminology – or in other words how to describe people and things – is a major issue for archivists, so it’s important for us to be having this discussion about our own research practice. The Community Archives group uses the term Black, Minority and Ethnic Communities (do the comma and the ‘and’ make it worse or better?) and since things only get listed once in their otherwise very useful directory this would seem to suggest that BME community archives (that handy shorthand again) are not or cannot also be ‘special interest communities‘ or ‘national collections‘.

So… what terms should be using? ‘Communities with culturally diverse origins’? (but then isn’t that so broad as to be almost useless?) ‘Black and other diasporic communities’? I look forward to reading your suggestions.

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