How important is the terminology we use when talking about ethnicity?

14 November, 2016
Fleur Bothwick

I was recently at the launch of the Parker Review. Sir John Parker was tasked with chairing a committee to look at the ethnic diversity of the FTSE 100 boards. The headline finding was that 53 of the 100 companies did not have any black or minority ethnic Directors. I think this is a long overdue piece of work and about time we moved the debate from just looking at women on boards so I welcome the research and the report. What most distracted me though was that throughout the report and at the event, the people involved talked about ‘people of colour’ with a definition that said ‘to capture individuals with evident heritage from African, Asian, Middle Eastern and South American regions’.

Of course I’m used to hearing Americans talk about ‘people of color’, but I felt really uncomfortable about this new terminology. The panel were questioned about it at the event. Someone elegantly asked about their choice of nomenclature (I had to look the meaning of this word up). The panel member explained that they had struggled to agree on the correct terminology, but felt that this was the most appropriate because it would be better understood around the world. I’m not so sure. My sense is that this term just bunches together vastly different heritages and cultures with the only common distinction that they are not white, and by the way, when did white stop being a colour? 

I wonder if sometimes we can get so hung up on the terminology that we lose the real point of the conversation. When I entered the world of D&I, someone I highly respect suggested that it was not so much about the terminology, but the intent behind the use of it. My CEO at the time had just spoken at a conference and had talked about handicapped people rather than disabled people and I thought we would be asked to leave – it was not the case.

I’m also not comfortable with the recent use of the term queer to describe someone gay. I’m told that in the States, many young gay people describe themselves as queer. This I guess goes to the nub of question. I guess it should be down to the individual. If someone wants to be described as queer, then I should drop my bias and respect their wish. I have never though, been asked by an individual to call them a person of colour. Maybe Black, Chinese, Asian, but not a person of colour. I would suggest that perhaps this committee, by trying to do the right thing, has complicated the conversation and distracted us from what is most important. The fact that ‘out of 1,087 director positions in the FTSE 100, only 8% of positions are held by directors of colour, of which 1.5% are UK citizens, despite the fact that 14% of the total UK population is from a non-white ethnic group (up from 2% in 1971). Seven companies account for over one-third of directors of colour in the FTSE 100, whilst 53 of the FTSE 100 do not have any directors of colour at all.’

So congratulations to the Review Committee and let’s get behind their recommendation that FTSE 100 Boards should have at least one director of colour by 2021. Let’s keep debating the terminology though. Perhaps listen to our friends, colleagues and neighbours from ethnic minority communities and make sure that how we ‘label’ someone doesn’t end up taking away their real identity.