We Wouldn’t Write ‘Afro-Caribbean’ Today, But Is ‘People Of Colour’ OK Now?

Today the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent conference being held in Geneva April 3-7 has a consultation with civil society organisations.

Whilst we won’t be there to formally take issue with the “Descent” part of its name, we’ve inputted into a submission that calls for recognition of Afriphobia, as an alternative to its favoured Afrophobia spelling.

However this article is in response to the ‘We Wouldn’t Write ‘Afro-Caribbean’ Today, But Is ‘People Of Colour’ OK Now?’ article by former Guardian readers’ editor Chris Elliott. Although it’s over a year old, I only recently chanced on it online and felt the need to respond to this rather revealing article on how the Guardian’s editors interrogate the ‘race’ terminologies the paper uses.

In the 15 years I’ve been involved in community African (you notice I’m not using the usual Black) history delivery, I’ve been harping on about the importance of terminology, mostly within spaces occupied by African British people with some interest in history.

I didn’t realise the mainstream, by which I mean that which is dominated by the Europeans (some say white), had any particular interest in how we, Africans, are described. Which is why I’m both surprised and impressed by this revelatory piece – bit.ly/RaceTerminology.

Responding to the article, I warn you now, gives me an opportunity to deal with some long-standing bugbears.
Yes, I agree that “language evolves”. Indeed, I’m part of a group that has been pushing for Afriphobia to be used when referring specifically to anti-African racism or prejudice, just as Islamophobia has now come to be understood as racism or prejudice against Muslims. We urged the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry to use Afriphobia specifically in reference to anti-African racism, which made its way into the Inquiry’s Report published last June.

However even amongst those who signed the Africans For JC Values letter to the Inquiry, they were a few who had some reservations with the word, simply because of the “phobia” part. This is because phobia means “irrational fear”. But of course the meaning of words can be made to evolve. Hence Afriphobia has nothing to be with fear. It’s simply means deliberate, though it can also be unwitting, racism against Africans.

We have also been insistent that the word is spelt (I have never been comfortable with using the more prevalent alternative ‘spelled’) with an “i”, as it then closely ties this form of racism to Africans. Just like anti-Semitism is linked to Jewish people, though technically it ought to apply to Arabs as well, as they are also Semites.

Before I get off from this particular soap box, I’d like to add that as I write this, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent – the body that was instrumental in the UN adopting 2015-24 as the International Decade For People Of African Descent (IDPAD), has an April 3-7 conference in Geneva, where the Afrophobia spelling will be used. A representative of IDPAD Coalition UK has been advised to introduce our alternative spelling into the April 5 deliberations with civil society organisations.

Now back to Chris’ article (you probably can guess how long ago I was in primary, or what we called preparatory, school, because I find the alternative Chris’s spelling inelegant). I’m glad the Guardian news editors questioned the ‘people of colo(u)r’ (POC) terminology. We do not have to import every Americanism, particularly one that is insidiously racist!
African people here are beginning to use POC much more, I guess because it seems like a convenient way to refer to non-Europeans, instead of BAME, which I don’t use. I prefer AAEM (African, Asian, Ethnic Minority).

As I don’t tire of saying – POC is not only racist, it’s also nonsense! Firstly, white is a colour. When one goes to B&Q looking for paint that looks like  snow, one asks for white paint, not the “non-colour” paint!

Secondly, without realising it, the very people that are using terms like POC in the context of fighting racism or white supremacy, are unwittingly propping up white supremacy by suggesting that Europeans, or white people, are a breed apart, and the rest of humanity has colour.

Which brings me to a truism lost on many – there is only one race – the human race. Sure, we have different phenotypes, but the classification into different “races” is a baseless social construct that has its basis in the kind of racist ideology that justified European enslavement of Africans. Thankfully, quack racist “science”, from eugenics to The Bell Curve, have been discredited.

Whilst I’m at it, I also preach that as science claims that all humanity came from Africa, then it stands to reason that terms such as “African origin”, “African descendant” and “African descent” can not specifically refer to just Africans.
African or African heritage specifically refers to African people. So at this stage, as a pan-Africanist, I must explain that my usage of African refers to all people of African heritage, whether their immediate antecedents are located on the African continent or its Diaspora.

As Chris correctly notes, Afro-Caribbean has become outdated. We advocate the use of African-Caribbean, but not as in the prevalent erroneous understanding that it refers to people of African and Caribbean backgrounds. The truth is that African-Caribbean refers only to people of African heritage with Caribbean backgrounds.

Hence African-Caribbean does not refer to me, as I am of continental African background. Which is why we move for African to be used as a unifying descriptor for all people of African heritage. And for those who feel this subsumes their Caribbean roots, the alternative is African/African-Caribbean. We don’t accept Black as a suitable terminology for African people, but it’s fine when used in the context of the unifying political Black.

Oh, need I mention that Caribbean is not synonymous with African-Caribbean? How many times do we hear people using the term Caribbean people, when they mean just African-Caribbean people.

They obviously do not realise that there are African-Caribbean, European-Caribbean and Asian-Caribbean people!

Recently, I saw a scholarship being awarded to young Caribbean boys. I wondered if a Caribbean boy of Asian heritage applied and was refused on the grounds that it was aimed at African-Caribbeans, wouldn’t there be a sound reason for a legal challenge?

Incidentally, some years ago a now defunct African British (no Black British here) national newspaper decided its house style would use African/Caribbean – but then again this was inadequate, because the intention was not to cover Caribbeans of all heritages.

I will mention West Indian, which like coloured ought to be dead by now, only to point out that it’s mainly used today by people who had their formative education in the British colonial system.

Europeans routinely mention countries and Africa in the same breath. For example “I went to Germany, France, Japan, and Africa.” My wife once had to point out to an anti-war campaigning group that it was disrespectful and unhelpful to indicate that its meeting would have speakers from several named countries, and Africa, as if Africa is a country.

Whilst I do not intend to be patronising, I thought this particular mode of expression by Europeans was so endemic, I honestly did not think this was something European editors would even think about, let alone try to address.

If we are in the midst of IDPAD, which aims to address Afriphobia, discrimination and inequalities faced by people of African heritage, it’s time African people recognise that they are African and feel comfortable to describe themselves, and be described, as African.
My view on this issue can be accessed via the TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) post entitled Thinking About Language In Teaching African History – The TAOBQ Primer, which is also reproduced in the ‘Look How Far We’ve Come: Race/Racism Primer’.
I will also be delving into the matter of African identity, history and terminology at the African And Proud? event at Unite The Union HQ in Holborn, London on Saturday April 22, 12.30-4.30pm.

The event will have a segment where participants read quotes from ‘African Voices: Quotations By People Of African Descent’ (we’re all on a journey – the reprint will use ‘African Heritage’) and say how those quotes resonate with them.
I however leave you with a quote, not from ‘African Voices’, by the pan-Africanist historian Dr Runoko Rashidi: “We are African people. Get comfortable with it. And learn to love your African self.”

TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) is a campaign focused on highlighting African identity and terminologies. http://www.TAOBQ.blogspot.com