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Establishing solid grounding: introducing new language principles to help us talk about ethnicity and inequality

Published

29 Sep 2021

EIF senior research officer Dr Virginia Ghiara reflects on the importance of using appropriate, clear and respectful language around ethnicity and ethnic inequalities, and introduces a new set of principles, created through a series of guided discussions, which are intended to help us adapt and improve how we design and report on our work.

Eight months ago, with the support of the Race Equality Foundation, we embarked on a new journey to explore the role that racial inequalities play in influencing children’s outcomes, and discuss where we can best add value to the evidence base. In parallel with our collaboration with the Race Equality Foundation, we have also started new discussions on how we can do more to tackle racism as an employer and as a partner and commissioner of services.

As an early milestone in our journey to reflect and address ethnic inequalities in our work, today we have published our new equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy, alongside a statement of the key principles that will guide our use of language around ethnicity and ethnic inequalities in our future work.

We believe that agreeing on a set of language principles will be truly beneficial for us. Existing evidence tells us that outcomes for children can differ depending on their racial and ethnic background, and so understanding inequality and finding ways to boost equality is key to EIF’s vision that all children are able to achieve their full potential.

Our work is focused on conducting and publishing research to make evidence accessible, relevant and useful to a wide audience. We recognise that the language we use and the approach we take in conducting and reporting our work play a fundamental role in shaping our findings and recommendations, therefore we have established clear principles on how to design, analyse and report on our future research around ethnicity and ethnic inequalities. Our principles on how to write and communicate about ethnicity and early intervention, moreover, will help us to convey the nuances in people’s experiences, and ensure our work reflects the complexity of our society.

The process of coming to an agreement on such principles has involved all EIF staff members. Some of us have worked intensively with the Race Equality Foundation to agree on a preliminary set of principles, which have then been tested and discussed across all EIF teams, to ensure everyone had the possibility to comment and reflect on them. This process has been very stimulating and challenging, and has included some fundamental questions about issues such as the validity and usefulness of social labels and categories commonly used to describe ethnicity. Given the sensitivity of the subject, we have been very careful to base our discussion on respectful expression, compassionate listening and shared learning.  

When we first discussed what principles should guide our communication, we agreed that our work should avoid oversimplification. There is variation within and across different ethnic groups, and we want to avoid indiscriminately combining people from different geographical, behavioural, social and cultural backgrounds. As much as possible, we will therefore use language that recognises the diversity within broad minority ethnic groups, and which reflects the nature of the data sample or research population being reported on.

However, our projects often make use of external evidence, therefore we acknowledged that it won’t be always possible for us to break down data in this way. While we discussed that, in some cases, we will need to find a balance between our aspiration to be as specific as possible and the structure of the existing evidence, we have also agreed that our research will be as transparent as possible. We will explicitly report if there is a gap between the data collected and the target population for which findings are reported, and we will state when ethnic groups have not been sampled sufficiently to allow conclusions, or are under-represented.

When we were defining these principles, we also discussed the terminology we want to use. There are several terms and acronyms in use around ethnicity, but they are not all equal, and some may have negative connotations or be hurtful to people. For example, we have agreed to avoid terms such as ‘non-white’, because of the implications they have.

As many other organisations, we think that the use of the term BAME is unhelpful, given that the variation in outcomes and characteristics within this group is equal to or greater than the variation between BAME and non-BAME groups, and that many people do not identify with this term. In line with recommendations from academics and members of ethnic communities in the UK, therefore, we have agreed that will avoid this term in our own research, and we will use the term ‘minority ethnic’ as our preferred descriptor for individuals, families, groups and communities. Where the term ‘BAME’ directly reflects how data has been collected, published or analysed in other studies, and data cannot be broken down into more specific categories, we will reference the data as relating to ‘minority ethnic people, in the original source described as Black, Asian and minority ethnic people’.

With other terms such as ‘race’, there has been a longer, winding path to agreeing on a clear position. We ultimately agreed that, although it is widely established that race is a social construct with no biological or genetic basis, the use of this term in specific contexts can help to describe and acknowledge how racism affects children and families.

We all agreed that we want to use the terms and language that people have chosen to refer to themselves as individuals and groups, but we acknowledged that this won’t always be easy, since not all projects directly involve individuals and families. As a future objective, therefore, we will work to improve our understanding of preferred self-identification terms to apply to different groups.

When we embarked on this journey, we committed to working with humility and courage, and we now want to put such principles into practice with the same spirit. We know that, given the complexity of these issues, we won’t always get it right, and that using these principles will lead us to new fundamental questions. We will actively continue learning, and we will seek opportunities to evaluate our practice.

In addition to a periodic review of the principles, we will publish new blogs periodically to share openly and transparently our progress. As part of this learning process, moreover, we welcome feedback from others who embarked in similar journeys. If you would like to share your experience, please get in touch via info@eif.org.uk.

About the author

Dr Virginia Ghiara

Virginia is a senior research officer at EIF.