Decolonising Language to Empower: How we became the Global Majority Staff Network

I became acquainted to the idea of staff networks for ‘people of colour’ through a range of EDI work that I was doing as I was transitioning from Further Higher Education (FHE) to Higher Education (HE). However, it wasn’t until I joined the fantastic GEMS at the University of the Arts London (UAL), that I truly realised the value of such a staff network. GEMS remain an inspiration to me and I will always be grateful for the support that they gave me while I was working at UAL.

Coming into the Central context (the main job), I became increasingly conscious that a similar network was not only needed but would also be incredibly beneficial to colleagues. So, approximately 18 month ago, I set about establishing the ‘Network for Staff of Colour’. This was no easy task (much of the work that I have done thus far has been in my own time). This said, the benefits of not being HR or union affiliated has meant that we are outside of institutional narratives but still have a voice as staff ‘of colour’. Now you may wonder why I keep putting ‘of colour’ in quotations? … well this is because almost anyone from this homogenised group will tell you that they don’t like this or any other, othering acronym (I think BAME is generally everyone’s worst!). I include myself in this. It is largely felt that such labels are so incredibly disrespectful to the vast array and nuance of identity and lived experience. However, there is a contradiction here for those of us involved in equalities work because there is a particular lexicon attached to minorities in the UK, and this lexicon is often connected to policy, legislative incentivisation, and related data capture.

It was this context that led to the original naming of the network as the ‘Network for Staff of Colour’. The naming of the network did not intend to reinforce white as normative, but rather aimed to include racialised identities outside of the African diaspora by creating a support network in a majority white institution in a way that acknowledged the nuanced racialised identities of minority colleagues. Central itself is small and where numbers of racial minorities are too low to form a collective of this kind, we had opted for terminology that reflected this and was in line with an ‘inclusion lexicon’ that is widely recognisable (e.g. Advance HE, former Equalities Challenge Unit… ) so that the purpose of the network was not lost within broader institutional conversations. 

The term “BAME” was purposely not used for the network because of the unanimous offence to the term “ethnic” which archaically described someone that was ‘neither Christian nor Jewish; pagan or heathen’ (Oxford Dictionary). Furthermore, the term ‘ethnic’ does not represent the very specific experiences attached to being ‘of colour’. Similarly, the term ‘minority’ as a stand alone term was not felt appropriate because not only does it omit the racialised factors that we were trying to speak to, but also contradicted more empowering terms such as the ‘Global Majority’ (Professor Gus John) that we are in support of (more on this later on).

While we had grappled with the limited choice of labels and acronyms, we were conscious that the adoption of ‘recognisable language’ was important to attract as many members as possible.

In settling on ‘of colour’ as our network name, there was an implicit attempt to subvert homogenous language towards a reframing of the ‘homogenous group of the othered’ as a collective of those with shared experiences of different types of social oppression/barriers – (and while this will have manifested differently), to focus on the shared understanding of some of the issues can lead to a strength in numbers type of approach. 

After much consideration, the network’s name was recently changed from the ‘Network for Staff of Colour’ to the ‘Global Majority Staff Network’. This re-naming is in line with the empowering lexicon discussed by Professor Gus John who positions ‘Black and people of colour as a Global Majority’, and encourages a reframing of these identities outside of the white lens. 

This framing is quite aptly explained by Integrated Schools as

Global-Majority – White people are, in fact, not the demographic majority of humans on the planet; white is not “majority” and people who do not identify as white are not “minority”. Additionally, folks who do not identify as white should not be described by what they aren’t (“non-white”). In instances where we are referring to people who do not identify as white, we use the term “global-majority.”

The shift makes a considered effort to adopt empowering language rather than language that others – and in doing so, moves us away from homogenised and orientalist imaginings of ‘people of colour’. I am hopeful that such shifts begin catching on more widely so that we can put the inclusion rhetoric in to practice. I leave you with one final thought … equality can never come out of oppressive language …