BPOC’s reply to “The Poverty of Labels”

Dear Anonymous,

I would like to thank you for your piece, providing an insight into the minds of those who believe we live in a society of racially harmony. You also, thankfully, illustrated a much needed point about the dearth of opportunities afforded to those in the white working class – more on this later.

I’m glad you addressed that you’re white at the beginning of the article; that is where a lot of readers will simply stop reading. As an actual BME student who suffers from some of the issues that you presume mythical, I would like to take a stab at contending your arguments. Early on, you attempt to reduce the arguments for the BME concept to being solely socio-economic. Surprised this needs to be said, race relations shouldn’t just be approached empirically. This is to wring them of the cultural, lived complexity within them. Similar to men explaining the struggles of women, you tread on dangerous grounds by white-mansplaining what constitutes the experiences of ethnic minorities.

1) “‘BME’ categorisation and things like SU BME officers don’t help: they perpetuate unequal treatment and division, obscure the more pertinent socio-economic inequalities under the guise of institutional racism, and are, plainly, racialist.”

My first and foremost reaction to this statement is: how would you know? You saying that they “don’t help” without benefitting, presumably, from them is outlandish. If you referred to schemes to help the process of integration then you misinterpreted their purpose. The point of mobility schemes is to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds get an equal footing in society.

I am a British, ethnically Bangladeshi, working class female; the first in my family to attend university and this was not expected of me. I attended a state school in inner-city Hackney, London, lived on a council estate and was on Free School Meals. Mobility schemes for BME people you deem racialist enabled me and countless others from BME and/or low socioeconomic backgrounds reach high. Without access to help otherwise, schemes such as Realising Opportunities, Sutton Trust, Oxbridge Access and UCL Aspire, I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to apply to institutions like the LSE. This can be echoed by innumerable BME students.

2) “‘BME’ stands for – ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’. It originated in the US, where it was used to extend the discussion of rights beyond African-Americans. […] In a UK context, BME defines people who are ‘non-white’. This immediately makes the BME/non-BME split biological, and not too dissimilar to categorisations used to justify horrendous acts of segregation in the past (and current) century.”

I am glad that you’ve brought up the origins of the term ‘BME’. It’s my absolute pleasure to partake in the discussion of civil rights and racial identity. You write idealistically from the standpoint that we live in a racial utopia; we’re offered the same opportunities and rights regardless. Despite de jure changes in America since civil rights were enacted into law and similarly here, we still live in a racist society. No longer in the form of pillaging and lynching, but in a systemic way doused in tact and nuance. The rise of populism and the ardent increase in hate crimes following the vote to leave the EU indicate that we are not so perfect a society that we don’t or can’t see colour.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are twice as likely to be unemployed than white British adults. This is both a result of economic inequality as well as institutional racism from labelling in school to stereotyping in the workplace. Racial discrimination does not just exist in the employment sector but in every facet of our living.

Indeed,‘BME’ may not at face-value include all the ethnic minorities in the UK and it’s heartening for you to highlight. But it’s narrow to assume that policymakers don’t recognise this.

3)  “White working-class students, of whom there are many, are left behind by initiatives that solely help ‘BME’ students, and remain disadvantaged as a result. This is quite unfair, and dangerous.”

I fear this is simply assumption. There are plenty of initiatives that are for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds regardless of colour. From UpReach to the Social Mobility Project to ReachOut, there are and continue to be growing initiatives for working class students. Suggesting they don’t is dangerous – by conducting a form of Oppression Olympics in the form of “white people have it hard too”, you encourage the segregation you accuse the BME label of.

Note: Kimberle Crenshaw coined ‘intersectionality’. It considers how different facets of our identity contribute to a unique experience of society and our life chances. A black female isn’t only disadvantaged because she’s black but also because she is female.

With this in mind, let us now take it back to the false dichotomy that you created between being ‘BME’ and working class. The alignment of socioeconomic disadvantage faced by the working classes and the deduction of the disadvantage faced by BME people is reductive. Our disadvantage is, again, experiential. We’re not stopped by the police more if we’re poor, it’s because we’re darker. People don’t read as many titles by us not because we’re poor, but because our names sound too foreign. I don’t wish to negate the experiences of people who are disadvantaged on different terms – those which you refer to as “more pertinent”, alluding, it would seem, that socio-economic status or class is worth more attention as a basis on which people face inequality or being discriminated against than ethnicity. I campaigned for the Social Mobility project and am passionate about the cause. Work is to be done to ensure support systems are in place when and if we all require them.

4) “What about white students from non-English cultures? Other ethnic minorities like Greeks, Italians and East Europeans, who all face the same ‘barrier’?”

This argument is the most problematic of all. We don’t all face the same ‘barrier’. Ethnic minorities like Greek and Italian people have far more in common with English culture than Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean people. I agree with your point that ‘BME’ can come across as reductive – there is so much diversity within the group and we all have varying levels of privilege. This also means that we don’t all face the same ‘barriers’ during our academic career or in a professional environment. Indeed, this is evident in the fact that the history of othering and who was or is considered ‘white’ is changing.

5) “Being Russian, I do not, for instance, complain that my curriculum at a British university is not ‘Russian’ enough, as that would be laughable.”

A lot of BME students from Asian and African backgrounds have our histories painfully tied up with that of the British empire. We cannot apologise for wanting a curriculum that reflects our truths rather than simply one which glorifies empire and sweeps violence under the rug. To not strive for a more representative curriculum is to deify the formative contributions of academics of old and, in so doing, denigrate from the modern, more original examinations and observations. As you bring up a 300-year history, it’s important to acknowledge the role of the academic community in the colonies and postcoloniality. We’re not unreasonably positing a curriculum that puts diversity over academic rigour. We wish to see the work of our counterparts more readily recognised over often stale and often ethically questionable academics.

Furthermore, I believe that you have completely missed the point of ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’. Judging scholarly works by the author’s skin colour is not racist because one’s background does affect the perspective that they portray in their work.

6)  “After all, upon admission and assessment, LSE students are judged just by their achievements and, when it comes to exams, an anonymised candidate number. Attributing the ‘BME attainment gap’ to institutionalised racism is, therefore, misinformed.”

I ask that you seek to understand the purpose of a project before you pull it down. It’s prudent to highlight that institutionalised racism isn’t a race of hurdles; it doesn’t just joins us for exam seasons and admissions processes and leaves us to saunter along to return later, but takes place throughout our academia.

Relying on anonymised admissions ignores the environment students are taught in. Micro-aggressions are experienced by BME students everyday at universities; chipping away at the confidence and participation. We don’t contest that white working class students don’t face similar obstacles. Despite LSE being a supposedly diverse institution, there are still times when we are the only ethnic in the classroom.

7) “Speaking from my own experience at City firms, I realised that people do not care about where you come from, or what colour your skin is: what they care about is you being an effective worker, pleasant to be around, and appropriately behaved. It’s clear that none of these have to do with race.”

To say that people do not care about where you come from or what colour your skin is further reinforces your bubble of privilege wherein you ignore the world outside the City. Unconscious bias exists and influences both recruitment as well as general experience in the workplace across all industries. Companies do stress how ‘diverse’ they are but the reality is a joke to those of us know better.

You ignore the possibility (read: reality) that is being rejected on the basis of your overly ethnic name, your overly nappy hair, the merely tanned skin in may never be considered “unsuitable for company image”  by those at the top. Following your logic that you only need to be “an effective worker” you ignore instances where promotions are denied to people because they don’t suit the company image.

8) “All things considered, ‘BME’ categorisation only achieves ‘otherization’: an us/them distinction to which Oxford neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor attributes much of human cruelty.”

Otherisation exists because we are constantly treated as the Other. Taylor’s attempt to appropriate Edward Said’s writing on Orientialism as basic human emotion does you no favours in trying not to stoke the flame of we vs. them. It is why we have BME schemes that help us navigate life with fairer chances. I can only suggest you spend time listening to the stories of disadvantaged BME students.

I hope to help all the anonymous authors of the LSE. I try to give you food for thought to consider checking your privilege instead of complaining about schemes which do not detract but enable. Being an ally, a champion of diversity, does not mean taking away opportunities given to those who are generally disadvantaged in society. It means providing a helping hand.


Kind regards,

Tania Ahmed

(President of LSESU British People of Colour)


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