The Language of Identity aka why I'm not a WoC
This post has taken me a long time to write since it took me a while to figure out my discomfort about being called BIPOC, WoC, and PoC. Originally, I thought my dismissal of those terms was because of their American roots and context. I also don't like that it's another abbreviation in an industry already polluted with them.
This connects deeply with my work that aims to break these power structures, make our work more equitable, and have respect for others in our industry. By being deliberate about the language we use in development work, we have the chance to reshape the way we work. So though this post is about my identity, there are parallels with how I hope to reform the PMEL work we do. We need more care and consideration. We need to be more nuanced in understanding the complex world we live in.
Let's first get into how I define my demographic identity, at least as it relates to my work and our industry.
I am a queer South Indian woman.
My pronouns are she/her.
My name is pronounced Sun-yuk-tha.
Navanita Bhattacharya shared a great post with the caption 'I hate being colour coded. I loathe being called a 'woman of colour/person of colour'. What, for sanity's sake, does it even mean?'
That got me thinking about when we started using our skin colour to identify who we are. As a people, it goes back centuries to when our people were colonised. For me, it started in my school days and then settling into life in Europe after leaving India.
When I was six, I had my first White classmate. That was the moment I realised there was such a thing as skin colour determining your status in society, a range of tones against which your own would need to be compared, marked, and sorted. That was the first time I felt like we needed to refer to ourselves as BEING the colour of our skin.
Then when I was 10 and left India was the first time I remember my skin colour being used as a descriptor of who I was - Brown. Don't get me wrong - I'm proud to be Brown, but this was the moment when it became my identity.
'She is Brown.'
Not 'she has brown skin.'
I define myself based on what I am, not what I'm not
For too long, I called myself non-White because I thought that was a better term for myself than BIPOC, WoC, PoC or anything else. I didn't find that they worked for me. I found them too 'Western' (American and privileged).
But I found that rather than make me feel part of a larger group of people, calling myself non-White limited me, and I was condensing my identity to fit in.
I realised that's because I was defining myself in terms of what I am not rather than what I am. Doing this also put Whiteness as the normal thing to have/be, and anything else is so strange that it merited being mentioned.
Calling someone a woman of colour, as above, rather than saying someone has brown skin, feels like the same thing to me.
It reinforces the colonial idea that Whiteness is the mainstream and that if you aren't White, you need to justify why.
I am only coloured in relation to White people.
We only use it when talking about ourselves in comparison to White people or around 'Western' colleagues and specific organisations. I don't need to use this identity around people from Africa, India, or South America - we are just ourselves. We are all together.
You'll see I also call them White people. Why not stop and call them something else, identify them with the countries and ethnicities they belong to? I do try to.
But when I say White, I'm talking more about a system of privilege and power (that colonisation is based on) that determines how society and systems function.
It is racial of me to use this word. I know that and I apologise for it.
Still, the word to me means the systems under which we operate, our social norms and values, and the structures of power that are dominated by people of a certain race, language group, class, gender, age, caste, ability, and in certain parts of the world.
Get specific - binaries are obsolete
Another reason I don't like it is that these terms are umbrellas, catch-alls for the fascinating nuances in our ethnicities and cultural heritage. I want to celebrate that rather than hide it or squash us together.
India is thousands of years old, as are hundreds of other groups of people who are all lumped together as coloured.
I know that the word coloured has been reclaimed, as we reclaimed the word queer. And that's wonderful, but it doesn't quite cut it for me.
Our world is a beautiful place full of different histories, languages, cultures, identities, and ethnicities.
It is as unfair to group all Africans, Asians, Southern and Central Americans, and so many others into one banner as it is for all White people.
Look at the recent war in Ukraine. It has shown us that imperialism is not restricted to just the traditional colonial aggressors. And it has shown us that even among fellow lighter-skinned people, we can have these colonial power dynamics.
That has shown me the weaknesses in this language structure. There are huge class and privilege structures in the 'White' world. What allowance are we making for that?
Not all White countries are privileged and rich. It is not a homogenous mass of wealth, English speakers, and avocado toast. Mine is not a homogenous mass of cheap labour, poor infrastructure, and Slumdog Millionnaire.
It is not an us versus them world.
Though it may seem like a small thing, I know that the language we use informs the ways we see the world around us, so it's important to at least understand why we are consciously choosing one terminology over another.
Take the time to name where people are from. It doesn't take that much longer to say 'people from East and Southern Asia' as it does to say BIPOC. Doing so makes you sensitive to this diversity.
I would love it for people to take the time to respect my history and heritage. Take the time to talk about which group they belong to specifically, rather than splitting our entire world into two and having to pick one side - global majority/minority, White or coloured, male or female.
Being part of a community is great, but I want to stop dividing the world into halves. I HATE calling it the Global North and Global South - another post on development terminology here!
Those binaries are obsolete.
Making that effort shows that we are committed to understanding the actual diversity in our societies. We respect each other and ourselves enough to name where we are from.
Also: I don't use these words myself. If others use them to describe me or my work, I will not have a problem with this. It's far, far, far, far preferable to the alternative of racial blindness that I had to deal with in the UK.
But part of a community
Let's take another example. Within the LGBTQIA2S+ community, we do not use that term to describe individuals. We are part of the community, but we often pick our preferred sub-identity within the community to which we align ourselves.
I am proudly part of the LGBTQIA2S+ community.
I am proudly queer.
It can be and is both. I am, of course, proudly coloured, if that's how you choose to see the world. But more interestingly to me, I am also proudly Indian.
I am proudly part of the Brown community and a proud woman too. The reality is we are all part of many communities. In any given context, my most relevant identity will change. In a meeting of female entrepreneurs in Barcelona, I am a feminist first. In a mixed group of Indians, I'm Tamilian first.
Marginalised people share common struggles, systemic oppression, structural racism and discrimination, and many other problems. That solidarity when you're fighting oppression is great. It makes for great relationships and moments to bond with our brothers and sisters.
But unfortunately, that can sometimes be where our struggles end.
Limiting my identity to being part of the BIPOC community serves as a constant reminder that I am a second-rate citizen struggling for equity and visibility.
I already fight for causes all day at work. I don't want to keep calling myself that and reminding myself I am not yet worthy in the eyes of the system. Sometimes I just want to be me.
Earlier I mentioned I call myself a Brown woman. So I do use these colour coded identifiers, even though I dislike them. But in calling myself Brown, I find community with others who look like me, from South Asia, Central America, and South America.
Women who look like me are fetishised and marginalised in similar ways. I like calling myself that for that solidarity of experience and fighting against this discrimination. I like the sisterhood of this particular category word.
These are my preferred ways of talking about myself and my language. Not every other woman, Indian, South Indian, or queer person will see it this way. That again reinforces all of the points above - this is a beautiful and diverse world full of richness. Let's not dilute it by turning us all into ones and zeros.
[Image credit: Peonies & Roses by Jessica Meyrick]