… [Keywords] is… the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions in English… Every word which I have included has at some time, in the course of some argument, virtually forced itself on my attention because the problems of its meanings seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss.
Raymond Williams Keywords , page 15.
A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language… Every colonised people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilising nation.
Frantz Fanon Black Skins White Masks , page 9.
This project is intended to explore the language that people who work in the cultural sectors, cultural professionals, in Britain use to talk about cultural, racial and ethnic difference. The language we actually use ranges from the sometimes difficult jargon used by policy makers or curators, to the vocabulary that artists and managers in different fields use to talk about their work and the groups they make it with. The project seeks to re-problematise terms that I have noticed being used with embarrassment, irony, passion or resignation. There are not many words in the English language which carry quite so much baggage. So I embarked on writing this to provide a useful resource for people working in the arts and culture to sense check some of the words and concepts at their disposal. The research has been concerned only with diversity in so far as it applies to racial and ethnic cultural identity. As the idea of intersectionality allows, it is tricky or impossible to talk about race and ethnicity in the arts and culture without talking about social class, gender, sexuality and physical ability. Yet the scope of this research is to pay attention to questions of race and ethnicity alone as they relate to diversity. This is for reasons of time and capacity, and as acknowledgement of the fact that each ingrained inequality is distinct in nature, and requires a particular kind of expertise and understanding. The grouping together of so called disadvantaged groups as “diverse” or different has the concomitant problem of normalising a particular position, one which does not attract these adjectives, as neutral. I should add that there are many words, that I have been unable to include in the study due to constraints of time and space. I hope a discussion of them, and other terms, will grow on this website.
Discussions of cultural diversity are nothing new. Indeed these questions are not far from the anxieties that Matthew Arnold experienced in the face of cultural, ethnic and racial difference in the Nineteenth Century. In more recent times, since the late 1970s, in the wake of Naseem Khan’s seminal report, commissioned by the then Arts Council of Great Britain, The Arts Britain Ignores (1976) cultural leaders have overtly striven to make Britain’s arts more representative of its mixed population. The Arts Council of England (ACE) has confirmed its ongoing commitment to diversity, perhaps more energetically than ever before.4 It is noteworthy that in 2015 Sir Peter Bazalgette was the first chair of ACE ever to put himself personally behind an initiative of this kind. Nevertheless, recently and historically, this process has not been un-controversial. Most sides of the argument agree that there is need for action in achieving greater equality with regard to class, gender, ethnicity, race, culture, sexuality and disability5 across our cultural landscape. Indeed the 2010 Equality Act make this a legal requirement. Nationally Funded Organisations have to, are obliged to, adhere to the legislation. In some ways the diversity discourse sugars this pill for those who find this bitter by couching equality initiatives in a paradigm that promises better results, greater conviviality6 and creativity. Diversity, drawing on its roots in ecological thinking, is presented as necessarily good and natural, thus silencing many who may feel disenfranchised by the concomitant changes.
Yet in spite of its centrality to cultural policy, the history and theoretical or critical implications of much of the diversity discourse is not easily available in one place. Ironically, ACE’s 2006 report, Navigating Difference, includes a list of “key words and their meanings”, saying that “This is not a glossary – a list of words with definitions – because most of the vocabulary used to talk about cultural diversity is woolly at best and at worst a source of contention.” ACE acknowledges and steers clear of the political minefield represented by discourses of diversity, while at the same time tacitly accepting the controversies in a spirit of laissez faire or diversity of opinion.
At the same time, more and more attention has been given to the question of this “woolly” concept – diversity – in the publicly funded arts. It is as if diversity has become a portmanteau idea in the arts: a grab bag of categories in which race, gender, sexuality and disability jostle alongside each other for space, air and light. In Art Professional’s recent Pulse Report, one contributor refers to diversity as a confusing “umbrella” idea which lacks specificity.
While the widespread discourse of diversity has emerged thanks to a largely successful and welcome bid for greater equality in our cultural lives and institutions – and ideally in our political and social lives too – many critics of diversity have quite rightly identified flaws in the strategies that implement this thinking. Robert Hewison writes: “Language itself constructs difference … For the individuals who have been the object of the linguistic definitions and redefinitions observed here, the paradox remains unresolved. The recognition of their membership of an ethnic minority appears to disable them in their identity as artists.”
At the other ends of the political spectrum, Munira Mirza and David Goodhart have also attacked the conversation around diversity. Mirza, influenced by her libertarian leanings and intellectual lineage,has sought to place the idea of “universalism” as a contrasting polarity against ideas of diversity or multiculturalism. Meanwhile, Goodhart was already notoriously claiming that Britain was “too diverse” in 2004, his contention being that social cohesion relies on “thick” “solidarities” between people who are recognised as belonging to one’s “own” group. The trajectory of his more recent work sees him channel classically anti-Semitic paranoias about “rootless cosmopolitans” in his reductive but catchy dualism of the “anywheres” and “somewheres”. Such critiques attack both diversity and multiculturalism as modes of thought and policy priorities. It isrelevant that Mirza has argued that “race is no longer a significant disadvantage”, while Goodhart has been at pains to distinguish between “white self interest” and “racism”, anxious not to fall prey to what he describes as “the liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism”. In this schema the diversity discourse has been embraced by those who accept that racism exists and wish to address it through an equalities agenda. Yet some of the reactionary criticism hits home because there is confusion at the heart of much diversity discourse and thinking.
So, what do we mean when we talk about diversity, and how is the language around ethnic, racial and cultural diversity actually used? Is there some kind of agreement about what the terms of the conversation are, or are we still dealing with a minefield of best intentions, stammered apologies and hurt feelings – or worse still, lost opportunity and silenced voices?
And is this just a question of semantics? Why should language matter so much? Why make such a big deal out of seemingly small things? After all, we live “postrace”, post ethnicity and post identity. Identity politics is so 90s. Perhaps not. This project was conceived in the winter of 2015/2016, when the possibility of Brexit seemed a mere Faragian fantasy, and the likelihood of a “birther” being elected president of the United States equally unlikely. Since then, both improbabilities have moved into the ante-room of possibility, and from there into the realm of lived reality. In the process, our conversations about cultural identity, authenticity, ethnicity and race have been transformed and reignited with political anxiety – indeed with violent potential.
Vocabulary in particular is related to our beliefs about, and behaviour in, the world. Reacting against claims that incorrect grammar is a cause of social decay, the distinguished linguist David Crystal has argued:
… [T]here is no simple relationship between grammar and behaviour… There is a relationship between language and behaviour in the use of vocabulary – the use of insulting words (such as racist names), gender biased terms, antagonistic obscenities and other such denigrating lexical choices is clearly related to a person’s temperament and beliefs. But even here, there is no simple link between linguistic cause and social effect. Racist words do not cause racist beliefs. It is the other way round.
As such, Language – and specifically vocabulary – remains political. Grammar and vocabulary both define and reflect the relationships within the community in which they are used. And what we say is shaped by where we speak from in terms of time, geography and power relations as well as our values and aspirations as a community. In the words of Norbert Elias, “A people’s language is itself a symbolic representation of the world as members of that society have learnt to experience it during the sequence of their changing fortunes. At the same time a people’s language affects their perceptions and thus also their fortunes.” In this light, it is a particularly urgent moment to reconsider the assumptions and beliefs we espouse when we talk about diversity and cultural difference, or indeed what we mean when we talk about “ethnicity”.
If there was ever a time when such a study as this could have been a-political, that time is behind us. When we have political leaders ever more bent on fixing and narrowing our cultural visions it is more pressing than ever for storytellers and cultural professionals to question, challenge and expand beliefs about identity and belonging. This means a renewed engagement with the power structures and inequalities, as well as the opportunities and risks, which lie underneath conversations about and around diversity. In turn this means re-politicising a conversation which has in recent years disavowed its politics, in part for good reason: to avoid the slur of social engineering or “political correctness gone mad”. What equality does not need is a return to political correctness or ignorant relativism; what it might benefit from is a renewed frank engagement with the history and current reality of power and cultural supremacy as they are played out in our lives and cultural practices. This project is firmly grounded in the United Kingdom, and has sought to consult with leaders across the country. Yet the English as spoken here is by no means a metaphorical island. For one thing English is an international language, used across the internet and influenced by bilingualism as well as links with other languages. Contemporary Britain is a multilingual society, where Welsh, Scots, Polish, Urdu and Swahili co-exist with English in the lives of many citizens. Meanwhile, English is spoken and written across the globe, from Lahore, Sydney and Calcutta to Berkley, California. Cultural professionals, across the spectrum of commercial and subsidised arts, will have contact with these other Englishes and with debates across the world that touch upon their conversations about diversity. The terms “multiculturalism” and “intersectional”, North American coinages, are both cases which demonstrate how our own conversations around diversity are influenced by their global context. Equally, Britain’s contact with Europe is an ongoing influence both formally and informally. So while my focus is decidedly British, it has been a real priority not to make this a parochial study.
My intellectual persuasions and influences in working on this project have been deliberately eclectic and inter-disciplinary. You will encounter post-colonialism, psychoanalysis, post-structural thinking and a fair bit of historical contextualising and etymology. These perspectives are layered in with real life consultations because speakers at the coal face can reflect on language, practice and understanding in a way that is more alive and current than any book.
The reader will notice that I have used the metaphor of conversation throughout, as away of expressing the dynamic process by which shared meaning and understanding comes into the world. I call it a metaphor because I am not just referring to a literal conversation held between individuals in a room (in a home, a rehearsal room, or artist’s studio), but also to a larger conversation that happens on a group, social and cultural level through various mediums of communication (print; Twitter; TV; other modes of cultural expression). At its best, conversation can be an open and equal exchange of ideas, but it can also be equally exclusive and partial; after all, not everyone is welcome or equal in every conversation. I am also aware that there is a risk of overusing it as a comfortably vague, and deceptively everyday term and am wary that it should not come to stand as a cipher for social processes that can’t be explained.
What I have found in the course of my study is a discourse that is full of slippage, overlap and contestation. When ACE admits that it would rather avoid laying down contentious definitions, it is understandable. Besides, it is certainly preferable that we do not receive top-down definitions of how we should think about race and cultural difference. Still, the discourse of diversity shows that we inhabit a tacit and naturalised territory which makes assumptions about the nature (and existence) of racialised cultural and ethnic subjects. This territory reflects historical power relations as much as it seeks to renegotiate them. The official aversion to dispute or fix the conversation may be well intentioned but it facilitates a conversation that can continue to patronise those who have been defined as being outside the cultural norm. By not being more specific and open in our choice of language we collude in a reality where it is still acceptable to reify the racial, cultural and ethnic “other” and exclude them from discussions of cultural excellence or quality. At the same time we struggle to create change if we cannot name difference.
This pamphlet is not calling for more rigorous policing of how we speak but instead seeks to initiate a more knowing consideration of the racialising terms available to us. Well before 9/11, experts in the field of race relations acknowledged the wide range of thinking around race and ethnicity. Some of the foremost thinkers in the field leave the reader more rather than less confused:
… different authors use such terms as race, ethnicity, racism and ethnic minorities in somewhat different ways. We have not sought to impose uniform usage, not only because it would have been arbitrary but more importantly because it would have obscured the very different ways in which writers conceptualise the situation.
Blackstone, Parekh, Sanders Ed. Race Relations in Britain page xii.
It must be concluded that there is no agreement about what many of these terms mean and how they relate to each other. Yet because they have such a direct impact on people’s lives and realities it is important to press further. At bottom, when we talk about diversity, we talk about what it means to belong in a group and what the limits of that group might be. Can a group, community or indeed nation be constituted of difference and nevertheless work towards a unified and shared vision of cultural lives? Or do we require of our groups identification at a more “tribal” level? This conversation is by its nature political, that is it is fundamentally related to what it means to be part of public life. It is about how we define the group that we call British society, and more specifically here, British cultural life and the arts.
Diversity in the subsidised arts and cultural sectors matters precisely because art and culture inhabit a space where the private meets the political. As John Holden writes in Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy:
Professionals have a role as educators and arbiters, but also as guardians. It is their job to ensure intergenerational equity and maintenance of the cultural ecology – a job that on the surface can conflict with the short-term public will as expressed by the media. Professionals also have a legitimate role in shaping public opinion and encouraging and validating public debate.
Holden, J. Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy page 40.
He reminds us that as people who contribute to cultural life, whether we are artists or poets, publishers or policy makers, and whether we like it or not, we are deeply embedded in the political reality and futures of our societies.
Cultural practitioners are ideally placed to re-open this conversation because, as Holden makes clear, they can shape and colour our notions of what culture is and can be in the first place. Indeed, at the heart of this talk about diversity is the question of who has the privilege of defining culture. To paraphrase the historian Daniel Pick, this conversation needs to ask: in the pursuit of whose desire or interests, and in response to what historical contingencies does our contemporary discourse of diversity seek to de-politicise itself by appealing to unyielding notions of culture, ethnicity and race? It is worth recalling Roland Barthes’ frustration at the elision of History and Nature; his formulation that sees how ideology renders historical and political contingency “natural” is still sobering. In this spirit we must remain suspicious or sceptical about categories and ideas that come to seem sacrosanct or naturalised: we do so in the hope of maintaining an open and enquiring public space. This does not mean inventing a new vocabulary altogether but it does require a posture of awareness when we think about the context and cost of our vocabularies.
In his 1995 Nobel address Seamus Heaney said:
Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.
Heaney, S. “Nobel Address 1995” reprinted in Opened Ground page 460.
Heaney recognised and took on, in the most inspiring possible way, the political reality of his time and place. He knew the freight – and violent potential – carried by words such as “tradition” “heritage” and “indigenous”. He recognised what is at stake when we talk about “diversity” or indeed “multiculturalism”. And he knew the cost of our failure to reach an understanding across religious and ethnic groupings. An exploration, understanding and history of language and usage needs to remain at the centre of how we understand our social realities. Language matters not just in and for itself, but because it is a mirror and medium of life. Heaney credits poetry for its “truth to life” and it is this truth to life – life in all its paradox and variety – that we need to recapture in our conversations about diversity. Certainly in relation to race and cultural difference it is worthwhile to reconsider how our conversations about difference can better reflect the realities of individual subjects within our lived and imagined cultural communities.