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Working Definitions

Updated: Feb 15, 2019

For The Anti-Racist Educator’s first blog post, it seemed fitting to start off with the importance of establishing working definitions.

Let’s be honest – anti-racism is complicated and messy work. If racism was simple, easy to spot and straight-forward, we would not need anti-racism today. Racism would have been solved with some quick-fix solutions decades ago. But that’s not really the case. Racism is so much more insidious and pervasive that it can’t be solved overnight. There is no single solution to counter racism because it is that complicated.

Race, after all, is a social construct that evolves over time and according to geographical location. To illustrate with a simple example, if I were to use the word “Asian” in the USA or “asiatique” in France, people would assume I am referring to a person of East Asian descent (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese…). This mostly has to do with the historical migration waves in both those countries caused by imperialism and other factors. There have been more people of East Asian descent migrating to those countries and this results in a racial category accepted by the general public and census documents.

However, if I were to use the same word in the UK, people would assume I am referring to a person of South Asian descent (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan…). Similarly, this has to do with the waves of South Asian migration coming from countries Britain colonised. In a sense, people of South Asian descent are a “majority” minority in the UK and a “minority” minority in France and the USA. Having grown up in France, my mind tends to naturally gravitate towards ideas of East Asia whenever my British colleagues refer to an “Asian” pupil. So I normally double-check what they mean by that term and I personally use “South Asian” and “East Asian.” In fact, the term “East Asian” has its own issues, as it tends to include people who look like they might come from Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia – countries in South East Asia – and, even then, the people in those countries are not racially homogenous. Such varied understandings for a single word, “Asian,” are not uncommon in racial matters.

By now, I am sure you can see how much of a minefield racial jargon can be and how misunderstandings can easily develop. If we are striving to be anti-racist educators, to discuss issues and to share ideas – as is the purpose of the platform for The Anti-Racist Educator – it is necessary to establish shared working definitions. Unless a group seeking social justice (be it pupils in a classroom or managers in a school) comes to a shared understanding of key terms, such as “race” and “racism,” it is difficult to be very productive. When key terms are explicitly shared and agreed upon in a group, there is a powerful foundation for knowledge and action.

“Working definition” acknowledges that it is not the only possible definition. Some may find it paralysing when there is no universally accepted definition for a word. Yet, race is so complex that if we shy away for fear of getting the wrong definition, it will be hard to move forward. Working definitions are somewhat like compasses - we can use them to navigate our way round multiple perspectives and to meet each other in more productive spaces. By nature, working definitions are not set in stone; they don’t have to be perfect and they can evolve.

A working definition should not necessarily be the easiest definition. Ideally, it should take into account structures of power and diverse perspectives. Those coming up with working definitions need to be conscious of their own identities and their bias in the drafting process. They should also be open to constructive criticism, ready to adapt working definitions.

With these intentions in mind, we have created a glossary on this platform dedicated to pulling together working definitions. It will be subject to review and it may be edited following valuable discussions and new perspectives being shared. Hopefully, it will ensure that newcomers can gain access to words they might not understand, or might understand differently. It is also a potential educational tool that could be used to develop learning resources for educators and students. As we post more on this platform and discuss new ideas, the glossary will naturally expand – so please do explore it!

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