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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 August 2005, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
The UK's ethnic name game
By Cindi John
BBC News community affairs reporter

Defining the UK's various races has never been straightforward

A proposal to give the UK's Asian communities more "inclusive" titles has highlighted the sensitivity surrounding the description of ethnic minorities in Britain.

The government now appears to be distancing itself from the idea of "rebranding" ethnic minorities.

Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said a proposal to adopt US-style hyphenated titles such as Asian-British or Indian-British was "among a range of ideas" brought up in meetings with Muslim and other community groups.

Clearly there's a distinction between how people feel about themselves and how they are seen by the majority community
Professor Richard Berthoud,
University of Essex

But debate about what to call UK's ethnic minority citizens is nothing new.

West Indians who arrived in the first wave of Commonwealth immigration in the 1950s and 60s have been subject to several name changes.

The early immigrants began their UK lives simply as "West Indians" or "coloureds".

In the 1970s they became Afro-Caribbeans, a term which was later elongated to African Caribbeans - the nearest any UK minority group has got to the US double-barrelled style.

That title is still used today along with plain "African" applied to more recent immigrants from that continent.

But probably the most commonly-used title is much simpler, according to University of Essex sociologist Professor Richard Berthoud.

Empire Windrush which brought first wave of Caribbean immigrants in 1950s
West Indian immigrants, who first arrived in the 1950s, have seen several name changes

"The most common appellation as far as I understand it, both among black people and white people talking about them, is 'black' - which refers implicitly to their colour," he said.

"They've taken over the word 'black' as a positive thing."

Early immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh found themselves saddled with the generic term "Asian".

And although these days it's common to distinguish much more with regards to country of origin, "Asian" still persists as the most used term.

Political pressure for black and Asian immigrants to put on a united front did lead to a temporary change, says Professor Berthoud.

"There was a period when Asians were encouraged to call themselves black but it's no longer helpful," he said.


However although the proposal to "rebrand" Asians has sparked controversy, the term "Asian British" does already officially exist.

Asian or Asian British
Black or Black British
Chinese or other ethnic group
After wide-ranging consultation it was introduced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for the 2001 Census, along with "Black British" as an overarching title for the UK's black and Asian groups.

Frances Forsyth, a senior researcher with the ethnicity and identity division of the ONS, was involved in piloting the new categories - which also included a "mixed-race" ethnic grouping.

Groups pressing for inclusion under a main heading rather than the "Other" category on the next Census in 2011 include Arabs and Gypsies, according to Ms Forsyth, who says there is always pressure on the ONS to amend its racial categories.

"At the moment we are aware of a lobby that's saying it's not acceptable to use the term 'black' anymore," she said.

"Their line is that it's simply a term for race which has grown out of a racist view of the world and that it's equivalent to other terminology that's outdated like 'negro'."

Pressure to change racial categories had to be balanced with the need to cover Britain's main ethnic groups using widely-acceptable terminology providing data which could be used to measure discrimination and disadvantage, she added.

But however communities may see themselves, they cannot get away from the views of the majority population, says Prof Berthoud.

"Clearly there's a distinction between how people feel about themselves and how they are seen by the majority community," he said.

"If the white community insists on thinking of Asians as not British then they're forced into thinking of themselves as Indian or whatever it is."

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