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What’s in a name? Embracing Complexity

What’s in a name? Embracing Complexity

An anti-DEI movement is sweeping the nation, dismantling efforts to underscore the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in universities, workplaces and other spaces. In the past month, Texas approved legislation abolishing programs at public universities. Utah is the latest state to follow suit. Since 2023, 71 anti-DEI bills have been introduced in 25 states and in Congress.

This movement away from inclusivity is problematic for several reasons. As the child of immigrant parents from South India, I worry that it also moves us further away from understanding the complexity within ethnicities and cultures.

Growing up, I dutifully checked the Asian/Pacific Islander category with my No. 2 pencil. I was often perplexed by how it inaccurately depicted the vast origins and communities it included, applying to 40 countries in Asia where more ethnicities than countries existed.

In the early 2000s, the federal government separated the large category and defined Asian Americans as those having origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent; apart from Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.

Asian diasporas are large and must not be oversimplified or confined to a catchall term. The groupings are reductive.

They’re also common. Diverse. Diversity. Minoritized. DEI. POC. BIPOC. Marginalized. Inclusion. Catchall terms that generally refer to non-white people but do not acknowledge otherness or exactly which group is being included or excluded.

For example, the term POC (People of Color) refer to non-white people but is not the best term to describe the non-white population because the true diversity of that vast group is not captured. BIPOC referring to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is a longer acronym with another similar umbrella term meaning. It is commonly used in higher education and seen by many as an affirming and empowering term that mobilizes different ethnic groups towards common goals.

The terms POC and BIPOC center whiteness, emphasizing white people as the default in our language. Ironically, the terms make whiteness the norm when the opposite is true globally. Yet, non-white people make up the majority—85%—of the world’s population. Thus, using the term minority is factually incorrect. People of the global majority or global majority is a better reflection.

These terms are not just innocent or convenient, linguistic catchalls. They reflect power structures. Power structures tend to work in the interests of an elite minority. Demographers predict that by the year 2045, the white population will be that elite minority in the United States.

In fact, what makes them pernicious is that the terms POC and BIPOC disguise and erase the very real and unique issues experienced by different communities within those umbrellas. Moreover, there is disproportionate focus on concerns of marginalized individuals with relatively more social privilege (for example, white women who experience racial privilege but not male privilege).

Before POC and BIPOC became prominent, I was introduced to the term brown while in college. Brown refers to a plethora of non-white communities. When used, it is unclear who is being referenced. Brown refers to Hispanic and Latin American communities. It also popularly refers to South Asian communities. As well as Arab and other Middle Eastern communities. Does it include Native and Indigenous people? Who is considered brown? This is indistinguishable. The term gets easily convoluted. People should not be labeled by their appearance or color of skin.

Clearly, collective terms to describe groups of people are fraught with complexities, and ultimately diminish visibility.

Rather than using catchall terms, consider the lens through which you are viewing or being viewed from. When making references, name the specific group or community explicitly. Allow others to self-identify to enrich the discussion.

To be sure, race and ethnicity are not the only lenses through which to look. Special care needs to be taken so as not to erase intersectional identities and experiences: race, gender, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, social and professional identities to name a few.

One does not need ill-conceived words to fundamentally acknowledge and treat one another respectfully as humans. However, dismantling, and disparaging movements of progress is not the answer. Education is.

What’s in the name behind the catchall term? I am Dr. Rosalyn Padiyara Vellurattil. I identify as South Asian, of Indian descent, heritage and parentage. My nationality is American. My identity transcends my geographic place of birth. I am part of the global majority. I am a female pharmacist, educator and administrator.

Humans are complex. Let’s create spaces that protect, embrace, and empower all of us, in all our complexities.

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