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“Non-white”: a candidate for the lexical room 101
  1. P J Aspinall
  1. Dr P J Aspinall, Centre for Health Services Studies, George Allen Wing, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NF, UK; p.j.aspinall{at}

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In the USA, the 1977 and 1997 Race and Ethnic Standards for Administrative Reporting deemed the term “non-white” unacceptable for use in the presentation of federal government data.1 Yet, in the UK, the term continues to enjoy widespread saliency in the reports of government and its agencies (such as the Office for National Statistics (ONS)), and in scholarly writing (over 170 instances in the BMJ during the years 1994–2007). While it provides a convenient shorthand for describing those in ethnic groups who are not categorised as “white”, the changing ethnic diversity of the country and a more robust race relations governance—including the introduction of positive duties—make the use of “non-white” seem somewhat anachronistic.

A re-evaluation of the continued use of this term is now timely. Firstly, the concealed heterogeneity revealed by the introduction into the 2001 Census ethnic group classification of “white” subcategories (“British”, “Irish”, and “Any other white background”) has rendered the distinction between a generalised “white” and “non-white” grouping of much diminished utility. For example, recent “Count Me In” (mental health) and pupil-level (PLASC) censuses have revealed that around 30–45% of persons in the “Any other white background” category have a first language other than English.2 Further, ONS experimental population estimates by ethnic group show that the “white British” group was, itself, a minority in eight London boroughs by mid-2005 (and “white” a minority in two),3 questioning the use of “non-white” as a term that might be interpreted as connoting the numerical status of a minority.

Arguments based on the language itself further undermine the use of “non-white”. The term defines minority ethnic groups collectively as a residual group by use of a negative term “… as if people who are not white only have identity by virtue of what they are not”.4 It sets “white” people as the norm or standard against which all other groups are measured, a positing that may be seen as “reinscribing a hegemonic relationship of whites over people of colour”.5 Indeed, in apartheid South Africa, it was Biko who championed the view that the black population would no longer use the term “non-white” or allow it to be used as a description of them.6

It is perhaps ironic that the language needed to combat white privilege is mutually implicated in and complicit with it. Moreover, most alternative collective terms, such as “minority”, “majority”, “people of colour” and “black” are also problematic. Any collective term (suggestions in the literature include “other than white”) may risk the construal of the collectivity in monolithic terms and the charge of ethnocentrism in a world (and in many national contexts) where “people of colour” are the majority. Accurate description—rather than economy of words—may be the answer.



  • Competing interests: None.

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