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Why it's time to stop talking about 'race'












Nadine Simpson-Ataha, an employment lawyer at Taylor Wessing challenges the concept and language of 'race'.


The fallout from the Euros, and life in general for some, must have led to difficult conversations between parents and children up and down the country. As a Mum to a new-born I imagined my own daughter turning to me in the future and asking "What's racism Mummy?". I haven't been able to stop thinking about what I will say to her in response since. It's an important question and not one that only children should be asking because the answer is critical to the understanding of 'race' in our society today. An understanding of 'race' here and now in 2021 is critical to de-normalising racism so let’s have the discussion.


The concept of 'race' has been part of day-to-day life for many decades. It stems from a body of theories known as 'race science', which was perpetuated in the early 1900s as a tool to secure economic and social power for a few. The theories were used to marginalise people and led to some of the most deplorable behaviour against human beings that the world has ever seen; behaviour that was justified by the idea that non-white people were inferior sub-species, i.e. different ‘races’, undeserving of the standard of treatment afforded to the majority of white people. Racism is choosing to ignore the biological fact that we are all one species - Homo sapiens -, and instead believing that a person who happens to have a skin colour that is different to the one that you have is inferior to you and should be treated as such. It can be exhibited to different degrees and in a countless number of ways (a separate topic for another time). 


'Race science' has never been shown to have any grounding in biology yet the myth that people of different colours (and people of different nationalities, ethnic origin and a number of other categories if you go by the Equality Act 2010) are different 'races', i.e. different sub-species, continues to be perpetuated throughout our public discourse. This happens within schools, businesses, via the media and law. It’s been happening for so long it’s not questioned and is accepted as a norm. That has to change.  


Reform in our use of language is needed across all spheres of public life. From a legal perspective, as a specialist in employment law, I find it laughable that the Equality Act, the very law that is supposed to be a beacon of inclusivity and fair treatment, refers to 'race' given its connotation. Colour, nationality, ethnic origin or national origin, examples of the basis on which it is unlawful to discriminate against someone, are each very different characteristics that should standalone as such; not be lumped together under a redundant and inaccurate umbrella term. I have no doubt that there are many other pieces of legislation known by other specialists that could be reviewed and revised in a similar way.  


Will this eradicate racism? Of course not.  But it will fundamentally change the narrative away from language that normalises, and excuses, the belief and behaviour of racists whilst positively changing the psyche of future generations. That can only be a good thing. Racists will always exist, just like rapists and fly-tippers, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't do all that we can to let them know that what they do is not ok.   Actions that have been taken so far clearly haven’t worked so let's wind right back to the basics and start again.