Chapter 4: Superficial Representation and True Beaconing

Chapter 4 aims to suggest that HEI’s must challenge the wider underlying philosophy that has shaped the current approach.

Chapter 3 has identified 2 flaws of the current paradigm of promoting representation. Chapter 4 aims to suggest that HEI’s must challenge the wider underlying philosophy that has shaped the current approach and their flaws.

The UK is said to have engaged in the Culture War. It is “us” against “them”, us as the rightful descendants of Anglos and Saxons against the illegal migrants who are diluting the glory of Britannia. Differences are seen as invasive, as threats that needs to be actively suppressed and neutralised. The British identity is to be like us. If you cannot act, speak, think, see like us, you need to be managed. This mentality puts minoritized groups into a mindset of competition, it’s all for ourselves now. Black history month is for black people, Lunar New Year is for East Asians, it is not uncommon that HEI is becoming more eager to recognise differences, but it is unfortunately uncommon that these differences are not really celebrated. There is no platform to display horizontal cultural appreciation and solidarity when every group tries to keep themselves relevant, we are made to compete for higher cultural relevance in HEI, in politics, in society.

This meant that people from minoritized communities are then expected to take up even more responsibilities – you need to fight for diversity, representation, but also fight for the sustenance of your own culture. It is no wonder we feel exhausted and tokenised, as our efforts rarely translate into true cultural changes, as we failed to see enough improvements in our daily lives. We feel tokenised because our existence merely acts as virtue signalling, because we are used to fulfil tick-box exercises. Tokenised because it is always just us speak for ourselves. This divides the minority groups, instigating a “all for themselves” mentality, as difference is framed as threatening, cultural survival is perceived as something to compete for, that only the fittest will survive.

This cultural assimilation narrative does not only affect the minoritized groups, but it also breeds the resentment in dominant groups that were expressed too often in academia towards the minoritized groups. “You must be a diversity hire.” This resentment and grief do not (always) stem from race-based discrimination, although it is often framed this way, this could be instead an expression of anger or discontent towards the seemingly unfair system where the minoritized are rewarded with more merit than they perceived to possess. This perception of unjust is brewed from the current non-transparent and ineffective way of promoting “socially valued” practices, where genuine communications and respect of differences is left out unmeasured, hence of the scene. People expressing this resentment may not disagree with the principles of equality, they might even be strong supporters of the notion, but they were misconstrued with top-down promotion of visible representation.

To enforce these top-down, superficial representation, EDI groups quickly resorted to law and social contracts (that people might not agree). We are told that diversity and representation is valued in HEI, and that discriminatory behaviour will be punished. I argue below that neither of the 2 approaches – legal deterrent or social pressure – address the crux of the problem.

The legal system exists to refrain people from hating each another when they are violated, knowing that any mishaps (defined by law) will be justly punished or reattributed. Social contracts exists to refrain people from loving or caring for each another, when they only need to satisfy the need to demonstrate performative, socially acceptable behaviours to be seen as prosocial. This means that under the social contract of “no discrimination”, people learned that their lack of/unwillingness to love and understand differences will be hidden covertly behind a certain pattern of behaviours. Treating means as goals in promoting EDI becomes a retractive, ahistorical approach that avoids reconciliation and sustains colonial social hierarchy – to continue to see the culturally dominant group as the giver, and the rest of the minority flourishing conditioned on the dominant groups’ approval, that we are never seen as equals.

To demonstrate progress in “Beaconing and Sharing” activities is a key to be awarded the Athena Swan award. If HEI is an epitome of society, (that is, if we can separate HEI from society), beaconing activity must include the active reflection on the philosophy and ideology as we strive to push for a safe and diverse environment for everyone to reach their potentials to the fullest.

My final chapter will hope to suggest what a safe and empowering space for diversity and representation should look like.


Chapter 3: The Flaws of Representation

In chapter 3, I describe 2 flaws of representation:
1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals
2) Choice of Representation

In this chapter, I will describe 2 main flaws in how ethnicity and ethnic representation is discussed. By the end of the chapter, I hope you can start to see why progress in promoting ethnic equality is slow, and may be illusive.

Flaw 1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals

Let’s say we take upon the “measurement is gold” mantra, we still have to face the problem that we are constantly moving the goal post of equity, as number of “groups” are ever increased (& prescribed), such that progress is hard to track or make sense of. In the UK, the terms we used to describe minoritised ethnic groups have been changing – people of colour, BME, BAME… And now “It is time we drop BAME” in the Sewell Report. The widening trend and the abandonment of an over-arching term to describe all non-White British people reflects a changing demographic in the UK, and a changing public discourse to use better terms to describe people’s identity. The question lies: Who decides how other’s describe their identity? For what purpose are we classifying these categorically different identities?

The terms we use to describe race and ethnicity is unique to where we are. It is often defined by the dominant groups (e.g., White British). More inclusive terms emerge when minorities were given a larger voice. But these emerging terms do not change the fact that these terms are created by and for the dominant group, and that their group membership do not solely depend on their identity, but depend on the dominant group’s perception. A quick example, people of middle eastern heritage, who speaks perfect English and has pale skin colour is treated vastly different before and after 911. In the UK, from the last 30 years of census, some people groups reported changing ethnic identity, but the ever-stable ethnic identification is White British. Terminology cares less to differentiate Black Caribbean from Black African, but really cares about differentiate “them” from “us”. It is foreseeable that a similar story will unfold, creating more terms and groups to capture “other” groups and “mixed” groups in the UK.

The pattern is clear, ideology is always chasing after the reality: we only care enough to change when there are visibly large enough groups in society that we need to “update our terms”, but not our mentality. In this way, top-down representation or classification into existing categories will forever lag behind, as the UK continues to diversify, as new categories are being created and the goal post of representation will never be attained.

ONS (2003) describes ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” Flaw 1 shows the problem of the operationalisation of such measure, that choosing an identity from a limited number of choices that closest resembles our identity, is not truly self-defined, subjective, nor meaningful.

Photo by cottonbro studio on

Flaw 2) Choice of representation

We do not choose which country we are born, we do not choose our skin colour. As a migrant minority in the UK, similarly, you have no choice but to represent your visibly perceived ethnicity. Representation starts not when you pronounced membership of the ethnic group, it begins “whenever you step into that space” (Quote from Chineke! Ep4. The Anxiety of Representation). During the pandemic, whenever I step on the tube, I can just hide my Asian-looking masked face to get a free 1-metre quarantine zone, no matter how crowded it is. Every Asian looking person became Wuhan, Chinese. Chineseness is dumb down to a simple dimension of fear.

Perceived membership is not always a good indication of subjective identity. Let’s look at another example. Some migrants from Hong Kong (Hong Kongers) yearned to differentiate themselves from being called “Chinese”. There is an ongoing, traceable, consensual process within the Hong Konger community to build and define Hong Kongness, but this difference is often not respected by Chinese and the wider popuation. This highlights the dynamic nature of ethnic identities, and that visible representation is not sufficient a marker to denote group membership. This varying nature of ethnic identities is not unique in migrant populations. To oppose same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, a lot of conservative politicians claim that it is in Chinese culture and tradition to uphold a heterosexual, monogamy marriage. However, as Marco Wan illustrated in his paper, the traditional Chinese marriage was never monogamous. Chineseness was influenced by (western) modernity in their own invention of their marriage “tradition”. Within people groups of the same ethnic origin, with shared language and nationality, their notion of ethnic identity and what it entails can differ. The attempt of using top-down categories and language to restrict how ethnic identity can vary limits our ability to truly allow people to choose how to express their own.

Non-dominant groups do not have the choice to be un-represented, the “Single Outlier” explanation is never accepted for non-dominant groups. The “Bad Apple” excuse is too often used, and accepted, when say e.g., a White man has breached the law. This is another way of explaining why the “unconscious biases” remains pertinent in the UK, the dominant group rejects any potentially negative connotation linked with their White British ethnicity, but are too quick to label and stick with stereotypes they assign on minoritized groups. The dominant group has to power to choose to be un-represented. “I’m not like those White men.” Can non-dominant groups do the same? Look at the disproportionate rates of stop and search in young black men, the colonial spirit lives on, the same spirit that separated families, enslaved cultures, and maintained the hierarchical caste of social class within the UK. Minoritised groups can’t help but feel like their every step is watched, and that they will forever be the other. The reliance on appearance representation amplifies the power imbalances between groups.

The direct implication of the reliance of appearance representation is the risk of under-representing the rights of the less populated/less vocal “sub-groups” within the same ethnic category umbrella term. The indirect consequence is that it creates an illusion of progress (which can be infinitely perpetuated by keep on moving the goal posts), when the underlying resource allocation system does not change, that people from non-dominant groups are still viewed as lesser.

Reflecting on Ethnicity in Research – Challenging The Default

Reflecting on how Ethnicity is researched in academia, challenging “defaults practices”

Listen to the blog here

From the latest release of admin-based ethnicity statistics (ONS), it was shown that, across several administrative data source, there are a significant proportion of people having reported to belong to more than 1 ethnic group.

Similar evidence of changing ethnic identification was demonstrated in Understanding Society @usociety youth survey in young people aged between 10-15.

Ethnicity is a dynamic historic-cultural construct, and for most people from ethnic minorities groups, it changes overtime. In research/policy-based evidence making, ethnic groups are often lumped together (#BAME…), assumed to be constant, and you can only pick 1. It bears the question, how come the default practice in research is to treat ethnicity as time-invariant?

You might notice that – Changing ethnic identity is very uncommon among people reported to belong to White British groups.

And rightfully so! At the time when the population is predominantly white British (or that people from other groups are mostly slaves or seen as objects), research is predominantly initiated by white British, it is reasonable that ways of research are agreed for and within white British.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to have a consistent ethnic identification! But this lived-experience of an invariable ethnicity by white British groups has dominated the knowledge generation process and structure. And this assumption, rightfully based on white British experience was then assumed to be an universal experience.

It became The Default.

I did not recognise the issues with The Default.

I thought it was a consensus, as it was widely replicated and taught to next generations of researchers. I still do the same in my own research: treating ethnicity as lump sum categories, do not change over time.

And perhaps this IS the manifestation of systemic #oppression/#racism. Paraphrasing Dr. Celestin Okoroji: @CellyRanks shared at @kcsamh #PartneringforChange event yesterday (21/6), we need to recognise the hegemonic knowledge and evidence generation mechanisms in this society, and challenge them. (See my thread to capture part of the talk here)

It became The Default.
(Photo by Pedro Figueras on

The next question is: “how” – what can we do, if we think we should challenge the default – or at least suggest an alternative of how “reality” is conceived.
I have 2 thoughts – (please share yours with me too!)
1) Community-Centric Research
2) Improving Methods

(1) Community-Centric Research means to put local communities – people – at the heart of research. It is about valuing relationship building, and demonstrate impact valued by local people. It is one form of Public Patient* Involvement I suppose, but more. This should be embedded in how funding is planned and commissioned.

(2) Improving Methods
This is one goal of my PhD project (with @Klharron & @rob_aldridge), to improve research equity, to face the biases in “default practices”, more specifically in the practice of data linkage, interpretation and public health policy decision making.

This is new to me – and I am empowered to see so many pioneers on this path. Change can only come from a collective effort. Do share your thoughts and idea with me here or via email!

希望是本無所謂有,無所謂無的。 這正如地上的路;其實地上本沒有路,走的人多了,也便成了路。

魯迅先生 – 故鄉

There is no such thing as Hope, it’s just like the path. There was no path. The path is manifested when thousands of people walk through.

Mr Lu Xun – Hometown
Photo by Julia Volk on


Originally tweeted by Joseph Lam (@Jo_Lam_) on 22nd June 2022 as a Twitter Thread. Minor edits and expanded on points without character limits.

From Binary to Spectrum: A Thought Experiment

Saw this Tweet on Jul 31, 2020 by Twitter User: @ravenscimaven

I really don’t like being labeled “BIPOC*” y’all. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had more people these past few months refer to me with an acronym than ever in my life and it doesn’t sit right with me. I wonder, how do LGBT+ folks feel about being identified with an acronym?

@ravenscimaven on Twitter

*Black, Indigenous and People of Colour

I’ve first encountered the term BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) when I first arrived in the UK. I never liked the term, as it was used and discussed as if the experience of ethnic minorities in the UK are similar/comparable. I appreciate the motivation to raise awareness and fight for the rights of the minorities. Yet I can’t help to feel elements of tokenistic labels in the imprecise languages around the topic. Why create this label BAME, when you can just describe – for example, Black Caucasian – and acknowledge the differences between this group and, say Black Caribbean?

The question then shifted from category of ethnicity to sexual orientation – whether the label of LGBT+ is identified by people of these orientations. In the current age, this comparison is appropriate in sense that, a person can identify their belongingness to their identities, based on their intuition, affection and resolution. Yet I think there is a slight difference between the two, as the latter is described as a spectrum is a varying index on a 2D scalar field; while the former is conceived as categories.

I think my question is, what qualifies the latter to be a spectrum, instead of groups in a wide array of categories? What are the 2 ends of the scale? Is a spectrum specifically used to encourage us to reject binary categories? Bunch of categories sprung up in my mind, I’d invite readers to help with this thought experiment and classify, which would be spectrums vs categories.

Ethnicity – Nationality – Mental Health – Political Philosophy

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on

A Corresponding Tweet from Twitter User: @thecrobe caught my attention.

I do not mind being grouped into the queer community (usually). What I DO dislike is when it is used for performative action by someone doesn’t understand the nuances in the community (and does not educate themselves).

@thecrobe on Twitter

From this user’s experience, I am tempted to think: Rejecting existing binary categories doesn’t matter – discovering the new identity matters. Whether such category (within a spectrum) exist in the past doesn’t matter, but whether there is scope in the present to allow the development of character to this label matters. It is not the half-hearted belongingness to these labels that elicited negative feelings amongst the labelled, but the movements that attempted to create history, culture and character around that single ambiguous label/category – that failed to echo with these groups.

If this is the case, the central aim of the advocates – for whichever group – should shift away from proving that some people are different, and stop putting people into more complicated categories. We already know that. But to help create an enabling environments, such that these individuals can explore their individual identities to the fullest.

Voices from people with lived experience MUST stay at the centre of all advocative movements, research and policy-making. For the sake of the individuals, the community and humanity.