Chapter 5 – One (Only) Way forward.

I propose that only via shared understanding, relationship-building, a community that preserves space for authenticity and solidarity can truly achieve meaningful representation – with unity in diversity.

The concept of “Global Village” was born in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan, who illustrated how the technical advancements in communication abolishes geographical and temporal boundaries. There emerged an innocent globalist and cosmopolitanism view that harmony in diversity will be achievable in no time. The Culture War narrative took over, as the after-(ongoing) effect of the economy crisis ripples, as the “compete for survival” instincts kicks back in economic and cultural terms, the harmony in diversity fantasy seems much more far away than it was in the 1960s.

In earlier chapters, I criticised HEI’s approaches in promoting representation. I argued that the current measures of diversity could easily be portraited as performative, quasi-pro-diversity mandates that drains energy from both the dominant and minoritized groups, as the former feels like they’ve been unjustly underserved, and the latter tokenised, seeing little actual improvements.

How then, can we create and preserve a safe and empowering space that community can thrive, with harmony in diversity? In my opinion, there are 2 key attributes to such communities: Authenticity and Solidarity. And both of these attributes can only be demonstrated through patient, non-judgemental listening and communication.

1. Authenticity

I believe that our identity is continually constructed through our interaction with our circumstances, with respect to history, personal struggles, evolves and adapt to our environment. If we truly respect ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” (ONS, see discussion on this in Chapter 3), we have to allow individuals, especially young people in HEI, to have the courage to embrace and explore this uncertainty. We have to reject label-driven classifications to pre-determine how we should interact with others. Here’s my story to illustrate this point:

I attended a language class at the university in London, this was not too far from when the 2019 Hong Kong Democratic Movements have made the news in the West. The first few terms we learn after “What’s your name?”, “Where do you live?”, would be – you guessed it – “Where are you from?”. I am in a small class of 10, coming from different countries, ranging from Switzerland, Germany, Poland to Pakistan, Iran, China. We took turns to ask each another the question – where are you from.

There is a stark contrast in the temperature of the room when I said I am from Hong Kong, and my other classmate said that they are from China. I was welcomed with a lot of warmth, and them a much less welcoming acknowledgement. It is no surprise that the China = Bad overly simplified narrative has crept into the classroom, and affected how we treat others. I felt it, and I decided to share with the class the cultural similarities between Hong Konger and Chinese people. The class was less hostile (yes.) as they now can see my Chinese friend more as a person, and not as an extension of the communist suppressor as they may have previously perceived.

The more socially acceptable, easy thing for me to do in that situation would be simply add salt to injury, to explain how Hong Kong is different from China. I chose not to do that as that would further undermine the class as a safe space for my friend to explore his identity. But this is not just for him. I can easily imagine that this act of differentiation would drive me further away from my dual Hong Konger-Chinese identity. I admire a lot of the elements in Chinese traditional culture, the food, the language, the art… Yet there is strong social pressure for me to denounce part of my identity, and only by doing that my social standing in the environment can be affirmed. Knowingly or unknowingly, my self-identity would change, not as a result of authentic, soul-searching, but under the influence of social correctness or social desirability.

An environment that truly enables authentic identity building need not to be value-free, but it requires individuals to be treated with no presumptions that is based on group identity one may be prescribed as having. It means that individuals have to choose the hard way, to not rely on mnemonic devices of ‘labelling’ too much when we meet and interact with others. This leads on to the second attribute – solidarity.

2. Solidarity

A community that endorses solidarity within itself share a key assumption: that every individual in the group is valued as much as the other. There are a lot of discussion on the importance of solidarity so I won’t drill into this too much here.

To highlight how HEI values diversity, a common approach was to collate a long list of cultural or religious events or dates that is happening each month. This was intended to create opportunity for staff and students to demonstrate solidarity with others. I strongly doubt many people read them, or “celebrate with” others. My observation is that, apart from being startled by the sheer amount of “festivals” and “celebrations” that are on the list, the biggest barrier that stops people from “celebrating with”, is the lack of relevance behind those jubilant pictures and exotic foods. I think it is not meaningful to include every festival you can think of purely on the notion of inclusivity. It has to come from the population you intend to share this list with, and it has to be an invitation to “celebrate with” the relevant groups. How do we stand in solidarity if we don’t even know they exist? Representation of non-existing people does not make sense. HEI as a porous community, be it at department, institute, or the University level, must allow individuals to willingly share, and take initiative, and have their skin in the game to allow the above to happen.

Ultimately, the narrative that work and life should be separated, that one’s goal for life is retirement, and that the individuals as just a cog in the system strips people self-worth and sense of community. Under this narrative, your coworkers not worth your time, but another replaceable, disposable piece of work to listen to, understand or build relationship with. But there is no short-cut to diversity and proper representation. There is no laws, rules, or recommended practices that can foster relationship. Authenticity and solidarity needs to be centred at the heart of any diverse community to develop shared understanding. With no understanding, there is no true diversity; with no true diversity, there is no true representation; with no true representation, there is no equity.

An authentic community with individualised understanding and solidarity is key to proper representation, and equity (in the long run).

There is one, only way forward:

“…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”

Mark 12:31

“There is no panacea, or utopia, there is just love and kindness and trying, amid the chaos, to make things better where we can. And to keep our minds wide, wide open in a world that often wants to close them.”

Matt Haig, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”



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.

Chapter 2: Current approach to ethnic representation

Construing means as outcome may overestimate true progression to a more equitable HEI.

21st century is an era of metrics. Measuring and demonstrating impact becomes essential to research publications. This realist “only measurable changes are true changes” perspective dominates how “evidence” is conceived. The same line of logic was applied to promoting EDI initiatives.

We often treat EDI representation as visible representation, as they are more measurable. The aim is to get people of certain membership of a group (e.g., Asian) to attain an ideal proportion in a certain measurement of equity (e.g., promotion). For example, proportion of non-white people on interview panels, international student percentages etc. However, in pushing for a wider visible representation (definition 1) to be achieved, we assumed people who share those characteristics (1) are necessary to represent the groups’ rights (definition 2).

Assumption that AR leads to RR, which in turn leads to Equity
AR is not necessary nor sufficient to attain Equity

For example, in the Sewell report, the ethnic diversity of the police force becomes a target of intervention, with the underlying theory of change that once the (appearance) representation problem is solved, minoritized communities would regain equitable rights compared to their white counterparts. Another example, EDI groups in HEI often require a certain demographic make-up, inadvertently putting pressure on minorities to contribute. This follows the same line of logic that once the EDI group is diverse, the diverse needs will be addressed. There are numerous counterexamples that visible representation do not automatically achieve rights representation, black on black violence, the countless stories about those who made it became the gate-keeper to enter “high society”, hey ho, look at the faces behind UK Illegal Migration Bill 2023.

No doubt, having representation from minoritized groups can be a reflection of underlying change in power structure, equality and resource allocation. But that cannot be the only means of measuring change in our society. As Universities are incentivised to push for different awards recognising their efforts on EDI, when the only outcome measure focuses on superficial appearance representation, we might overestimate our progress to equity.

We need people who can fight for the rights of the underprivileged, and empower the minoritized, such that appearance representation would be the natural outcome of a changed landscape. This is a strong argument for people in power, often White and British, to take initiative. The misplaced emphasis on “measurable” outcomes became a hinderance to progress, as we phantasies for an easily measurable solution. Our current approach to ethnic representation does not promote this vision.

This conflict in apparent progress and on-the-ground experience among ethnic minoritized members of HEI is a source of frustration. I shall touch on this in more detail in Chapter 4.

In the next chapter, I will describe 2 flaws in how ethnicity and ethnic representation is discussed, and hoping to elucidate the power constructs that were so deeply embedded in our social interactions that may slow, or mimic progress in promoting ethnic equality.

* Appearance Representation: A depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium – definition 1.

Rights Representation: The action of standing for, or in the place of, a person, group, or thing, and related senses – definition 2.

Blog Series: Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.

This is the first part of my reflection serving as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team at the University. The series is titled: On Ethnic Representation and Equity: The Costs of Conflating Means as Goals.


The UUK & NUS report in 2019 reported that less than 2% of 19,000 professors in the UK higher education institutes (HEI) are non-white women. Improving the representativeness of UK HEI staff and students became a priority for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives. Proposed solutions included racial equity hiring practices, such as having a more diverse interview board, and purposeful advertisement within the targeted populations. Whilst I appreciate the equity-based approach to improve ethnic representation, I worry that the current framing of “representation” would divert attention away from cultivating a culture that embraces unity in diversity. Despite continual effort, mainly by people from racialised communities, ethnic minorities continue to feel tokenised and marginalised in academia. In this article, I would re-assess the logic behind the current EDI approaches to define and improve representation, point out the intrinsic flaws of the current definition of representation, and propose potential barriers for UK HEI to re-calibrate the direction for improving representation. I argue that the philosophical positioning behind current approaches to promoting EDI conflates means as goals, and might limit our ability to evaluate whether we have truly promoted equity within HEI.

Chapter 1: Define Representation and Why It Matters

“Representation” is typically defined in the following 2 ways (Oxford English Dictionary):

  1. A depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium.
  2. The action of standing for, or in the place of, a person, group, or thing, and related senses.

I will refer to definition (1) as “Appearance Representation” (or Visible Representation), and definition (2) as “Rights Representation”. In my opinion, the need to represent arise as a product of “differences”. For example, “appearance representation” showcases something spectacular, it captures something that is different from the norm; “rights representation” serves the purpose of settling different opinions within or between individuals and communities e.g., legal representatives, political party representation.

Who is HEI trying to represent? What does a well-represented HEI look like? I believe this is determined by 2 main factors: the size of targeted community and school philosophy.

Depending on the size of the institute, the targeted community to be represented should be reflective of the local community (regional, e.g., Lambeth, London), the city the institute is based at (e.g., London), nation or country (e.g., England), or even the world. There is little point for a local primary school of 100 pupils in Kent to be representative of world population, which would mean >90% of White British pupils in Kent would have to compete for <10% of the places, essentially excluding most from education. Similarly, the proclaimed world-class international universities should recruit staff and students that is reflective of their targeted community, or at least their renowned global reputation. This view mirrors that of the suggestion made in the Sewell Report (aka the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities), e.g., “to make police forces more representative of local communities”.

School philosophy refers to the beliefs the HEI have regarding the (distribution of) characteristics in an ideal world. School philosophy may take precedent of the size of target population. Take women in academia as an example, it is not as simple as wanting an overall proportion of men and women in HEI that is reflective of the community. It is believed that women are disproportionately lost from academia, and that this has stifled academia from reaching its full potential (premise of Athena Swan). Acknowledging the hegemonic masculinity that persists in society (and academia), extra effort is required to promote and protect the rights and platform for women to develop their academic career. This approach to think about representation considers the social structures of the present and help us avoid reconstructing the inequalities that is presently observed in the community.

In essence, in a well-represented HEI, all groups should be represented, in terms of “Appearance” (in terms of number/proportion) and “Rights” (in terms of platforms/priorities), that is in-line with the institute’s philosophy, and proportionate to the size of the targeted community they are serving.

To be continued…

Week 4: Say my Name – Hong Kong Chinese Names in English

Reflect on how Hong Kong Chinese names are misrepresented in the UK

“Chi – Chi – is Chi here?”.. “Here.. (unreluctantly)”

I bet the majority of students from Hong Kong have experienced this – Coming to a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, being called a foreign name that took you days to recognise and internalise. Yup, you are here, away from home.

Stripping away the sentiments, I can’t help but be surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t be!) how most of the times (mainly Hong Kong) Chinese names are wrongly represented in English – given the intertwined (colonial) history between Britain and Hong Kong.

These mistakes in naming replicates themselves in educational settings, universities, administrative data and health records. Practically speaking, these mistakes induce higher error rates in records, and hence lower the probability that these information could be used to advise research or public policy – a form of research inequity that perpetuates health inequity in society. If we truly are marching towards an inclusive, more equal society, I do think the first, and the least thing we need to do is to get the names right. Here’s a quick simplified tutorial.

Chinese Name Short Tutorial

In (modern) Chinese, full name (姓名) comprises of a surname (姓) and a forename (名). There is no equivalent of middle name in Chinese.

Surnames typically consist of 1 character, up to 9 characters (only 1 in the Chinese Surname Dictionary)! The 1996 Chinese Surname Dictionary collated 11,936 Surnames, where over 90% of the Chinese population share 120 common surnames (all of them consist of 1 character), and the top 5 surnames (Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen) take up 30% of the population. As for forenames, they usually consists of 1 or 2 characters, with no upper limits on the number of characters. During the infamous Salmon Chaos discount event in Taiwan, a person has changed their legal name to 50-character-long(49 character forename)!

From the national names report in China 2020, over 90% of Chinese full names consists of 3 characters, as proportion of 2-character names dropped to around 6%, and 4-or-above-character names has a total of around 3%.

Problems with English Representation of Chinese Names

Cantonese and Mandarin pronounces the same character differently – hence their English translation differs. Take my surname as an example, 林, is pronounced more closely to “Lam” in Cantonese than “Lin” in Mandarin (e.g., The NBA player Jeremy Lin). This variation of translation tells us a bit more about where individuals come from – that’s good, as long as people consistently report and record them.

A big issue lies with the forenames. Forename translations in China and Taiwan uses Mandarin Pinyin, which is (sort of) an established method to pronounce Mandarin characters. This is not without it’s limitations, for example, some characters like 呂 (Lǚ) could not be represented using English alphabets. There is no accurate alphabetical representation of Cantonese, mostly due to it’s complexity of having 9 tones and 6 modes/pitches, and that a lot of the words do not share a similar pronunciation mechanism with English. The resemblance between Cantonese-English is much lower than that of Mandarin-English.

Another key difference is that, Mandarin-translated English forenames are usually presented as the same word. For example, 鄧小平 is represented as Deng (Surname) Xiaoping (Forename). Cantonese-translated English on the other hand retains the independence of the forename characters. For example, 鄭月娥 is represented as Cheng (Surname) Yuet-ngor (Forename), where the hyphen is sometimes omitted as space. In the current naming registry in the UK, a lot of the times Cantonese-translated English forenames are truncated and treated as a combination of forenames and middle-names. For example, Yuet-Ngor are truncated as “Yuet”, and “Ngor” recognised as their non-existent middle-name.

How is this still happening in the UK today? Have they not consulted any Hong Kong Chinese? This leads to a key barrier to EDI- power dynamics in Public Patient Involvement. There probably are formal or informal checks with Chinese-speaking people to see whether the existing way of representing names are appropriate, however, these issues might not have been dealt with. We have to be mindful of the power dynamics in which these conversation have happened, in the past and in present. A partial sacrifice of the name and humiliation to the ruling, (White) decision-makers to “earn” a moment of shared laughter might seem to be ridiculous, but it makes a lot of sense amongst the exiled, minoritized communities. Heck, lands were occupied and unequal treaties were signed for the same reasons.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Hong Kong Chinese. It is quite common that people change their naming traditions, willingly or non-willingly, when they enter the country, for example, Vietnamese flip their forename and surnames etc. Speaking from experience, I know there are many occasions that my friends tried to correct their tutors on how their names should be called at Universities. Unless they switch to a “proper” western name, some tutors would insist to use the “name that is recorded on the papers”. The less brave would persevere, like many of our predecessors, to be referred to as a foreign name, even foreign to ourselves.

Glad to see the movement on using the preferred pronouns in communications – I hate to say this but it’s always easier to promote when White people is a beneficiary of any social movement. So my plea is, perhaps it’s also time to pay the long due respect to the un-named, attention to the unseen, and voices to the unheard.

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.

Twitter Spiel: Reflection on Gender, Race and Power in Academia

Gender, Race and power in Academia: Complexity of Intersectionality.

Figure 1. Tweet Captured from Prof X’s Twitter feed on 28/4/2022, 10:18 am, UK Time

The tweet above is tweeted by an Asian American women professor in sociology, Prof X, who serves as the director for the Centre for Research on Social Inequality. My understanding of the original post (OP)’s intention is to invite discussion and reflection on the inequity and (micro) aggression directed towards women of racialized communities in academia; in this case, from a student.

However, Twitter reacted slightly different from what the OP expected. At first glance, a lot of people saw this as an act of oppression and public shaming of the student. I thought we Twitter user must have learned by now that 280 characters is just too little to paint the full picture, and to be kind before jumping to conclusions. Prof X very soon found herself at the receiving end of all sorts of criticisms and degrading comments on her character and professionalism. This is an unfortunate case study to look at how intersectionality plays out in real life, how the role of race is dismissed for minority groups in power, and the lack of solidarity within racialised communities.

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on

I am summarising a few common comments (filtering out straight up insulting ones) under the original tweet:

Response 1: “It is a right question to ask!”

This response highlights that it is important to find out about potential supervisors’ skills, styles and whether it matches with them before a student decide to work with them. I think this is indubitably true. However, this comment missed the OP’s point. The problem is two folds. It was never about whether the student should ask the question, but the subjective experience of an Asian American women’s qualifications and capabilities being constantly questioned in academia. It is not about whether the question is appropriate, or even how that question was asked, it is about the cumulative experience of being treated as lesser because of their gender and race. In Ljeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want To Talk About Race (2018), she illustrated clearly the case of how racism cannot be reduced to isolated events. What is experienced and reported in this tweet is merely the tip of the ice-burg, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many comments along this line went on to discuss “Whether or not” this question should be asked, such as:

“It’s that the student asked a professor if she was qualified (like an interviewer) instead of asking if they were a good fit (like an advisee). The tone and phrasing can feel insulting because it questions competence instead of appealing to the specificity of one’s expertise.”

But the OP is not really talking about the wordings. It is about TO WHOM this question is asked, and what this reflects. In case this was not clear, a fellow Asian American colleague of Prof X shared in the comments, but it did not turn the tides of toxic criticisms towards the OP.

Figure 2. Tweet reply under OP. Captured 28/04/2022, 10:21am, UK time.

Instead of recognizing the racial and gender inequity that lingered for far too long, instead of believing that the OP is, indeed, about race, instead of reading carefully what the OP is trying to get to, Prof X was torn into pieces. This blue bird is definitely a carnivore, beware.

Response 2: “Why would you shame your student in an open platform?”

This points to a different problem. Where is the proper place talk about racism?  When is the proper time to talk about racism? Should this be discussed on a public domain where people can share their learnings, or should this be a private conversation between the affiliated parties? We may never have a good-enough answer for everyone for the questions above. However, the problem I see here is the need for people to police on how these issues should or can be discussed. This act of policing itself is part of the attitude that perpetuates structural and casual racism. This suppresses minorities groups to share their lived experiences on a day-to-day basis. Yes, the OP did not spell out word by word that the student is sexist/racist; yes, the OP tried to find excuses for such questions to be asked given it’s unpleasant manner; I see these are the result of similar policing on when can people from racialised or minority groups talk about their lived experience, such that we pitifully comply with conscious choice of self-censoring and humour to cover up our pain. This is not a problem of platform; this is a problem of power.


I think the presenting case here is a lively example of the complexity of intersectionality, when power and race coincide. A lot of the criticisms following the lines of Response 1 hold the notion that, the professor is in the position of power, it is hence an act of oppression. When the OP talked about her particular interaction with a student, they are automatically assumed to be the oppressor, wherever the platform may be, on whatever topic, in whatever context. The position dictates everything. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the question did not come from a student, but from a colleague, or a member of the public, where public discourse favours OP’s position. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the OP is a white male professor, where public discourse favours the criticisms. This reductionist way of thinking succeeds only in applauding a superficial understanding of “social justice”, but in reality often works against their intention, in worse case, a valorised, covert form of racism.

This is an example in how intersectionality plays out, in situations where systems of powers seem to operate in contradictory manners. When people from minority races are in a position of power, people assumed that their position of power would always overshadow their race, and that racism does not seem to, and should not affect how they interact with the world. The emergence of Critical Race Theory is a response to exactly these situations. Our case here exemplifies that we’ve still got a long way to go.

East Asian are the majority ethnic group in the world, but we are never the majority in these contexts. We are not white, not brown, not black. We are a distant majority group that was left out of the discussion. We are the ones that are stuck in the middle. We do not need to indulge in a competition of whom the most deprived group is, it is meaningless; however, we do need solidarity from other racialised communities to stand with us when we face racism, sexism, as other groups do. Please be kind.

Thinking of you Prof X, hope you are well.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listenslow to speak and slow to become angry,”

James 1:19

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.