Our Global Mapping Survey and The Journey of Unpacking Language
*Content Warning. This blog post describes the process of translating our Global Mapping Survey and highlights the colonial history and legacy of languages, which includes content that may be triggering or upsetting to BIPOC.*
The Racial Equity Index (REIndex) was formed to produce an Index and advocacy tools that will provide greater accountability for racial equity within and across the global development sector in order to dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable system and culture, with justice and dignity at its core. Our first step in creating this index is our Global Mapping Survey, which will collect broad opinions from individuals in the global development sector and assess trends across geographies and among diverse populations. This step will help us identify the indicators that will be explored more deeply as we build out the Index. While the REIndex is Black, Indigenous and Person of Color (BIPOC) led, we cannot and will not attempt to establish the index on our own. We need the perspectives and voices of others in the global development sector so we can collectively build a tool that is inclusive and representative of the variety of experiences across the sector.
Our team will be the first to admit that our survey is far from perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect. It is designed to start the process and the conversation with and across communities in the global development and social justice sectors. We aim to work at the speed of trust through centring intentionality behind our processes and in practicing our value of transparency, we recognise that we have not figured it all out yet. The process of creating this survey has been a learning experience in many ways, particularly around language, the inequities that are built into the words we use, and the care that must be taken to choose the right words. We all know that #WordsMeanThings after all.
We initially wrote the survey in English, the operating language of our working group and, regrettably, one of the main languages of colonisers. English was a tool wielded by the British in their long invasion of over 170 countries around the world. Taught under the guise of bringing ‘modernity’ and ‘civility’ to these communities, English has and continues to be a symbol of global oppression and imperialism. And so, it’s no wonder why we had difficulty creating this survey in English. The global development sector has slowly made changes to its terminology (see the World Bank’s decision to move away from ‘developing’/’developed’ countries). However, there are still so many problematic English words that are baked into development terminology including “beneficiaries”, “capacitating,” “empowerment”, and “the field”. Read more about these words on the From Poverty to Power blog and their post on devspeak.
As a part of the survey creation, we set out to translate our survey in different languages to ensure accessibility as we aim to build a truly global Racial Equity Index. We have translated the survey from English into Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, Swahili, Serbian, and Chinese, languages that either members of the group speak ourselves or have contacts that would be willing to translate for us pro bono. We found it challenging to translate and infuse the nuance while providing context with these languages.
Through this process, we have recognised that our languages are more entrenched by colonialism and imperialism than many of us originally thought, often using words that are ‘othering’ and were designed to maintain a hierarchy of racial domination that are still steeped within the words that we use today.
It was traumatic to unpack these words, which started with the translation of the very first survey question: “How do you self-identify?” Take the word “Indigeneous” in BIPOC as one of our options. Our friends from Asia and Africa who have lived in the continent since they were born found this term confusing. They have lived and have ties to the land they live in, which then makes them an Indigenous person. However, the borders of their countries were created by colonisers and their countries’ histories rewritten by these same oppressors. We also recognise that their Indigenous experiences are different, compared to Native American communities, Aboriginal communities in Australia, and Māori people who have had their land stolen from them by colonisers up until today.
Another key example is when we navigated the translation of ‘Black’ in BIPOC. We had to unpack what it means in different languages and across geographies.
For example, our Portuguese translator provided the following details: In Spanish and Portuguese, Black, translates into “Negro/a,” a word that was considered antiquated and even insulting by Black members of our working group based in the United States. We had several discussions on considering using the term “afrodescendentes,” but were advised that the word did not hold the same meaning. According to our pro-bono Portuguese translator, in Brazil, the word “Preto/a” (literally meaning black) is the word of the colonial framework. Following Brazil’s independence from Portuguese colonial rule, the Black community stood out and started to refer to themselves as “Negro/a”. Nowadays, some activists are starting to go back to using the word “Preto/a”, yet there is still no consensus. Additionally, many groups accept the use of this word among themselves, but would not accept to be referred to as “Preto/a” by a white person, as the racist connotation of this word is still very strong in Brazil. Just as an example, the Black Lives Matter movement was translated into Portuguese as “Vidas Negras importam” (not “Vidas Pretas importam”). On the other hand, for the Brazilian Official Bureau of Statistics, “Negro” is a word that comprises Black people (“Preto/as”), Indigenous people, and People of color (“Pardo/as”), but both of these words (“Preto/a” and “Pardo/a”) are considered by many communities and activists as racist and colonial.
Communities and activists are revisiting these words and filling them with new meanings, more connected to the anti-racist fight. How people define different racial identities varies significantly by continent, country, and even within a community, and therefore is more complex than what we can offer in one survey. Our team is aware that our offerings are not exhaustive of all the racial identities that people may hold, but we hope it can serve as a small snapshot.
Acknowledging the imperfect nature of translation and uncertainties through this process, we recognise that there is no universal consensus on how language is used and the ways that BIPOC communities are shifting the meaning and use of language with a liberatory and anti-racist lens.Through our journey towards racial equity in global development, The Racial Equity Index Working Group is committed to continuous learning, open and transparent sharing of our processes, and protecting those most harmed by the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. We are committed to sharing our learning and contributing to the anti-racism work in the global development sector, understanding that it’s a small piece of a much larger systemic work. Join us.
Take our Global Mapping Survey open until 8 Jan: https://www.theracialequityindex.org/global-mapping-survey
Established in June 2020, the Racial Equity Index Group is a collective of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) who currently work or have spent part of their career working in international development and are dedicated to holding the sector accountable through the creation of a global racial equity index.
Follow our work at TheRacialEquityIndex.Org