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United Nations under pressure after controversial survey to ‘eradicate racism and promote dignity'

A United Nations survey was sent to thousands of its staff a few days ago with an email accompanying it, and describing it as part of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ “campaign to eradicate racism and promote dignity.”

However, the survey has been highly criticised. The accusations of racism came from some of the international body staff members after it issued the ‘anti-racism survey’ that included a question asking how they identify themselves and offered ‘yellow’ among the possible responses.

The United Nations logo is seen at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S. Image credit REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

But the first question, on how staff identify themselves, itself reflected a historic Western racist view of Asians by listing ‘yellow’ as an option, several U.N. staffers explained.

According to some, the view could have been referring to the ‘Orientalism’ theory, inspired to the 1978’s book by Edward Said, in which the author establishes the eponymous term "Orientalism" as a critical concept to describe the West's common, contemptuous depiction and portrayal of "The East,", therefore the Orient and the societies and peoples who live in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Said argues that Orientalism, in the sense of the Western scholarship about the Eastern World is inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it, which makes much Orientalist work inherently political and servile to power.

“The first question is insane, deeply offensive and hard to fathom how in an organization as diverse as the United Nations this question was approved for release in a system-wide survey,” explained one U.N. staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. Image credit News Break

The international body spokesman Stephane Dujarric claimed that the survey would be “taken off-line and revised appropriately taking into account the legitimate concerns” that had been expressed. “We acknowledge the need to formulate these categories with greater sensitivity and will take immediate steps to rectify this,” Dujarric said.

Erica Foldy, an associate professor at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, joined the debate pointing out that “The term ‘yellow’ to refer to people of Asian descent is a slur. It should not be used, period. At the same time, it is useful to remember that language related to race is complex and always in flux”.

“Recently Brown, which had been considered something of a slur (though perhaps never as problematic as yellow) has come into broad use. But I don’t see that happening with ‘yellow’,” Foldy added.

Recently, many organizations and companies have been under increasing pressure to address racism in the wake of global protests sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black American who was killed in May after a white police officer knelt on his neck.


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