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To BAME, or not to BAME, what’s with the term?

In the UK, we have seen the emergence of the term BAME as a collective term used to describe non-White people. But what does it really mean, and what is it used for?

To BAME, or not to BAME, what's with the term?

In the UK, we have seen the emergence of the term BAME as a collective term used to describe non-White people is “Ethnic Minorities”. Economists and politicians often use the term BAME which stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic to include Black (African or Caribbean background), Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and all other Asian backgrounds), Arabs and Mixed Race people.

But what does it really mean, and what is it used for?

To better understand what it is, let’s start with what it’s not.

Firstly, you’d be hard-pressed to find the term BAME used in the data and vocabulary presented by the Office for National Statistics – the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics and the government’s officially recognised national statistical institute, and the people who conduct the census in England and Wales every 10 years.

In other words, when the government collects information about the economy, population and society at either the national, regional and local level, the government does not use the term BAME. It is not an official categorisation of ethnicity in the UK. Put another way, the next census in England and Wales will be in 2021, and there won’t be a box labelled BAME to tick.

Additionally, the mere fact that official data is collected, recorded, analysed and reported at the ethnicity level implies there are sufficient inherent differences between the groups that need to be acknowledged – otherwise, wouldn’t that be a waste of taxpayer funds.

Secondly, just about every dictionary considers BAME to be an abbreviation (not a word) used to refer to members of “non-White communities” in the UK. Emphasis on ‘abbreviation’ which is a shortened form of a word or phrase (not its meaning). So, although BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, it does not mean Black, Asian and any other minority ethnic group. Nor is it a word to replace or stand-in for Black, Asian or any other ethnic group.

BAME is an abbreviation for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic which should mean “non-White” or perhaps “not a member of the White community in the UK” or even “non-White people in the UK”.

Why is the term not really helpful?

Although originally intended to refer to groups of people as a means of measuring diversity, it has since become a way of referring to individuals within the groups i.e. describing someone as “a BAME person” instead of as “a Black person”.

Intentionally or otherwise, having this single category for all other racial, ethnic and cultural groups encourages treating everyone who is not ‘White’ as a single, homogeneous group. It reinforces the notion of ‘White’ as the norm or default, inherently stripping away the individual identities of anyone not classed as White, and presenting them as ‘Other’.

Furthermore, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic are not equivalent terms, and the BAME term conflates physical characteristics with geographic identity. “Asian” describes people with heritage from a particular part of the world, whereas “Black” refers solely to skin colour. It encompasses people from a huge number of different cultures and nationalities across the globe, each with its own specific regional and cultural identities.

This leads us to usage.

Yes, we do have to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, there are times when people want to make a distinction between “Whites” and “non-White”. At times like these, especially in the media, the term BAME comes across as concise and, to some extent, it makes (White) people more comfortable. And maybe that’s appropriate if the purpose is to distinguish between “Whites” and “non-Whites”.

However, if the intention is to focus on the “non-White” group or their features or characteristics, then the term BAME loses its sense of purpose because it’s an umbrella label for a collection of ethnic groups that are far from homogeneous. One that completely ignores the nuances and intricacies of every single ethnic group that it’s supposed to represent.

By way of analogy, consider that some films are suitable for adults only. This does not mean that consider all films that fall outside this category to be suitable for all children. Why? Because we recognise the broad categorisation of ‘children’ does not take into account the diverse nature of the group. So what do we do? We sub-categorise into age groups – from babies and toddlers all the way to teenagers, and then we make age-appropriate films for each age group.

The same should apply to the use of the term BAME. When speaking about diversity, inclusion and equity, we need to acknowledge that, in the UK, the ‘non-White’ groups have different histories, different experiences, and different outcomes.

In order to properly identify and address the needs of each of these diverse groups, we must begin to treat them as separate and distinct. Because until we stop assigning a single collective identity to the vast range of racial, cultural and ethnic groups currently living in the UK, we will continue to assume that all of these groups share broadly similar experiences, challenges and barriers to representation.

So, dear Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, when anyone asks “How many Black people are in the current cabinet” they definitely don’t mean “How many BAME people are in the current cabinet”. Having three MPs of Indian (Asian) origin in the cabinet does not automatically equate to a demographic representation of the ethnic minority groups in the UK population.

It is time we stop hiding behind the term BAME, using it as an insidious way to disguise racial inequalities or to promote one-size-fits-all initiatives or to tick the racial diversity box.