This blog discusses the origins of the term “Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME)”, the significance of BAME as an acronym, and its implications for ethnic minority groups in UK society.
BAME is a term used in the UK to refer to Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people, reflecting a wide grouping of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities. In this classification, BAME comprises all Mixed, Asian, Black, and Other (non-white) ethnicities. According to the most recent census, more than 7.6 million people are considered as BAME in the UK. It is an administrative term, relating to ethnic minority groups, which is widely used by the government, the public and private sectors, and the media. We at JAN Trust refer to the term regularly. It has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, while the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 pandemic have sparked vital conversations and heightened the use of the term, further exposing prevalent racial and ethnic disparities and marginalisation in the UK. While terms like BAME are important for recognising that structural inequalities must be addressed, there has been significant debate about the use of the term BAME in various contexts. Language and terminology constantly change, evolve, and progress as we become more politically aware; perhaps it is time to think again about the language we use to describe groups in society.
As highlighted in an article by The Guardian, the discourse surrounding race and ethnicity in the UK has its roots in the idea of “political blackness”, which denotes a sense of solidarity between ethnic minorities against racism. Some claim that the term BAME expresses the same sense of solidarity that “black” once denoted, however, BAME is primarily an administrative term, and not a political one. Although many dismiss new terms as unnecessary political correctness, the terminology and language we use matter. This debate presents deeper questions about how people are categorised. Many criticise the homogenising nature of the term BAME, which groups together a wide spectrum of diverse cultures and identities into a singular acronym. This inherently ‘others’ any individual who is not white, and is a marker of a deep-rooted white superiority complex.
What are the implications of homogenising the experiences of ethnic minority groups? It has been suggested that, in some cases, the term BAME masks the disadvantages suffered by specific ethnic and cultural groups, ultimately erasing individual realities of systemic inequalities. An example of this refers to a Sky News interview with Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. When asked the simple question, “How many black people are in the current cabinet?’”, he responded with, “Well, there’s a whole series of people from a Black and ethnic minority background.” There are no Black members in the current Conservative cabinet. By a “whole series of people”, Hancock is referring to the two members of the cabinet of South Asian heritage. This highlights the way that ‘BAME’ and ‘black’ can be conflated to hide the reality of the lack of representation of Black individuals in politics, institutions, and the media.
While acronyms like BAME are useful in some cases for investigating and recognising structural inequalities in the UK and measuring progress, most people who would be described under BAME reject the term and do not identify themselves by it. The majority of the population do not know what the acronym means or stands for. However, it is important to ask, what would be a better alternative? Does the problem lie with the term BAME itself, or is it the fact that it is overused in the wrong context? Either way, the concerns of BAME communities with regard to the acronym need to be addressed. As highlighted by Zamila Bunglawala, the Deputy Head of the Race Disparity Unit & Deputy Director Policy and Strategy, we all have an ethnicity, “so it is important that we all discuss ethnicity in a way that is appropriate, inclusive and sensitive to how ethnic groups identify themselves”.
Here at JAN Trust, our values are to encourage, educate, and empower marginalised women. Our programmes have allowed women of various backgrounds to fully recognise the marginalisation and oppression with which they have been all too familiar, and instead fight for the justice they deserve.