So the term BAME has had its day. But what should replace it? | Alex Mistlinavril 8, 2021
Publication of the report from Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities should have been a landmark moment in the UK’s conversation about race. In the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, it seemed as though the government might finally acknowledge the impact of institutional racism in creating disparities in healthcare, education and criminal justice.
Except it didn’t. The report took a self-congratulatory tone, noting that Britain’s success in removing race-based disparities in education and the economy “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries”. With few actual problems to address then, the commission’s headline proposal concerned scrapping the “unhelpful” term BAME.
While many, including Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, were rightly dismissive of the token move – “Britain’s ethnic minority communities are being insulted by this report,” said Begum – the proposal reflects the long-held sentiment that we need a new language for talking about race.
Words matter, and they especially matter when it comes to identity. Britain’s ethnic minority communities have had a number of labels since migration from the “new commonwealth” really kicked off in the 1950s and 60s. Then, immigrants from British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and south Asia were generally given the umbrella term “coloureds”.
The shared experience of racial discrimination in post-colonial Britain made cross-community solidarity both possible and necessary, and by the late 1970s, the movement for racial equality in Britain had widely adopted an inclusive definition of “black” that encompassed people of both African and South Asian heritage.
By the early 1990s, however, the size and composition of Britain’s ethnic minority community had changed enough to make continued use of the word black as a catch-all unworkable. In 1994, the sociologist Tariq Modood published Political Blackness and British Asians, in which he argued that the already waning term harmed Asians by suggesting a “false essentialism: that all non-white groups have something in common other than how others treat them”.
By the late 1990s, political blackness had been largely discarded in favour of more specific definitions that conflated the national, continental, ethnic and racial – the 2001 census included separate categories for “Mixed”, “Black”, “Asian” and “Chinese or Other”. The extent to which Modood’s case against “black” resembles the arguments given for scrapping BAME is striking, with the authors of the race report suggesting that the blanket term fails to adequately reflect the experiences of different ethnic communities.
As with “black”, BAME’s critics are right to highlight the term’s shortcomings – it feels wonky and contrived while implying that all ethnic minorities are part of a homogeneous group. Moreover, it has never really sat well with ethnic minorities themselves. Indeed, BAME has been a particularly unsuccessful candidate for widespread adoption. According to Google Trends, searches for “BAME” shot up in April 2020 – probably because of its frequent usage in reporting Covid health disparities. The fact that it’s already on the scrapheap shows the term was never really fit for purpose.
With BAME unloved and on the way out, the question now is what should replace it, exactly?
Well, the search is under way. Last week, the thinktank British Future published a blogpost (Beyond BAME) looking at how people might like to be referred to instead. Its research found that most ethnic minority Britons slightly prefer “ethnic minority” as an umbrella term, with two-thirds (68%) saying they either support or accept the term and only 13% opposed.
While ethnic minority is probably a step in the right direction (it has the advantage over BAME of using real words), we can’t expect a consensus around a single term. This must be kept in mind while thinking about the alternatives – a list that includes but is not limited to “people of colour” (too American and has the potential to be confused with “coloured people”), “non-white” (too negative – no one will identify with the state of being not white), and even BIPOC (like BAME but longer, and what does the “I” – meaning indigenous – refer to in a British context?).
BAME is not inherently problematic, there’s just an inherent problem in a catch-all given the complexity of how we categorise race. As Angela Saini, author of Superior: the Return of Race Science, explains, race is a social construct, and therefore the words we use to talk about it reflect a specific socio-cultural context. For instance, “Asian” in the US and UK generally refer to distinct ethnic communities from east and south Asia respectively.
BAME, like “black” and “coloured’ before it, was doomed to fail because it’s impossible to distill centuries of history and culture into a handy acronym. Consequently, names will continue to be picked up and discarded as long as the shape and composition of Britain’s BAME community continues to evolve.
Yes, words do matter, and it’s genuinely important that offensive or unintelligible terms aren’t used by companies and public bodies – but when it comes to categorising Britain’s ethnic minorities, an elegant solution will not be found because an elegant solution does not exist. The point is to not get too bogged down in finding a terminology that perfectly captures one’s identity, but to identify the ways in which people, by virtue of their race or citizenship or ethnicity, are put at systemic disadvantage in Britain – and fixing these injustices.