The term BAME originates from the anti-racist movement in the 1970s, where it was used when people referred to the black community. Over time, its meaning has turned into a wide umbrella supposedly capturing ‘all’ ethnic minority groups - i.e. those who are non-white.
In the UK around 14% of the population are from a minority ethnic background, where London’s population is made up of 40% of those with a Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. However, recently the term ‘BAME’ has come under scrutiny where people have referred to the term as outdated, as it fails to accurately capture the experiences of those who do not identify as white due to its homogenising nature.
BAME is ‘othering’
When you use the term ‘BAME’, you’re essentially lumping all ethnic minority groups into one and making generalisations about what are very different groups of people. By doing this you’re also generalising the experiences of those ethnic groups.
If we look at recent events that have taken place within the black community, surrounding the fight against police brutality and institutionalised racism, describing the events as ‘BAME’ related is insensitive and inaccurate. By making a sweeping generalisation of events that target a specific group of individuals, you are dismissing and misplacing the experiences of the group in question.
Another example would be the racism faced by those in the Muslim community after the events of 9/11 - where the number of hate crimes in the US targeted towards Muslims rose by 67%, from 2014 to 2015. Around 62% of those in the Muslim community are from the Asia-Pacific region, however, this also affected people in the Sikh and Hindu community due to the assumption that all those in South Asia are all ‘the same’. Again, these events specifically targeted and affected a particular group of people - not the entire ‘BAME’ group. What’s important to note is that while those who fall into the ‘BAME’ category share an experience of being non-white, their experiences as individual groups differ significantly.
‘BAME’ can be misleading
As we’ve seen, because many different groups of people sit under one category, people can easily fall into the trap of generalisations and false assumptions when dealing with a tick box exercise. When Matt Hancock was asked to name black members of the cabinet, he proceeded to mention two Asian members confidently stating that they had ‘black and minority’ members. In this case, the overall ‘BAME’ category was emphasised despite the question being directed towards black members. Matt’s statement can be interpreted as ‘we don’t have black members but we do have BAME members which is essentially the same thing, so we’re off the hook’ which is the fundamental issue of the term - lumping and homogeneity.
When statistics are in question, issues surrounding the use of the term are amplified. For example, when looking at university or employment statistics or quotas (to name a few), the use of ‘BAME’ is used loosely and sometimes in favour of the institutions in question. However, looking into the statistics of which BAME groups make up a statistic isn’t actually considered. This is why the term needs to be broken down and individual groups should be defined and acknowledged.
Most recently (and relevantly) health statistics have been a key issue when it comes to the misinterpretation of the term. According to the University of Oxford, those who are Black Caribbean are most at risk of dying from COVID-19 in the UK. In addition, Chinese people are less likely to die of COVID-19 in comparison to white people. However, Chinese people along with Black and non-white people are all grouped under the ‘BAME’ term which has resulted in homogenising the experiences of all non-white people. The fact that Black Caribbean people are dying at a much higher rate than their ‘BAME’ counterparts is therefore overlooked and swept under the rug.
Language matters and so do individuals
‘Language matters because the production of language and meanings is always linked to unequal power relations, domination, and resistance to domination,’
- Michael Mumisa, a Cambridge Special Livingstone Scholar.
If we revisit how the term ‘BAME’ came about, it was first used as a term of ‘political blackness’ promoting unity to fight discrimination in the 1970s. The irony is that the same discrimination is still alive and kicking in today’s society, where the term can be used to further marginalise ethnic groups.
Treating human beings first and foremost as individuals is important, and that starts with acknowledging people as individuals - rather than as a person who belongs to a certain group. Language matters because it’s how we connect as people, linked to how people are identified and what they identify with. Non-white individuals shouldn’t have to assimilate and integrate into a white favouring institution or organisation. As an organisation, it’s your responsibility to build a culture where everyone feels like they can be themselves - where differences are acknowledged and appreciated.