To BAME or not to BAME….. What is the correct terminology?

To BAME or not to BAME….. What is the correct terminology?

Since Black Lives Matters (in the summer of 2020) there has been a resurgence in talk about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and an unexpected outcome has been the use of the acronym BAME in the media and mainstream – and resulting disagreements on the appropriateness of this term.

The best practice has always been to use the term ethnic minority or people from ethnic minority groups. However, BAME (formerly BME) has been used by many people for years and seemed to gain much more use during the pandemic being used by the media to discuss the disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minority/BAME communities.

Everyone is expected to tread sensitively around appropriate language, ‘BAME’, ‘BME’; ‘minorities’ but not ‘non-white’; ‘person of colour’ but not ‘a coloured person’. And, one I quite like – ‘the global majority’. It seems as though everyone is a little bit lost – searching for guidance on a term that won’t be offensive, is current and has consensus.

Before BAME there was BME and before BME there was Black. Every industry has its buzz word and for the EDI industry BAME was the ultimate buzz term. In regard to its usage it has been quite exclusionary, you either do or don’t know what it means. If you didn’t know what it meant you probably didn’t work in a company that had some kind of equality and diversity strategy or at least some kind of acknowledgement of the lack of progression for some people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Typically, it fit in the human resources field in some way. Legal cases do not refer to BME/BAME, and until 2020 neither did the media.

BAME stands for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (not Black And Minority Ethnic) – Asian was added as Asian people, the other significant ethnic minority group in the UK did not feel that BME represented them as it specified Black and there are more people from an Asian background than Black in the UK.

BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnicity. Black in this context actually meant ‘political blackness’. In the 1960s and 1970s in the UK all people from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds were grouped together and grouped themselves together to fight racism. This was political blackness. That is the origin of the Black in BME. It did not originally refer to the black ethnic group of people from the African diaspora as it does now. This is why the trade union Unison has a Black Members Group.

Some students in universities are now preferring the term ‘global majority’ in recognition that the ethnic groups in the UK that are in the minority are often in the majority at a global level.

BAME is a collective description. But the characteristic it is collectively grouping individuals together on the basis of is ethnicity.

In the UK we have the Equality Act 2010 and before that (for race) the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 and the Race Relations Acts in 1968 and 1976. Race as defined by our UK legislation includes; nationality, ethnic origin, national origin and colour. In the discussion about ‘BAME’ this legislation isn’t helpful except to highlight that there is no legal definition of race, ethnicity or what constitutes a minority group.

Ethnicity descriptors tend to be historical and geographical. The term ‘Asian’ for example – half of Russia is in the Asian continent – but people from Russia are not labelled as Asian. In the UK, Asian tends to mean people from the Indian subcontinent – for example, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. But in North America, Asian generally means people from East Asia – China, Taiwan, Japan etc. Migratory and colonial histories often define the terminology that references the ethnic minority people in who live in that country.

  • Do use the phrase ‘People from ethnic minority groups’ (or backgrounds) or ‘ethnic minority people’. It is simple but has few negative associations in its use.
  • Do consider the context (geographical) when trying to describe a group. Different countries have different ethnic minority groups. If you are talking about groups relevant to the UK context say so – or consider that minority ethnic groups shift regionally and in the four nations.
  • Don’t say ‘non-white’ this is marginalising and offensive. Shaping the experiences of ethnic minority people as only relevant to the white narrative.
  • Do remember that If you are going to use the term BAME it is an adjective. Say, ‘Black, Asian and ethnic minority’ or ‘people from BAME backgrounds’. It is not a noun – there are no BAMEs.
  • Do not tell a person how they should label themselves. You don’t understand that persons personal perspective and should not presume their identity.
  • Don’t get stuck on one term! It will be different tomorrow and time should not be wasted arguing about it. You have a preference, but it would be impossible to have everyone agree on your personal preference – and no one should have to.
  • Don’t be too prescriptive as to say we will only use one term – by rejecting a term being used by others that identify themselves with that term, it creates barriers and does not recognise people’s lived experiences.
  • Do be cognisant of the conversations in the wider environment; media, communities, experts about best practice. For example, mirroring language used by researchers, media, in reports when discussing that group/report etc.

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