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Bookmark this: are acronyms like BAME a nonsense?

Turning the experiences of disparate groups into a monolith has never been good practice. We need to think radically about the terms we use to identify collectively moving forward.

In a Sky News interview with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was asked how many “Black” people were in the current cabinet. Almost instantly, he replied, “There’s a whole series of people from a black and minority ethnic background.” He then went on to list *checks notes* Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Just when it couldn’t get any worse, he stressed that the most important type of diversity was “diversity of thought”. 

The issue with his statement isn’t that there aren’t any Black people in the cabinet, it is the quickness with which he conflates Black with “BAME”. Similarly, last week Munira Mirza was appointed to set up the UK race inequality commission. This was obviously a terrible choice and caused much concern, given her belief that institutional racism is a “perception more than a reality”. Commentator Dan Hodges attempted to dismiss the concerns by insisting that she was being questioned about her new role because she was “the wrong type of Black woman”. When it comes to grouping racial minorities under labels such as BME (Black Minority Ethnic), BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) and even PoC (people of colour), there is an unease within certain circles that these terms are not sufficient for making progress that has been brewing for a long time. 

The word “Black” as political grouping was first used in the UK in the 1950s to describe those who were on the receiving end of marginalisation and racism at the hand of the state. Black – including African, West Indian, South East Asian and East Asian – activist movements formed as a result of increased state surveillance due to mass migration in the 1960s and 1970s. These alliances were important as these groups shared a mutual rejection; banding together to support each other and fight against racism was key to their liberation. But though the idea of political blackness is often depicted as holding a key place in the UK’s activist past, its historical relevance can also be questioned.

“Political blackness is overplayed historically. A lot of organisations were never really like that,” Dr Kehinde Andrews explains over the phone. “There were also a lot of individual organisations that worked collectively for change – for example, the West Indian Standing Conference and UK Pakistani Workers organisation.” Different minority groups in the UK have always worked both collectively and independently to achieve their aims.

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“The ease with which ‘BAME’ is interchanged with ‘Black’ by prominent public figures further proves how little some care about the Black experience”

In a Ceasefire article, Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper talks about the “professionalisation of race equality” which is the process that saw activist movements quashed through the introduction of “manageable” organisations. By tempting activists with big pay packets into government departments, organisations, think tanks, charities and commissions, Margaret Thatcher’s government was able to dispel tensions and deflect backlash. This was also done through the use of language: acronyms like BAME seek to de-politicise the relationship between people of colour and the state. “When someone says ‘African Caribbean’, it conjures up an image of people who are from the Caribbean but who have their roots in Africa,” Dr Adam writes. “It immediately links to imperialism, slavery, the destruction of indigenous Caribbean peoples and the former British Empire which brought Africans them to Europe.” 

The acronym BAME, in contrast, is disempowering. It prioritises the word “minority” and separates Black and Asian from the myriad of identities that come under attack from the state. It also seeks to create distance between persecuted people and their relation to white supremacy. The use of confusing and distant racialised language means that it is easier to normalise and conceal the prevalence of white supremacy in the history of marginalised communities and harder to fight against it. A UK-wide survey in 2019 on the usage of BME/BAME found that “only a couple recognised the acronyms and only one knew vaguely what they actually stood for”.

However, as with political blackness, BAME is used as a term to collectively organise under in order to lobby the government for better treatment for all groups. Much of the annoyance from this term comes from the way that it is misused. In order to taunt people of colour, white people have used “BAME” as a belittling descriptor – as if it was synonymous with the left. It has often been used with an air of arrogance or disgust, and the ease with which it is interchanged with “Black” by prominent public figures further proves how little some care about the Black experience.

From a data perspective, the use of BAME also gives an inaccurate picture of intra-community issues. When looking at recent unemployment figures, the understanding is that white people have an unemployment rate of 3.9% whereas in BAME communities it is 6.3%. However, delving deeper, you find that Chinese people have an unemployment rate of 4%, while Black people (again, this is grouped homogeneously) and Pakistani people have unemployment rates of 8%. The state-manufactured acronyms BAME, and its predecessor, BME, flatten what in reality is a “global majority” into one group and assume that they have the exact same interactions with the state. 

Though Black people make up 3% of the population in England and Wales, they currently make up 12% of the prison population. Furthermore, the statistics show that PoC communities make up the majority of people detained under the mental health act, but Black people are significantly more likely to be detained than other ethnic minorities. It stifles the movement for change when we can’t identify the issues that are specific to Black people. The true extent to how badly we are let down by the state is concealed in the attempt to lump different groups together.

“State-manufactured acronyms like BAME, and its predecessor, BME, flatten what in reality is a ‘global majority’ into one group”

The shared experience of oppression and marginalisation at the hands of the state faced by Black British people and African Americans has led to many shared movements. It was a speech from Stokely Carmichael that inspired writer Obi Egbuna to form the Black British Panthers. Although they were not an official extension of the American movements, they did borrow their signs, imagery and community work ideas – like supplementary schools.

The transatlantic connection has shaped more than movements but language as well. As people grew dissatisfied with terms like BAME, they adopted more Americanised phrases such as “people of colour“. However, these phrases also have complex histories. It is not as easy as replacing BAME with PoC because BAME includes white Irish travellers, who are not PoC.

The phrase people of colour was originally used to describe Black people who were of a lighter hue, or mixed race. According to feminist theory professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, it was a less degrading way of saying “mulatto”. In the same way that BAME is sometimes used as a cop-out when addressing issues that pertain to Black people (e.g Matt Hancock and the cabinet debacle), people of colour can have the same effect. When celebrities let the n-word slip or mock African Americans, they have a history of addressing their apologies to people of colour, when the two aren’t interchangeable. As previously mentioned, these allusive describers depoliticise identity and make it easy to avoid accountability.  

It is often thought that “women of colour” is synonymous with people of colour, but it comes from a completely different discourse. The phrase “women of colour” was a political statement first used in 1977 to lobby for recognition of a shared agenda for Black, Indigenous, Latino and Asian women. Starting as the “Black Women Agenda” that was put together as a plan of action to substitute an otherwise lazy two-page report on minority women’s issues at the National Women’s Conference, Loretta Ross describes it as a “solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of colour who have been minoritised”. She emphasises that you can still have your own ethnic identity but these titles are used to group us politically. Hearing Loretta talk about the political significance of this grouping in activist spaces is bittersweet. On one hand, there is strength in numbers and aligning with people who share similar experiences can be validating. However, issues faced can become watered down, depoliticised and minimised as different groups compromise to make a one-size-fits-all agenda.

So what do we say instead? In a blog post written by Zamila Bunglawala, Deputy Head of Unit and Deputy Director for Policy and Strategy in the Race Disparity Unit at the Cabinet Office, she argues: “We use the term ‘ethnic minorities’. We also make sure we always use capital letters when writing about individual ethnic groups.” This is true. But terms like “ethnic minorities”, “non-white” and even people of colour centre whiteness in their definition, which can be both reductive and lazy.

Essentially, it is extremely difficult to think about how marginalised people should define themselves given how much of history is interrupted by whiteness. Thinking of a world outside of whiteness seems radical – so radical we must be.

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