The term BAME stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic, but represents the wider problem of terminology in racial and ethnic discourse. Used almost exclusively in the United Kingdom, the term BAME has its roots in ‘BME’ (Black and Minority Ethnic), which was popularised in the 1970s anti-racism movement. Since its inception, the term has been employed by public authorities, institutions and most recently, by the UK government during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as is common with most terminology pertaining to race, BAME has been met with pointed criticism, and perhaps rightly so.

What’s so wrong with the term BAME?

The fundamental issue with such a term is that it seeks to encapsulate too broad a demographic within a single, sweeping designation. The Black and Asian communities in Britain represent around 14% of the population according to the 2011 census, but encompass diverse, cultural nuances and practices. The amalgamation of these equally rich communities in Britain under an umbrella term only serves to reduce them to a homogeneous culture. It also fails to differentiate between, for example, the Pakistani community and the Chinese community who may not face the same healthcare inequalities, or socioeconomic disadvantages. Ultimately, it reinforces racial divisions between ‘White’ and ‘Other’ by lumping everyone together- BAME exists only in opposition to being White. 

The minority ethnic portion of the term is not without its faults either. The use of the descriptor ‘ethnic minority’ on its own is far more commonly used than BAME in day-to-day conversation, although it too refers to a broad range of identities. Within the context of BAME, it would be reasonable to assume that minority ethnic refers here to groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and mixed-race population. But herein lies the catch. BAME is often found in relation to data around healthcare, but the NHS data dictionary does not recognise the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population as an ethnic group. Therefore, when news outlets report that the BAME community has been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is confusion as to who exactly constitutes BAME in this case, further demonstrating the issue with the acronym. 

The University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine found that there were around 80 hospitals deaths per 100,000 from the Black Caribbean demographic, compared to around 15 from the Chinese ethnic group. How then, is it accurate to state that those from BAME backgrounds are more likely to die from the Coronavirus, when some of the groups implicated are in fact less likely to die than their White British counterparts?

Practical implications

But one could be forgiven for thinking that surely this is all just semantics and an academic squabble. However, where and who the acronym is used by is just as revealing of its shortcomings. BAME is found mostly in a corporative or official capacity; many universities have BAME outreach programmes and companies have BAME and diversity training days. A decent number of these may stem from genuine goodwill and a desire to increase diversity for the long-term benefit of both their employees and the company. But a good deal do not. Or at least, not intentionally. Positive discrimination, whereby an individual is favoured because they come from an underrepresented background, for example, is a short-term solution to prejudice in the workplace. But in the long-term it is redundant, and does not tackle the problem at its roots, but still allows a business to superficially brand itself as ‘diverse’ and ‘progressive’. The use of BAME here is the cherry on a very stale cake. A company can use the term to propagate an image of its social righteousness, all the while ignorant to the fact that BAME does not even resonate with the groups it tries to appeal to. British Future’s study found that only 47% of British ethnic minorities actually knew what BAME meant and 68% preferred the term ‘ethnic minority’ as an umbrella term.

Even the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report on race, for all its many flaws (Channel 4’s ‘The Fourcast’ have an in-depth series on this), concluded that:

The term BAME, which is frequently used to group all ethnic minorities together, is no longer helpful. It is demeaning to be categorised in relation to what we are not, rather than what we are: British Indian, British Caribbean and so on. The BAME acronym also disguises huge differences in outcomes between ethnic groups. This reductionist idea forces us to think that the principal cause of all disparities must be majority versus minority discrimination. It also allows our institutions and businesses to point to the success of some BAME people in their organisation and absolve themselves of responsibility for people from those minority groups that are doing less well.

Taking a step back

While there may be some merit to a heated, arduous discourse over terminology, it cannot become the forefront of the debate around race in Britain. That is not to negate its importance, but whether or not BAME should be used cannot detract from the larger, more immediate issues plaguing Britain. Some would argue that a quarrel over vocabulary is another way of minimising the severity of the challenges that many British people face in their daily lives and allows large corporations to hop on the ‘woke’ bandwagon without actually tackling the tangible, root causes of inequality (three cheers for capitalism!). I would add the proviso that the power of words cannot be underestimated, as language can be used both by systems of power to oppress, and by the ‘oppressed’ to reclaim through re-appropriation. Yet, the underlying problem remains- it is simply impractical and inaccurate to use one single term for such diverse and culturally different communities.



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