It’s a term often used by politicians, officials and the media – including the BBC – but does anyone in real life ever refer to themselves as BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) or BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic)?
More than 7.6 million people in the UK came under the category of black, Asian and ethnic minority in the most recent census.
Ex-cabinet minister Priti Patel would be one of them, as a British Asian. But don’t make the mistake of ever referring to her as BME or BAME.
In an interview with the BBC last month she said: “I don’t like the labelling of people. I don’t like the term BME. I’m British first and foremost, because I was born in Britain.
“I challenge all my colleagues in the Conservative Party and in Westminster: Don’t label me as a BME. I’ve said that to people in the cabinet. I’ve said that to civil servants. I think it’s patronising and insulting.”
She said the term was “totally unhelpful because we are people and everybody wants to be recognised for their individual merits”.
Was she right?
The origins of the term
The term BME has its roots in the idea of “political blackness”, a term used by many in the anti-racist movement in the 1970s.
Professor Ted Cantle, who chaired a government review of community cohesion in 2001, says different ethnic groups banded together under a “universal term” – black – to fight back against discrimination.
But this was challenged by people unhappy being lumped all together.
In the 1990s, sociologist professor Tariq Modood began arguing that including different people under one label – black – was confusing and wouldn’t work. He argued it was particularly harmful for British Asians, as it gave undue prominence to Afro-Caribbean people.
At the time, his ideas were met with “great hostility by anti-racists”, he says, who called him “divisive”.
Now, he says, he’s “pleased to say my argument won”.
But it doesn’t mean he is keen on the acronym BAME – which stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
Instead, he would like to see it changed to just “ethnic minorities”. Separating out black and Asian suggests those groups are not ethnic minorities, he argues, or are special groups which need to be treated differently.
Replacing it with the term ethnic minorities he says is “simple, neutral and all-encompassing”.
Does it work?
Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, says very few people would stand up and identify themselves as a black, Asian and minority ethnic person.
He says the comments by Priti Patel shows how the acronym doesn’t really work for the people it includes because “it’s not something that in their day-to-day lives they feel reflects their own experience”.
But he adds: “The racist in the street isn’t going to stop and ask you which country are you from and how much money is in your bank account. They’re still going to treat you in a racially discriminatory way and I think that goes to show why we still need some sort of term but also some sort of movement to challenge racism in Britain today.”
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David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham who recently chaired a report highlighting racial bias in the justice system and led the campaign for justice for members of the Windrush generation threatened with deportation, says it’s lazy and a piece of jargon.
He says it is time to think again about how people are described.
“It’s easy to say I’d like to see it scrapped,” said Mr Lammy. “I’m comfortable with getting rid of it but the key question is what it would be replaced with?”
The UK, he says, needs to develop a more complex system similar to America which draws on a person’s heritage. For example: “You are African American, Italian American, Jewish American, Hindu American.”
Do young people identify with it?
Creative Access is a social enterprise that helps young people from “Black, Asian and other non-white minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds” to secure internships. How do they feel about a term that on the face of it is helping them?
Shamaan Freeman Powell, 24
“I think that being a black British 24-year-old woman the term has benefited me because it’s meant that a lot of doors have been opened. However, I feel because it groups a whole sort of different types of cultures and races and religions together, I think sometimes an organisation may be able to use that as a tick box to say ‘well we’ve got one, so we don’t really need to focus on any other sort of areas that may be misrepresented or underrepresented’.”
How she identifies herself: “It’s always a difficult question when people ask that. I would always say I’m black first, British second. But really I’m black British.”
Ayo Ogunshakin, 24
“The term does identify the group but I occasionally have felt there is some negativity when the word is used because it’s immediately met with ‘that’s other’. But it’s also really useful to have the term because immediately you do just naturally identify (with it) because it is a fact. I do think its useful. It would be interesting to see what would come about as its replacement because it’s been used for so long I can’t imagine why we would change it.”
How she identifies herself: “I would normally say British but whenever I’m coming to filing in forms I would always go black British. But also if there was a place to say Nigerian as well – that is my heritage so I try to acknowledge it but when people ask me I would say British.”
Ishan Ganjoor, 22
“I think the BAME term is pretty broad, it’s a good umbrella term to quickly understand what someone might mean but it’s not nuanced enough for people of that category. It seems a useful term, ironically, for people not in BAME… not for people who are.”
How he identifies himself: “I’d say Indian/British Indian.”
Darren Barnes, 26
“It’s useful in that it promotes a kind of solidarity between the people that come under it belong to a BAME background, but it does lack nuance. I’m not sure that’s as important as the solidarity – the inclusiveness it does also promote. I’d say it’s more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel.”
How he identifies himself: “It depends whether I am having a conversation in an informal context or filling out a tick box form. The latter I think the actual term is mixed white black African. If I was in the pub I’d just say I was black.”
Mary O’Connell, 23
“It’s just a more PC word rather than saying marginalised and I think it’s important to still have it. When we talk about terms… we’re not addressing the actual tension that lies underneath words because you can just introduce a newer, more exciting, more PC word but are you actually addressing the tensions underneath it? So I don’t see the point in changing language when actions and behaviours aren’t going to change.”
How she identifies herself: “I identify as being mixed race, in the tick box Caribbean British.”
Kamilah McInnis, 24
“I don’t really find it that negative. If people could come up with an alternative term rather than saying that it is outdated and complaining about it than I’d be willing to accept it. But you can’t just say I don’t like this and not come up with an alternative, so that would be my argument. If you’ve got something better then give it to me.”
How she identifies herself: “I would say black British. Always when you are ticking the boxes it says black British or Caribbean but I always say black British. I never say I am just British by itself, just because I identify as being black British and also when you say British a lot of people go ‘but where are you really from?’ and that’s very annoying.”