Should Britain scrap the term 'BAME' for ethnic minorities?

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 31 March 2021 10:00 GMT

A woman in a face mask joins an anti-racism demonstration named "Black and Indigenous Lives Matter" in Manaus, Brazil June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

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Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are often grouped together under the umbrella acronym 'BAME'. Is it time to ditch the phrase?

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The label "BAME", an acronym for Black, Asian and minority ethnic, should be scrapped, Britain's independent race and ethnicity commission said in a report on Wednesday.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was tasked with investigating racial and ethnic disparities in Britain.

In its report, the commission pinpointed education as "the single most emphatic success story of the British ethnic minority experience", saying allegations that the country was still institutionally racist were not borne out by the evidence.

One of its recommendations was to remove BAME from use in the public sector.

Many politicians and researchers think the term is outdated and problematic in describing ethnic minority groups, who make up 14% of the population.

What do British people think about the term 'BAME'?

Campaigners including the Abolish BAME group argue that the term does not reflect the diversity of British communities.

"'BAME' is a problematic term that allows organisations to lump minority ethnic communities into one tidy group. Cultural heritage shouldn't be treated like a box-ticking exercise," the group posted on social media.

A poll released on Monday by think-tank British Future found that less than half of ethnic minority people surveyed were confident about what BAME meant.

Research also showed that the phrase was generally accepted, especially when used to measure health disparities, but most preferred the term "ethnic minority", according to the report, which polled 3,500 British adults of various ethnicities.

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said replacing words with acronyms was often confusing, but talking openly about race was a step in the right direction.

"Starting that conversation is only a first step, though, and we now need to move beyond arguments about language," Katwala said in a statement.

"A practical approach would be to discuss ethnic differences in a way that makes sense to the people we are referring to. Talking about 'BAME people' fails that test – almost nobody thinks of their identity in that way."

FILE PHOTO: A migrant girl living in Greece shouts slogans during a protest against racism in Athens, Greece March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Should we scrap 'BAME'?

That depends on who you ask. Over the past year, issues of ethnic disparities and racism have come to the fore and use of the term has also become more frequent.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the term was widely used by researchers and journalists to highlight the disproportionate impact that the disease had on ethnic minorities, compared to white British people.

Yet some say the debate around the term detracts from wider issues of inequalities and systemic racism, which is more important.

"Worrying if true. Am hearing rumours the headline recommendation from UK government's pending Racial Disparities Commission report is that the term 'BAME' is no longer used," tweeted Halima Begum, chief executive of Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank.

"Seriously? Is that the extent of this government's awareness or intent to resolve structural racism in our country?" she posted on Twitter.

British Futures found that many people surveyed were not aware of the debate around the terminology, even though race and racism had become a "hot topic".

"Words are important, but it is action that will make the real difference to tackling the unfairness and inequality that stops some people realising their full potential," said Katwala.


FILE PHOTO: A group poses for a photograph with a performer during the Notting Hill Carnival in London August 24, 2014. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Where to go from here?

Whether BAME will be replaced with another acronym, or scrapped altogether, remains to be seen, but it has clearly struck a chord with many ethnic minority people.

More than half of the respondents in the British Future report said they much preferred to use hyphenated identities, like Black British or British Asian.

In the United States, terms like BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous and person or people of colour, as well as POC, are common phrases.

And in Australia, the term CALD, or culturally and linguistically diverse, is used to describe any ethnic group that is not of Anglo-Saxon descent, which can include European, Asian, African and Indigenous communities.

This article was updated on Wedneday, 31 March to include the release of the commission's report   

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