Race labels have become an increasingly contentious issue. Britain’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is to tell all public institutions to stop using the term BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic).
For many white people, the label is seen as progressive, because it only became commonplace post-2000 and prevents someone from having to refer to another by their skin colour.
But the issue is rather complicated.
On official forms, BAME is often an option. But a person’s ethnicity is not recorded on their birth certificate in Britain. And it’s only relatively recently – in 2011 – that Scotland became one of the first nations in the world to record ethnicity on death certificates.
What is clear, though, is that the term BAME is not universally loved. Professional boxer Ashley Theophane said, “I’ve never thought of myself as BAME and never would. I find it offensive because of its lazy meaning. Anything other than white can be called this. I don’t think you can describe Arabs, Chinese, Asians, Africans and Caribbeans with an umbrella term. It’s disrespectful to all of us.”
Born in London, Theophane self-identifies as either “Afro Caribbean or British Caribbean”.
Another Londoner’s view further demonstrates the difficulty with racial labels. Ada is black and was born in the UK, after her grandparents came here.
She did not want to disclose her heritage aside from skin colour and said, “I resent filling out forms when they ask are you black British or black African. I identify as an English woman; I joke with my family that I’m an English rose.
“If a Polish person has been in the UK for three generations, a child considers themselves English and no one queries it. But if a Jamaican person has been here for six generations, the fact they have darker skin means they will never be fully accepted as an Englishman.”
This was evidenced when MP David Lammy spoke to a caller on a radio phone-in recently who said, “You keep saying you are African Caribbean which is fine, but how can you be African Caribbean and English? You will never be English, you are African Caribbean.” The caller’s view appeared to boil down to the colour of Lammy’s skin.
To add to the confusion, another layer of the debate is that some believe you can feasibly be white and BAME. The Traveller community, for example, which is often subject to lots of structural racism within Britain, made a submission to a review of the impact on Covid-19 on BAME communities on account of its ‘minority ethnicity’ status. That in itself shows an inherent problem with the term.
The QED organisation provides supports to people from ethnic minorities in the UK. Founder Dr Mohammed Ali OBE self-identifies as British Pakistani and explained why he feels BAME needs to be replaced. He told RT, “We should try to avoid umbrella terms. They give the impression that people face similar challenges; at one level they do, but we all know non-white people are very diverse socially and economically as you would expect.
“One-size-fits-all solutions to address the barriers facing them do not work, and they often end up creating more disparities within these groups.”
Based on these testimonies, it appears BAME is a term that works for no one. White people may rest on their laurels under the impression it creates a ‘safe space’ for the rest, while non-white people resent being lumped together.
My concern, though, is that we’re spending too much time and effort on labels. This was evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement last year, which sparked a counter All Lives Matter movement.
Some of ALM undoubtedly had racist motivations. But not all. Some were trying to express the need for equality, but got tied up in a toxic phrase and their entire point evaporated.
A similar backlash is already underway for BAME. Jessica Lee, the director of the #AbolishBAME campaign said, “The term is a catch-all term that erases the unique cultural differences between minority ethnic communities in the UK.
“It enables organisations to credit themselves with helping/representing all BAME individuals, when they have a lot more work to do. Putting all minority ethnic Britons in an ‘other’ category, no matter how stealthily, will always be deeply problematic and disrespectful.”
Lee is mixed-race Polish and Caribbean, and admits she has never identified as BAME. She added that “black women don’t benefit from being viewed simply as ‘BAME’ in conversations on childbirth mortality rates. Mixed-race people don’t benefit from having to choose between being white and BAME. Young children don’t benefit from being treated as one disadvantaged homogeneous group.”
Where the debate goes from here is unclear, because if BAME is off the table, then what replaces it?
Culture Minister of State of the African Diaspora Nnamdi Chukwu has a suggestion. “The problem that many in the African and Caribbean community have with the term is its focus on defining us by colour and not by ethnicity or culture. The preferred term is now African Asian Minority Ethnic (AAME).”
It’s not fair to categorise people by skin colour or heritage, but we have to ensure that positions of authority fairly reflect the population. Britain is a relatively homogenous place compared to America for example, which is set to be majority non-white by 2044. The population of England and Wales is 86% white, followed by Asian ethnic groups (7.5%) and black ethnic groups (3.3%).
And as for BAME? It seems it is now gone and something else will replace it. But we should be focusing our efforts on how to fix the system rather than how we label people.
Structural racism. Privilege for certain groups. Cultural bias. They all have to go, and then we won’t have to worry about what box people tick.