Growing up as a member of a minority ethnic group in the UK, my skin and racial identity has been addressed using many different acronyms, phrases and words. I’ve found it intriguing to see how people have chosen to describe me, most of the time they would say something along the lines of ‘the girl with the big hair’ as a way to navigate not addressing my ethnicity. However, the ways in which we choose to describe ethnicities in discussions about race relations is just as important as having the discussion itself and 2020 truly has been the year of discussing race.
What does BAME mean?
We’ve gone through a myriad of terms to describe basically anyone that isn’t white; People of Colour, BIPOC, Politically Black, BME and ‘Ethnic Minorities’. Now the trend has evolved, and it seems everyone has settled on using the term ‘BAME’ (for now), which stands for Black, Asian & Minority Ethnicities. Popularised during the 1990s, BAME is now very commonly used especially when talking about diversity and inclusion, perhaps within recruitment or employment in your company. These sorts of terms are important to use as they help us recognise that people from these minority ethnic groups do in fact have different experiences which may or may not be shared.
However, not everyone would agree and there are definitely reasons why the term ‘BAME’ is becoming a controversial topic.
What’s wrong with using BAME?
The irony of using the term BAME is that it is meant to be used in the context of D&I. But, it has also been accused of bundling all ‘minority’ ethnic groups into one neat non-white package, which can completely eradicate the lived experiences of individual minority ethnic groups and may actually over-simplify D&I. In a recent webinar, titled ‘The Mayor of London in conversation with Renni Eddo-Lodge & Bernadine Everisto’, Sadiq Khan said ‘[the term BAME is a] useful umbrella for those of us who aren’t white but it can mask the racism and inequalities’.
Where we can, it’s far more important to be specific about the group we are referring to rather than using a blanket term that may not relate to the experience of all minority ethnic groups. For example, during Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year it was quite common to see people using the BAME terminology in this context when what they should have been using was ‘Black’. We need to adjust our language when appropriate, and stay away from using avoidant terminology.
The UK Government also advises against using the term BAME when writing about ethnicity, and says:
‘We do not use the terms BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) or BME (Black and minority ethnic) because:
- they include some groups and not others – for example, the UK’s ethnic minorities include White minorities and people with a Mixed ethnic background
- the acronyms BAME and BME were not well understood in user research
Similarly, we do not use “people of colour” as it does not include White minorities.’
So, taking this discussion further, a similar critique can even be used against the term Asian or Black. Although these terms do encapsulate some sort of shared experiences and culture, Black itself as a racial identity includes so many groups: Black British, African American, Afro-Latinx, Black African, Black Caribbean, etc. And then we must consider the intersections of race, gender and sexuality and how these intertwining and inextricable identities produce more complex experiences and necessitate specification.
We can see how this can be an issue in certain industries, where one minority ethnic group is over-represented, and one is under-represented or by looking at the disparities of unemployment rates within the BAME category. A report by the Social Mobility Commission that looks at socio-economic gaps of minority ethnic groups in the UK, writes:
‘Unemployment is higher among GRT [Gypsy Roma Traveller], Bangladeshi and Pakistani women than it is among men, although gender differences are not uniform; Black Caribbean and Chinese men experience relatively high levels of unemployment compared to women.’ (p. 45)
I think it’s important to point out here that the unemployment rates in the UK are not generic and are caused by a multitude of factors, but considering that the report goes on to analyse educational performance and describe that ‘ethnic minority graduates, and women in particular, from Russell Group Universities earn less and are more likely to be unemployed than White Graduates’ we can determine it has more to do with a lack of opportunities. But that is a conversation for another blog!
Why is this relevant to HR?
You might, as someone who works in HR, come into contact with having to use BAME terminology during your recruitment process. So, it is important to understand when and where to use certain labels. If you have a D&I monitoring form when recruiting, ensure that you have the correct categories and that your potential candidates know why you are collecting this data. Be up front about your data collection and what it will be used for.
Alternatively, you may get called in to mediate if an employee claims they have been unfairly treated due to their ethnicity. In this scenario, it’s critical for you to have an awareness about what language is and isn’t appropriate so you can have a productive conversation with all parties involved.