Identities not Categories: Is there a Problem with BAME?

Over lockdown, I’ve been subjected to many a rant from my dad concerning how fast society is changing; usually an add-on to his lecture about how ruthless and toxic cancel culture can be. Now, to a certain extent I can sympathise. Our linguistics and what’s considered politically correct are evolving and changing at a rate that we’ve never experienced. A recent example of such controversy is the use of ‘BAME’ as a categorisation.


‘BAME’ may be a term you’ve only recently been introduced to, it being highly relevant in the discussions regarding COVID-19 and those disproportionately affected by it. But do you know what it actually means?

BAME is a categorisation that stands for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic. According to Professor Ted Cantle, the origin of the term stems from the 1960/70s when people usually only referred to the ‘Black community’. Naturally, the Asian community felt the lack of representation and exclusion. Thus, ‘Black’ became ‘Black and Asian’, finally adding ‘Minority Ethnic groups’ to make ‘BAME’.

BAME has since become mainstream, basically a way to ‘non-white’ without getting in trouble. It is regularly used in headlines, such as “Why are more people from BAME backgrounds dying from coronavirus?” Such use of term has recently come under fire as it groups together and essentially equivocates multiple identities and cultures. Chelsey Luger continues this by noting that the attempt to represent so many different identities under a single term is a product of colonialism, as it implies white people are the norm and standard. A white person needs no adjective, no umbrella term.

I remember so vividly being confused when I first encountered BAME as a category when studying my Politics A Level. It struck me as such a blatant blanket term, lumping in conflicting identities and cultures into one simple and damaging acronym. Referring to the American equivalent, ‘BIPOC’ (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), Sylvia Obell, host of Hella Opinions and podcast Okay, Now Listen, argues that such wide-reaching terms are counterproductive. Speaking to the New York Times, she said “When you blend us all together like this, it’s erasure. It allows people to get away with not knowing people of colour and our separate set of issues that we all face. It allows people to play it safe and not leave anyone out, and it allows you to not have to do the work”.

For this reason, many argue it is diversity tick box which is good for administrative reasons, but not much else. According to BAME’s classifications, a majority White company with a couple of Asian staff is entitled to claiming a racially diverse workforce despite their lack of non-Asian minority employees.

As a result, many pose that its use is counterproductive as it doesn’t allow for the separate issues faced by different ethnicities to be addressed. For example, according to University of Oxford research, the Black Caribbean ethnic group are most at risk of dying from COVID-19, whereas Chinese people are statistically far less likely to die from COVID-19 than White people. Additionally, Black citizens are more likely to be stopped and searched, excluded from school, or become homeless than those who are ‘not just White people’, but also Asian citizens. Yet, under BAME, these two experiences of COVID are homogenised, camouflaged even. As Sawen Ali aptly put it, “To conceal this anti-Blackness under the guise of being a ‘BAME’ experience not only obfuscates from the material reality that Black people live within, but also trivialises the Black struggle for equality in the UK”.

Even the categorisation of ‘Asian’ is too broad. Are you referring to East Asian, South East Asian, South Asian? Thai? Chinese? Pakistani? According to the Social Mobility Commission, British Indians enjoy higher rates of social mobility in the UK, but Bangladeshi and Pakistani counterparts do not. Even within the identification of ‘Southern Asian’ there is disparity.  Think about home many ethnicities there are outside of White British. BAME is expected to adequately cover all them.

Thus, it is clear that any acronym is something that is designed for the comfort of White people; it’s a way to avoid the ‘embarrassment’ of saying “black.” So, what should we well-meaning White people say? Easy, say what you mean. If you’re talking about a specific group of people, refer to them as their ethnicity. If you’re talking about a specific person, ask how they identify and how they’d like to be referred to. If you ’re unsure of their ethnicity and can’t ask, try the slightly less administrative or clinical ‘person of colour’. Some people will fine with BAME or POC, some won’t. Try to be as open to learning as possible and clear with your communication.

Navigating race in a multicultural world can be difficult. As a White person, I am constantly learning and unlearning. Unfortunately, I may occasionally put my foot in it, but that’s simply an opportunity to learn from my mistake. Even our government seems confused. On their official page regarding ‘Writing about ethnicity’, they say they do not use BAME or BME because “the UK’s ethnic minorities include White minorities; they highlight some groups and not others (excludes people of a Mixed ethnicity); and in user research, BAME and BME were not well understood by our audience”. Yet, another of their pages uses “BAME communities” in their title. There is no consistency in expression.

For this reason, I can see how many people believe that they cannot keep up with the constantly changing language and political correctness culture. It can be confusing and overwhelming. But ‘times moving too fast’ is not really an excuse, you are responsible for your own ignorance and expression. Try to keep up and try to learn.  

-Abi Smuts

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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