Last March the UK Government began to reconsider the use of the term ‘BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic)’, and many organisations are doing the same. As research continues to suggest the use of this term is becoming increasingly unpopular for describing how people identify, other terms are beginning to replace ‘BAME’. By listening to the very people this affects, Race Equality Matters continually reflects on the use of terminology by engaging with our community and their thoughts.
When Race Equality Matters first formed in 2020, our in-depth research with race network leaders and EDI specialists suggested the term ‘BAME’ was not favoured by many. Choosing the term ‘ethnic minority’, we transitioned to the term ‘ethnically diverse’ in 2022. Beyond acronyms and umbrella terms, we have turned to our community to inform us of what they best identify with.
What term is your organisation using and does this correctly describe how your employees identify?
Race, Ethnicity and Terminology
The use of collective terms to describe certain ethnic or racial groups is not always beneficial. Many find that terms- such as ‘BAME’, ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘ethnically diverse’- can be helpful to quickly identify certain groups and foster a sense of solidarity amongst different ethnicities. However, these terms can unintentionally homogenise different ethnicities within an umbrella categorisation and fail to correctly encapsulate how people identify.
Terminology assigned to these groups of people have changed overtime in the UK: from the ‘New Commonwealth’ in the 1950s, to the rise of ‘Political Blackness’ in the 1970s and the subsequent rise and fall of ‘BAME’. As terminology has changed, so too has the acceptance of these terms. As Tammy Hodo, President of All Things Diverse LLC, discussed in her TedTalk, race is a social construct that is “dynamic” and “changes with the political climate”, whereas ethnicity encompasses shared historical culture and tradition, not skin colour. The term ethnicity can also be considered a sociological construct, with ‘ancestry’ becoming favoured by some people. In Hodo’s speech she stated:
“People want to categorise me and they want to put me in a space, and they have not asked me how I identify. They have not asked me what my ethnicity is… We do not want to be categorised. Ask us how we identify. Ask what our ethnicity is. Race is not real, it is a social construct. It has been used to justify statuses and stratification but biologically it is not real.”
Hodo’s speech is a prescient reminder that terminology can be both useful and futile.
Can terminology effectively encapsulate the complexity of ethnic identity, and is there still a place for it in the workplace?
The Rejection of ‘BAME’ and Acronym Terms
Since March last year, the Government’s publishing of the policy document ‘Inclusive Britain’ has formally reconsidered the official use of the term ‘BAME’ alongside 74 action points regarding race and ethnicity. The Government also released a statement on the use of the term ‘ethnic minorities’ to describe ‘all ethnic groups except the white British group’, including white minorities of the Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller communities.
Research taken by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, within Birmingham City University, found that the term ‘BAME’ faced “widespread ambivalence” and even “rejection” as a term within the BBC and creative industries. Further research from last year, conducted by the British Future think tank, also noted the lack of popularity for the term and use of acronyms to describe ethnicity. The survey indicated that 33% of the public were unfamiliar with the term, demonstrating that acronyms can be a barrier when describing one’s ethnicity.
The Future of Terminology and Practical Solutions
At the heart of what we do, Race Equality Matters, continually engages and listens to its community to accelerate change. Alongside hundreds of individual conversations, we have conducted a series of polls since 2020, with the most recent one conducted on LinkedIn during May 2023. The multiple-choice options for the most appropriate term included:
- Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic/BAME
- Ethnic Minority
- Ethnically Diverse
- Global Majority
The term ‘Ethnically Diverse’ remained the most favoured with 45% of the votes, followed by Global Majority (29%), Ethnic Minority (19%), and BAME (6%).
Whilst it is clear some organisations/individuals feel ‘BAME’ is representative of identity, other terms are increasingly favoured and there is no consensus on the matter. Other research and guidance have suggested referring to each ethnic group individually (instead of forming a singular group) and using hyphenated identities to improve inclusivity (e.g. Black-British).
Race networks are increasingly coining themselves ‘cultural’ or ‘heritage’ networks in accordance with these changes too. Conversations like this should be happening in every organisation and network.
Language is important, and getting it right is a crucial step that organisations can take to improve inclusivity. However, using correct terminology is not a solution to tackle race inequality; use language to improve inclusivity, sense of belonging and awareness in your organisation, use action to create positive change.
As Alex Mistlin, an editor at The Guardian, correctly guided readers:
“but when it comes to categorising Britain’s ethnic minorities, an elegant solution will not be found because an elegant solution does not exist. The point is to not get too bogged down in finding a terminology that perfectly captures one’s identity, but to identify the ways in which people, by virtue of their race or citizenship or ethnicity, are put at a systemic disadvantage in Britain– and fixing these injustices.”
Terminology is the start of the conversation, not the end.
At Race Equality Matters, we have chosen to use terminology for clarification and to support our community. We believe that though terminology can never be perfect, listening to people’s preferences can be the first step in bringing about change.
What terminology/language does your organisation and race network use?
When was the last time you asked what people want to be called?
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