“BAME” Is Racist. It’s Time We Treated People As Individuals

“BAME” Is Racist. It’s Time We Treated People As Individuals

What BAME really means is ‘brown and black people’. Hiding behind a politically-correct acronym doesn’t make it any less lazy or crude.

By Iqbal Nasim, CEO of the National Zakat Foundation

As a ‘BAME’ person, I want you – and our government – to stop using the term ‘BAME’. I understand why they (and possibly you) like it: it’s an umbrella, catch-all term for people who are non-white. And it is officially endorsed, meaning that no one can tell you it’s the ‘wrong term’.

But grouping all minorities together as a monolith (or even treating one minority as a monolith) dehumanises its members, and leads to bad policy, where we group disparate people together. What many of us ‘BAME-ers’ really want is to be treated as individuals, not members of a tribal collective. In that respect, we are much the same as W-ers (The White Community).

BAME is the latest in a long line of obscure terms concocted to help ‘you’ talk about ‘us’ – and sometimes to help us talk about ourselves. But rather than create vocabularies to cover up discomfort or sensitivity, we should deal with it head on, and embrace the complexities of millions of unique individuals in the process.

So when I say we shouldn’t use the word BAME, that doesn’t mean inventing a new word instead. It’s time we put the effort into understanding the differences between the cultures and ethnicities that live in the UK – and the differences within those communities too. Most of my work is amongst the Muslim community, but I know what Muslims have in common ends with their belief in God. 

The life experience of a middle class Anglo-Saxon British convert to the religion in Norwich is completely different to a professional Gujurati-British Muslim in leafy Finchley, who is living a different life to a Kashmiri-Brit in a Bradford estate. 

The term BAME means “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”. There isn’t enough space in this article to list all the minorities it refers to.

What’s more interesting is the minorities it doesn’t refer to. We wouldn’t necessarily think of Poles, Armenians or Gypsies and Travellers as BAME, even though they are ethnic minorities. What BAME really means is ‘brown and black people’. Hiding behind a politically-correct acronym doesn’t make it any less lazy or crude.

I cannot help but feel there is a legacy of colonialism that sits behind this choice of words. British industrialists and explorers didn’t fancy the effort of dissecting the nuances of treating their ‘subjects’ as individuals, so they grouped them (often in ways they had never been grouped before) and appointed Maharajas (the predecessors to today’s ‘community leaders’) to manage them. 

‘BAME’ is itself a modern invention, an update of ‘BME’ (black and minority ethnic) that had its roots in the “political blackness” movement of the 1970’s. At the time, the term was advocated by activists as a means to generate unity and solidarity between different ethnic minority groups. 

That might have made sense in the 1970’s, when ethnic minorities constituted between 2% and 3% of the population. Today, they are 14% of the population. Treating 1 in 7 Brits as one and the same – and the other 6 in 7 as individuals – just doesn’t make sense.

Progressive voices will say that there are issues that impact all BAME-ers, and the term does serve a useful purpose. But the phrase sends the dangerous message that the non-whites are somehow distinct from the rest of ‘us’. It also allows the successes of one type of BAME to be used to cover up the disadvantages piled on another: who can say there is racism in the UK, when the cabinet has Priti Patel and Alok Sharma, and when Rishi Sunak has the highest approval rating of any UK politician? They’re as BAME as any other BAME person, aren’t they?

It is those ‘intra-BAME’ differences that show how useless the concept is. For example, Chinese and Indian pupils consistently outperform white Brits, whereas Black Caribbean students on average fall behind. Any policy aimed at helping ‘BAME’ students would fail at the first hurdle of understanding the reality on the ground. 

This is why we should resist the temptation to simply kick the can down the road and introduce whatever catch-all phrase is now in fashion (POC, BIPOC, or whatever else). My fellow ‘BAME-ers’ and I should be confident enough of our own cultures and life stories to represent ourselves without accepting (and even starting to self-define with) confusing labels.

You can only improve the status quo if you can see it clearly in the first place – and that means treating people as individuals. 

Once we all start seeing that, the sooner we can all start trying to understand and get on with each other based on who we really are.