From experience, there appears to be a degree of sensitivity around using the word black as a descriptive term.
Anecdotally, after briefly leaving a pub to meet a friend, I arrived back to chips which I was told that I ordered (unknowingly) at the bar. During the time I left, the member of staff described my appearance to my friends but refrained from using the word black until my friend (who is black) simply asked: ‘was the tall girl black?’ – and, thus, the mystery was solved.
I appreciate the caution exercised in not resorting to my race as a means to describe me, however in this instance it was necessary. This leads me to ponder; would it have been offensive if she did refer to my race? Why would it have been?
History of labels in the UK
In the UK, there has been an evolution of politically correct labels used to describe ethnic minorities. The term black was championed by the anti-racist movement in the 1970s to mean ‘non-white British’. At the time, the word served its purpose in banding groups of people together in the fight against the common struggle of racism and underrepresentation. Though soon, justifiably, the term fell out of favour; as not only is it ostensibly illogical to include all ethnic minorities under the label black, it had been argued the term gave undue prominence to Afro-Caribbean people.
Eventually, Britain settled with using the term BAME, in part mirroring the intended inclusive effect from using black, but more balanced and collective. 7.6 million people in the UK fall under this category and it has been beneficial in helping measure issues affecting ethnic minorities. Moreover, the term is at the forefront of diversity networks and initiatives to promote social mobility. Also, it importantly includes those from mixed race and ethnic backgrounds who would not narrowly consider themselves black or Asian. Despite the term’s clear advantages, it does have its limitations.
Satisfaction with BAME
Curious as to how people felt about this topic, I conducted a small poll on my Twitter account as below:
Investigative flaws aside, the results are interesting and indicate an overall dissatisfaction with being labelled as BAME. Some participants may take the view of Priti Patel and find the term ‘patronising’ and ’insulting’ as people would like to be recognised for their individual merits. The label prevents room for individuality and distinction which is a fair point. Another simpler explanation is that very few people identify themselves as BAME in their day-today lives as Omar Khan, director of a race equality think tank, has commented on.
In a similar vein, an interviewee in the Guardian opined that BAME does not exist outside the world of surveys, quotas and job applications and upon reflection is true. I don’t know anyone who would use the acronym BAME to describe their race/ethnic origin. Yet, the term is still flawed even when used in statistics.
Recently, Health Secretary Matt Hancock failed to mention any black people in Boris Johnson’s cabinet – because there are none. Under the category BAME there are 4: though technically correct, it’s possible to believe they are from different backgrounds, as BAME implies, rather than all from southern-Asian heritage. Diversity box slightly ticked, problem far from solved.
Furthermore, BAME inherently assumes that ethnic minorities are a single homogenous group when in reality it is a combination of heterogenous groups with little in common with each other. The label fails to acknowledge issues which disproportionately affect different ethnic groups, whether it be: the rise in hate crime against Chinese people due to COVID-19, the excessive use of stop search powers on black people or the impact of Islamophobia across a range of communities. The label obscures facts and, thus, is limiting – so maybe it should be replaced?
Time to move on
It’s uncertain what Britain would move on to. Terminology such as people of colour has links to segregated America in the Jim Crow era and in my opinion is dated and assumes that white is not a colour. Some may consider ethnic minorities as preferable since it is ‘simple, neutral and all-encompassing’. Whilst true, both these terms when used in analysis would still ‘miss those important group-specific details that are essential to telling the story of integration… in the UK’. Separating different racial/ethnic groups solves this issue in certain scenarios. Nevertheless, the significant fact remains that BAME is a helpful catchall and isn’t as alienating as previous labels.
Referring back to my anecdote, no I would not have personally been offended if I was referred to as black – it’s all about the context. As long as the person is not employing the term in a derogative way, then it’s fine. Explicitly mentioning race is a necessary means of identification in certain scenarios and utilisation of the word can be portrayed as empowering. Granted, labels are subjective, but being called black in its essence is a form of description and should be okay to be used.
On balance, BAME as an acronym is not detrimental to the progression of social equality as long as specific groups are given a voice within the term and the disparities faced by different factions are highlighted. Collectively, we should commit to understanding the context behind terminology and accept there are personal reasons behind individual choices.
Realistically, any term used to describe ethnic minorities as a whole will be always be unsatisfactory until we live in a world where race does not shape [our] life experiences. However, we are far from this utopia and with 84% of BAME Britons still believing the UK is very or somewhat racist, whichever label Britain progresses to the underlying issues will evidently stay the same.