BAME, POC, BIPOC – the acronyms are designed to make it easier, neater and simpler to talk about people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
But conversations about race, racism and racial injustice are rarely easy, neat or simple, which is why the chosen terminology for these discussions is so often contentious – and so important to get right.
With the recent mainstream focus on racism and the injustice faced by Black people specifically – sparked by the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter movement – writers, journalists, commentators and critics have had to grapple with racial terminology on a regular basis, and there has been significant backlash about the use of certain terms.
BAME – which is an acronym for Black, Asian, minority ethnic – has been popular in the UK since the 1970s and its use is widely accepted by the media and the corporate world. But, while BAME was born out of a desire to create solidarity between minorities against racism, it is now more readily used by white people to lump everyone who is not white into a singular category.
The same can be said for POC – People Of Colour, WOC – Women Of Colour, and BIPOC – Black and Indigenous People Of Colour, which are all even more vague in who they are referring to.
Many of these acronyms and unifying terms were originally created by minority groups who used them to signal a unity against discrimination, violence and inequality. But, over time they have been co-opted and their political meanings have been sanitised and flattened.
For many critics, these terms no longer signal unity. Instead, they signal a lazy homogenisation of all non-white groups, and the erasure of individual struggles.
And it is the laziness that really grates. Specifically when ‘BAME’ is used where ‘Black’ could have been used in its place. And using the acronym to refer to specifically Black issues smacks of anti-Blackness.
When Matt Hancock was asked recently on Sky News how many Black people are in the current cabinet, he responded by saying, ‘Well, there’s a whole series of people from a black and ethnic minority background.’ Hancock must have been referring to the two South Asian members of the cabinet, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak, because there are zero Black cabinet members.
Labour MP David Lammy criticised the health secretary for lumping ethnic minority communities together and effectively erasing the fact that there are no Black cabinet members. Lammy said: ‘It’s offensive to say it’s OK because they’ve got “diversity of thought”. Especially at time of real pain for the black community. Do better.’
Hiding behind BAME can mask the true inequalities that Black people face, and present a falsely optimistic picture of progress.
Scholar-Activist and CEO of Ladders4Action, Dr Addy Adelaine, says understanding the history of BAME will help us to understand why the term is problematic.
‘The term BAME is rarely used outside of the UK, as it reflects the UK’s contentious and unique conceptual struggle with human identity,’ Dr Addy tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Throughout British history, how we identify individuals has evolved. The term BAME reflects the UK’s social and legal history, it is a strange conceptual mix of race, ethnicity and nationality.’
Dr Addy explains that in the late 18th Century, colonialism enabled white people to present themselves as inherently superior to others. She says racial hierarchies were created to specifically enable slavery and to ‘other’ the people they wished to claim power over.
‘Nuance of identity was removed because it is easier to mistreat and abuse those we do not see with nuance,’ she explains.
‘Nuance of identity helps us to see individuals, with individual stories, individual families and histories. Individuals who are deserving of equal treatment and a respected part of a collective humanity.
‘While white people maintained individuality and nuance of identity, history tells us that nuance of identity is a privilege that not everyone is afforded.’
Dr Addy says nuance of identity for those under colonial rule was ‘purposely destroyed’ in order to control and dehumanise.
‘Enslaved people were prohibited from learning or teaching the languages, history or culture of their home,’ she says. ‘Those living in Africa under European colonial rule were forced to deny centuries-long ethnic and cultural groupings and to instead adopt national identities that had been arbitrarily imposed upon them.’
She believes that the term BAME is an extension of this behaviour. That it is a way to silence and control people outside of the dominant group by stripping them of individuality and identity.
‘BAME has emerged from the legacy of un-examined colonial rule,’ Dr Addy explains. ‘Each letter of the acronym needs examination and explanation, each letter emerged out of a specific sociopolitical and historic reason.
‘But, rather than spending a long time breaking down the acronym, I would rather that we decolonise our language by allowing nuance of identity and affording everyone the right to be viewed as a complex individual with the right to define themselves in the manner they chose.’
Talking in specifics should be the bare minimum. If you mean Black, say Black. Using BAME or POC when you have the option to be specific contributes to the silencing of struggles that individual communities face.
But Dr Addy says we need to need to go further than this. She says we should address why it is that some people prefer to speak in acronyms and group non-white individuals together.
She is suggesting that the use of BAME is deeper than simply for conciseness or ease of writing, that it is instead a marker of a deep-rooted white superiority complex.
Having a category that is for everyone who is not white, positions whiteness as the default – the ‘norm’ – and everybody else as ‘other’. Understanding the complicated history of this kind of homogenisation is the only way to dismantle these archaic hierarchies.
There is a tendency for people to roll their eyes when we talk about terminology, an assumption that the words we use are superficial and unimportant compared to what we mean, and the intention behind those words.
A common argument is that it’s hard to ‘keep up’ with the changing terminology around race. Our grandparents might have been taught to say ‘coloured’, our parents might think it’s impolite to say the word ‘Black’, and it can be easy to dismiss new terms as unnecessary political correctness.
But the words we use do matter, they affect the people who hear them – regardless of the intention. And it is important to be open to hearing criticism and learning about context as language inevitably evolves.
‘Language matters because the production of language and meanings is always linked to unequal power relations, domination, and resistance to domination,’ explains Michael Mumisa, a Cambridge Special Livingstone Scholar.
‘Dominant groups, and the beneficiaries of the status quo, often exercise their power to enforce their definitions of “reality” on others. For centuries, those subjected to the “othering” process have always resisted and rebelled against the dominant group’s definitions and meanings of “reality”.’
Michael says BAME is a ‘dangerous anti-Black’ term, as it silences and erases Black people, he adds that it ‘can be used by governing powers to hide their failure to eradicate anti-Black hatred and racial inequalities.’
So, where do we go next? The key thing is to be specific, and to allow terminology and definitions to be led by those who it defines – Black people and minority communities.
‘The terminology will continue to evolve as it is resisted and challenged by those on the margins it is designed to silence and erase,’ adds Michael.
‘They will continue to push their own languages and meanings of self-identification from the margins to the centre of debates and discussions on race and racial discrimination in the UK.’
The way we talk about race impacts how we feel about race, racism and minority groups.
We simply can’t afford for insidious negative messaging and inequalities to be perpetuated through a laziness of language. It’s not hard to be specific when we speak.
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