The truth is, there’ll never be a handy acronym that can capture the complex histories & cultures of Britain’s ethnic minorities


BLM protesters at a demonstration against the police, crime, sentencing và courts bill, Westminster, London, 3 April 2021. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
BLM protesters at a demonstration against the police, crime, sentencing và courts bill, Westminster, London, 3 April 2021. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
Publication of the report from Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race & Ethnic Disparities should have been a landmark moment in the UK’s conversation about race. In the wake of last summer’s black Lives Matter protests, it seemed as though the government might finally acknowledge the impact of institutional racism in creating disparities in healthcare, education and criminal justice.

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Except it didn’t. The report took a self-congratulatory tone, noting that Britain’s success in removing race-based disparities in education and the economy “should be regarded as a mã sản phẩm for other white-majority countries”. With few actual problems lớn address then, the commission’s headline proposal concerned scrapping the “unhelpful” term BAME.

While many, including Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, were rightly dismissive of the token move – “Britain’s ethnic minority communities are being insulted by this report,” said Begum – the proposal reflects the long-held sentiment that we need a new language for talking about race.

Words matter, và they especially matter when it comes to identity. Britain’s ethnic minority communities have had a number of labels since migration from the “new commonwealth” really kicked off in the 1950s and 60s. Then, immigrants from British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean & south Asia were generally given the umbrella term “coloureds”.

The shared experience of racial discrimination in post-colonial Britain made cross-community solidarity both possible & necessary, & by the late 1970s, the movement for racial equality in Britain had widely adopted an inclusive definition of “black” that encompassed people of both African và South Asian heritage.

By the early 1990s, however, the form size and composition of Britain’s ethnic minority community had changed enough khổng lồ make continued use of the word black as a catch-all unworkable. In 1994, the sociologist Tariq Modood published Political Blackness và British Asians, in which he argued that the already waning term harmed Asians by suggesting a “false essentialism: that all non-white groups have something in common other than how others treat them”.

By the late 1990s, political blackness had been largely discarded in favour of more specific definitions that conflated the national, continental, ethnic and racial – the 2001 census included separate categories for “Mixed”, “Black”, “Asian” và “Chinese or Other”. The extent to lớn which Modood’s case against “black” resembles the arguments given for scrapping BAME is striking, with the authors of the race report suggesting that the blanket term fails to adequately reflect the experiences of different ethnic communities.

As with “black”, BAME’s critics are right lớn highlight the term’s shortcomings – it feels wonky và contrived while implying that all ethnic minorities are part of a homogeneous group. Moreover, it has never really sat well with ethnic minorities themselves. Indeed, BAME has been a particularly unsuccessful candidate for widespread adoption. According to Google Trends, searches for “BAME” shot up in April 2020 – probably because of its frequent usage in reporting Covid health disparities. The fact that it’s already on the scrapheap shows the term was never really fit for purpose.

With BAME unloved và on the way out, the question now is what should replace it, exactly?

Well, the tìm kiếm is under way. Last week, the thinktank British Future published a blogpost (Beyond BAME) looking at how people might like to be referred to instead. Its research found that most ethnic minority Britons slightly prefer “ethnic minority” as an umbrella term, with two-thirds (68%) saying they either support or accept the term and only 13% opposed.

While ethnic minority is probably a step in the right direction (it has the advantage over BAME of using real words), we can’t expect a consensus around a single term. This must be kept in mind while thinking about the alternatives – a các mục that includes but is not limited khổng lồ “people of colour” (too American and has the potential khổng lồ be confused with “coloured people”), “non-white” (too negative – no one will identify with the state of being not white), và even BIPOC (like BAME but longer, và what does the “I” – meaning indigenous – refer lớn in a British context?).

BAME is not inherently problematic, there’s just an inherent problem in a catch-all given the complexity of how we categorise race. As Angela Saini, author of Superior: the Return of Race Science, explains, race is a social construct, & therefore the words we use khổng lồ talk about it reflect a specific socio-cultural context. For instance, “Asian” in the US và UK generally refer lớn distinct ethnic communities from east và south Asia respectively.

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BAME, lượt thích “black” & “coloured’ before it, was doomed to fail because it’s impossible to lớn distill centuries of history và culture into a handy acronym. Consequently, names will continue to lớn be picked up và discarded as long as the shape và composition of Britain’s BAME community continues to evolve.

Yes, words vày matter, & it’s genuinely important that offensive or unintelligible terms aren’t used by companies and public bodies – but when it comes to lớn categorising Britain’s ethnic minorities, an elegant solution will not be found because an elegant solution does not exist. The point is lớn not get too bogged down in finding a terminology that perfectly captures one’s identity, but to lớn identify the ways in which people, by virtue of their race or citizenship or ethnicity, are put at systemic disadvantage in Britain – và fixing these injustices.

Alex Mistlin is a Guardian Scott Trust bursary journalist

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