I keep trying to explain to people why I prefer that we refrain from the use of the acronyms BAME/BME. Often I am asked to give an off the cuff statement about it – in the middle of other business, while passing by, on the way to somewhere else, and I am never entirely satisfied with my answer… so I have decided to write a short-ish essay on it. Next time I am asked I will just send the link to this. I will also like to know what people think about the acronym and this essay, so please drop a comment. Ese pupo.
I should also add that I teach on a unit called Law and Race (which I have written about before) and except to say I will not be using the acronyms BAME/BME, I have not used these acronyms across my lectures and seminars. Think about that. A whole unit called Law and Race, taught in the UK, in which the acronym is not used. If we can do that… so can you.
So what does BAME/BME mean? The acronyms stand for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity/Black and Minority Ethnicity.
Pretty straightforward you would think? Right? Let us break it down, bit by bit.
B- Black: Black could mean politically Black i.e. anyone not white. Or it could mean someone descended from Africa South of the Sahara. (I have argued earlier that Sub-Saharan Africa itself is a problematic term.) But even if we limit ‘Black’ to a descriptor for Africans from ‘Black’ Africa, it is still an inexact and cyclical identifier. In his chapter in The Good Immigrant, ‘Cutting Through (On Black Barbershops And Masculinity)’ Inua Ellams writes (CW-language):
‘The term ‘Black’ was employed by African Americans as both a political and socially conscious alternative to ‘negro’ (or the much darker nigger). It was as an act of defiance, self-identification, and as a way to distance themselves from the ‘African’ label, which had abundantly negative connotations at the time. Nowadays, the label is used for darker-skinned people of sub-Saharan descent everywhere: in the Americas, Asia, Europe and on the Africa continent itself. In Europe where whiteness is the default, blackness stands in contrast and any race is ‘other’.’
So a Black person is linked to Africa and Africa is where the Black people live. Black does not have ontological meaning, but is an externally imposed and cricumstancial identifier, intrisincally linked with the creation of race and scientific racism – which have both been largely debunked. [Saini: 2019] Black has no meaning but the meaning we give it.
A- Asian: The inclusion of the A seems to be a reaction to the concept of Political Blackness, which was an umbrella identity for all not-white populations, initially used mostly in the UK to build important solidarities against racism. Political Blackness was also a simple and crude way of designating all non-white populations as Black. Thus as with many all encompassing terms, political Blackness has tended to obscure certain kinds of oppression within its umbrella. In the 1990s, sociologist professor Tariq Modood began arguing that including different people under one label – Black – was confusing and it left out British Asians. The response to this seems to be to include ‘Asian’ in the acronym. So here we have a category confusion. Are we signifying race or geographical origins? Black and Asian. Race and Continent. By that same logic, we could more appropriately have AAME. Right. African, Asian and minority ethnicities. The opposite of that would be BBME – Black, Brown and minority ethnicities. Which of course implies that Black and Brown people (Africans and Asian) are not minority ethnicities Also it implies that people from Asia cannot be Black. Or white. Uzbekistan is in Asia. As is Israel. Also Armenia. And Christmas Island. When we use the A in BAME, do we understand it to encompass all people who actually have Asian origins or just people we think of as having Asian origins. Which of course elides the fact that people who were born in the UK are most likely British, not Asian. Also identities are complex and can be multiple… and that is fine and usual in most of the world. Thus we have an increasingly tendency towards inexactitude in the composition of this acronym.
M- Minority: Now this sounds logical doesn’t it? What could she possibly quibble with here? Some may ask. Bear with me… Asese n m’eye bo lapo. This is a descriptor for a person who belongs to a group which forms part of a numerical minorities within a nation-state, right? On the surface of it, I would agree. But the reason why we need BAME stats is not because the people encompassed within the acronym are minorities within a domestic polity. When peoples names are not picked for interviews it is not because they are numerically fewer. Children of billionaires are minorities. When people are more likely to be poor, criminalised, subject to the N word, the P word, to racist attacks, it is not because there are numerical minorities. We do not do the same to yacht owners or golf players. This is about power and not numbers. And the R-word we dare not speak. Racism. Black South Africans are not minorities within their nation-state, yet racial inequalities were created and continue to persist. We are talking about power. How power is hoarded. Where is resides. The structures that maintain who has access to it.
Non-white populations are a global majority. But not majority holders of power. The use of the word ‘minority’ tries to give us a reason for inequality. It misdirects. It tells us that racism (which remains unnamed) is about numbers and this leads us to misunderstand, misdiagnose and fail to treat its attendant problems. ‘Minority’ messages to us that people are oppressed/disadvantaged because they are few, not because they are non-white. We divorce the past from the present and so repeat our history in new and terrifying ways. Therefore we misunderstand the nature of the world. We often think that the national created the international, but the international created the national. the ontology of states as they exist now in our imagination are only made possible and maintained by the international. States as anthromorphic, autonomous, free standing entities only gained that status in the 1960s with the ending of the previous form of the Euro-modern Empire. This has morphed into a form we can pretend to ignore. Therefore nation-state minorities are a recent concept that cannot explain a long history of global racial inequalities. We are children of time, whose heritage is being ignored. ‘Minority’ misdirects. And tells us nothing.
E- Ethnicity: I find the use of the word ‘ethnicity’, probably the most problematic within this acronym. We use this word as an obfuscating and false replacement for ‘race’. It is often suggested that racism created race. So using race as a policy-making term would make us uncomfortable, because this will force us to acknowledge the racism that created it. However, ethnicity as a substitute for race is misleading. It suggests (very strongly) that only non-white people are ‘ethnic.’ So we are still talking about power. The power to have your race made invisible. Ethnicity allows us to recast institutional racism and its effects as a clash of pre-modern cultures. Otherness is pathologised, by not being directly pathologised. This is why attempts to increase ‘BAME’ representation at universities reaches out to economically disadvantaged populations. Putting race and class in adversarial positions. And pathologising by not being direct.
Using ‘ethnicity’ as a synonym for ‘race’ is intellectually unsound and quietly insidious. It makes the immutability of skin colour stand in for changing cultural norms. It presumes that culture is inherited, genetic and unchanging. ‘Ethnicity’ in this context lies. It falsifies. As MacEachern et al uncovered in their research, there was movement between African ethnicies. Historically you could move between ethnicities, but we know that it is almost impossible to move between socially constructed races. Across Africa, there are anywhere from 1000 to 2000 different ethnicities with ontological meanings and linguistic distinctions, but in the UK, ‘Black African’ is one ethnicity. Ethnicity thus becomes a camouflage that deflects from the fact that race as a social construct is a fluid concept. According to Obasogie:
‘Social constructionism is a critique of the idea/assumption that social categories of race reflect natural, real, or biologically meaningful divisions in humankind and highlights the way that social, economic, and political forces create the meanings that come to attach to various bodies.’
So if we talk of ‘ethnicity’ instead of ‘race’, we then make the assumption that racial inequalities are as a result of cultural differences or differences in opinion and not social injustices with traceable histories linked to power. We can thus abdicate responsibility for addressing those inequalities properly. But we are still talking of power. The power to name. The power to unname. The power to make power seem invisible.
A-And: I have left the ‘and’ for last. But put quite simply one person cannot be ‘and’. As Yoruba people will say: Enikan kii sai je awade. A single person does not announce herself by saying ‘We have come’. One person cannot be Black AND a minority or Black, AND Asian AND a minority. By trying to say everything without saying anything, we actually say nothing.
(I have heard rumours that an R (refugee) is to be added to make BAMER. Please don’t! For the love of all things sweet succulent chocolate cake! Please don’t, I beg you!!!)
In thinking of racial inequalities and names and proper study of all concerning these, here are some things I think we should be paying attention to.
Whiteness: Fanon writes about how people racialised as not-white are drafted into the zone of non-being. There is a non-recognition of personhood of peoples racialised other, racialised as deviant from the norm, that occurs in the initial encounter. We are still talking about power. Thereafter, difference becomes encoded in the amount of power a person or group is allowed. The effect of the initial colonial encounter was to abstract the racialised Other out of time and space and lock her in the past. In the past she has no effect on Euro-modernity. The Other, in this context, is always identified as not-white. Her value is often determine by how close to whiteness she can get. Whiteness as norm, as humanity.
Anti-Blackness: As Robin DiAngelo asserts in her book, when explaining that Black people are ‘the ultimate racial “other,”‘ ‘antiblackness goes deeper than the negative stereotypes all of us have absorbed; anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people. Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness.’ There is a certain measure of anti-Blackness and Afrophobia that underlies global geopolitics. We are always talking about power.
Racial Illiteracy (or why we must dis-aggregate skewed data): As I have said, by putting everyone not white under the BAME umbrella, we describe no-one. BAME, like the porous idea of liberal ‘diversity’ pretends all marginalized people are interchangeable. It assumes that the experiences of an Indigenous Australian woman are the same as that of a Brown Muslim man are the same as that of a Black African woman, are the same as a First Nations non-binary person. It puts all non-white people a single box, it allows you to check that one box and be done, while lots of experiences are left out of the box. One BAME person stands for all BAME people. This enables glaring narrative distortions. It allows for situations such as the one reported in the Bristol Post, where even though the use of the n-word was involved, the PR people still felt comfortable saying:
Racism could not be an issue if non-white people were involved as agitators of the attack. BAME as swappables. A sea of indistinguishable non-whiteness.
In the final analysis, BAME problematises and pathologises the racialised and not racism. It does this without mentioning racism. Therefore solutions for ‘BAME’ inequities do not include ending racism, but focus on ‘assisting’ the racialised overcome ‘barriers’. Always note the use of the passive voice. The use of ‘BAME’ pathologises those whose identities have been racialised and it absolves those with privileged/invisible racial identities from the responsibility of addressing, tackling or even recognising racism. The racialised become the problem. Not racism. The raced become the location of the problem. (See Sara Ahmed)
Alternatives: Here are some alternatives to BAME (mostly suggested by other people. I think if we mean non-white, we should just say non-white, till we are done with racism. But I am a blunt person.)
- Visible minority
- Black or Brown
- Racialised Black or Brown or X
- Person of Colour
- Racialised person
But until we find an acceptable alternative…. We wait for the end of racism. That matters more than what we are called. So, we wait.
Postscript (January 2021): I think it is important that we distinguish between misuse of BAME [and other related terms] and inadequacy of an umbrella term. For example, calling a singular Black person ‘BAME’ is misuse of the umbrella term. It is a different point to note that as a term for a collective of people ‘facing racism’, ‘BAME’ is inadequate. Therefore, asking people what they would prefer to be called often only addresses misuse not inadequacy. To address adequacy through this means, we would need all non-white people all over the world to agree to one term.
Selvarajah, Sujitha, Thilagawathi Abi Deivanayagam, Gideon Lasco, Suzanne Scafe, Alexandre White, Wanga Zembe-Mkabile, and Delan Devakumar. “Categorisation and Minoritisation.” BMJ Global Health 5, no. 12 (2020): e004508.
Ahmed, Sara, ‘The Problem of Perception’ Feministkilljoys, 17 February 2014
Barrett, Gena-mour, ‘Why It’s Time To Ditch The Term ‘BAME” 23 MAY 2018, 7:10 Refinery29
d’Aspremont, Jean, The International Law of Statehood and Recognition: A Post-Colonial Invention (October 29, 2017). Forthcoming in T. Garcia (ed), La Reconnaissance du Statut d’Etat à des Entités Contestées (Pedone, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3061371
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018.
Dyer, Richard. “The Matter of Whiteness.” White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism3 (2008): 9-14.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove press, 2008.
MacEachern, Scott, Michael S. Bisson, G. A. Clark, Martin P. Evison, Alain Froment, S. O. Y. Keita, Alan G. Morris, Mark Pluciennik, and David Schoenbrun. 2000. “Genes, Tribes, And African History.” Current Anthropology 41 (3): 357-384.
Obasogie, Osagie K. “The Constitution of Identity.” The Handbook of Law and Society (2015): 339.
Saini, Angela. Superior: The Return of Race Science. Beacon Press, 2019.
Kenichi Serino, How Apartheid Haunts a New Generation of South Africans, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/south-africa-apartheid-mandela-born-free-university/500747/
Excellent piece. As someone of mixed British and Indian descent, I’ve long been baffled by the tick box options on equal opps forms etc.
I have been baffled by them as well.
[…] from BAME students and staff (on the problematic construction of ‘BAME’, see further Adebisi 2019). Counter-pedagogy, performed in such organic and holistic spaces, provides possibility for a true […]
Excellent deconstruction of the habit if homogenising everyone who is not white. When I arrived from the US in 1984 I was surprised the Irish were classified as black by the GLC.