BAME is a term that has been in use for some years but shot up to the headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. It stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. You may also hear BME, which is Black and Minority Ethnic. Ultimately, both terms cover the same group of people: non-whites. BAME is a term that lazily conflates millions of individuals’ racial experiences and creates an artificial community in reference to the white majority. It reduces both the achievements and struggles of different groups and assumes a shared alliance between all ethnic minorities that is sadly far from true. It’s high time the term is ditched in favour of more focused exploration into specific ethnic minorities, rather than this catch-all category.
A blog by the government’s own Civil Service draws question marks around perceptions of BAME and what it even means. As former Deputy Head of the Race Disparity Unit, Zamila Bunglawala bemoaned the term BAME, citing that very few people out of a survey of 300 could actually recognise, let alone define, said term. On top of this, she noted that white ethnic minorities such as Gypsy, Roma, Travellers and more are not included within BAME despite being some of the most marginalised groups. This only reinforces the idea that at its core, BAME simply means non-white, an offensive and embarrassing realisation. Being defined in opposition to others and in the negative renders my racial identity redundant and entirely homogeneous with others who I have completely different experiences from.
During the pandemic’s bleakest points, I joined the many people sitting down at home to watch the daily Coronavirus briefing. Much of this broadcast was rife with findings that highlighted how the BAME community was up to twice as likely to die from COVID-19. However, the way these revelations were expressed made them devoid of any meaning — it was unclear which specific minorities were being referenced and why they were more likely to die than others. One of the reasons identified were biological, such as the high proportion of BAME people with diseases that made COVID-19 worse. However, it was revealed later that Bangladeshi people were some of the most likely to die because of a high density of diabetes; this was not the same for other ethnic minorities. Evidently, combining these statistics together under BAME gave the impression that this was uniform across said minorities. Just take a look at UCL’s own research infographic about the effect of COVID-19 on the young BAME community – it reduces any ethnic-specific information. Thus, in research and analysis, the term BAME proves to be reductive, actively veiling findings and misrepresenting data.
For many years, I had been largely apathetic to the term BAME, not necessarily endorsing it, but never criticising it. At first, it seemed like a handy way to talk about issues that affected all minorities. It was only when I came to university did I really begin to think about BAME’s assumption of homogeneity across minorities. Although, encountering different nationalities and multi-cultural backgrounds was certainly eye-opening and insightful, I did not feel a connection to them simply on the basis of not being white. While I do identify with various individuals along the lines of friendship, hobbies, humour, academic interests and more, it is rarely our ethnic status that brings us together. The term BAME implies that the feeling of ‘otherness’, being non-white, is a sentiment that all ethnic minorities bond over. However, this community is largely imagined. There exist people who are the same ethnicity as me who I cannot relate to in the slightest. Ethnicity is only one component of identity, constituting differing importance for different people. BAME both reduces ethnicity to a convenient label whilst also inflating its importance for some.
Racial minorities also do not necessarily live in harmony with each other on the shared value of not being white. They are able to perpetuate prejudices against each other and carry out discrimination in the same way that white individuals can (however, it may not be on the same systemic level). Moreover, there exist several dissimilarities within larger racial groups. For example, there are notable differences between the academic and career performances of ethnicities from across Asia. Ethnic minorities neither act nor perceive each other the same.
Therefore, the term BAME is a misrepresentative and useless way of describing ethnic minorities. It fences all those who are not white into an imagined community that hallucinates homogeneity of action, experience, perception and more. Even though UCL’s Student Union (SU) has elected a BME Officer, the recent manifesto of those currently elected refers to general “combat[ting] against racism” and reduction of the “attainment gap”. The lack of specificity in their aims only adds to the sweeping generalisations that BAME and BME create. I believe that the SU should split this role, differentiating between international and domestic students, given the completely different experiences they would have had regardless of ethnic lines. It is time that ethnic minorities stopped just being talked about and instead talked with. I hope that news media, academia and the general discourse surrounding ethnic disparities choose to refer to specific minorities, rather than generalising them when convenient. Failure to do so would be a disrespectful and lazy continuation of the current racial apathy that forgoes a nuanced understanding. We can do more and we can do better, but first, the anchor that is the term BAME has to be cut.
By Ryan Ratnam
This article appeared in CG Issue 80