Who are you calling ‘BAME’?

The Black Lives Matter movement has had a profound effect on many people over the last few months, me included. I have read and listened to lots of different opinions, not just from academics and journalists but from real lived experiences of everyday people. Some that have really made me question and understand my own white privilege and fragility. One really significant point was raised by a number of speakers at the Black Lives Matter protest that took place  in Hyde Park Leeds on 21st June. A tremendous and uplifting gathering of over 6000 people with some of the most engaging speeches I have heard for a long time. For me, a key point a number of the speakers made was a criticism of the all encompassing term – ‘BAME’.

So I found myself thinking. I recently put together a short report for my colleagues, outlining areas of the city with the highest levels of deprivation, which was in relation to COVID-19 and the crucial role that VAL is playing as part of the city’s response. I mentioned communities in the Harehills area of Leeds who could potentially be more vulnerable to the virus. I stated that some of these factors included, poverty, multi-generational households, overcrowding, populations with a high number of employees in the service industry, and, that there is a high representation of BAME communities in the ward. I used the term in a really general way and I now think back and question what I  exactly meant by that.

Firstly I took ‘BAME’ as separate from the other factors which can contribute to a higher risk of dying from the disease.  I begin to question how separate one’s ethnicity is from the other factors which are indicators of poverty, and how deep rooted, systemic racism is directly responsible for present day heath and economic inequalities.

I didn’t go to the point of breaking down each ethnicity represented in the ward, what I really meant by BAME was people who are not white British.  Now obviously, I had good reason to state this, because sadly statistics show you are less likely to die of the disease if you are white.  But was I right to write BAME as a sweeping statement?

Is it an acceptable term? It’s a term that is used widely throughout the third sector, it’s a term that I have always understood to have been used relatively comfortably by people of colour, but now I am hugely questioning my assumptions.  

Each time we write the word BAME are we assuming a similarity between groups, and, - are we missing vital differences?

 It’s wonderful to see in Australia and New Zealand that the campaign has been taken up by First Nation people campaigning for equality and justice. Different groups in history have suffered at the hands of the British Empire, but the significance, the scale, and the lasting impact of slavery is, for me why Black Lives Matter is about black people. That’s not to say that the movement itself doesn’t create solidarity with other groups who suffer prejudice today.

 At Hyde Park Black Lives Matter protest there were speakers from the Trans community, Asian community, speakers from different religions and a big recognition of all the intersectionality that exists in our society.   Within those calls for solidarity comes another reason why, maybe, the term BAME can feel uncomfortable. It lumps everybody together, and not only does it assume similar needs, but it assumes people get on!  It adds to an ‘othering’ of anybody who is not white British and stops us recognising tensions between communities and therefore perpetuates them.

For many years it has been a bugbear of mine that it is often written ‘BAME and Gypsies and Travellers’. As recognised ethnicities, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are included within the term BAME. But I see why people would write this, recognising the perhaps ‘hidden’ ethnicities that exist within that term. Having had the honour of previously working with the Gypsy and Traveller communities for many years, I have been witness to countless experiences of discrimination by the police and authority, by mistrust and prejudice.  I don’t think in any way that the Black Lives Matter movement will hold the limelight away from other communities suffering similar prejudices. In fact I think other minority groups will benefit massively.

We should think about exactly what we mean each time we write the words BAME.  Is it worth, once in a while, writing the whole sentence out in full? Black, Asian, and minority ethnic.

I don’t think it’s for me to make any suggestions about alternative terms, about how to describe people’s heritage, people’s identity and connections with other groups. In fact, I’ll say it - I don’t think it’s for white people to make any decisions at all.


By Claire Graham

Project Worker at Voluntary Action Leeds


Comments (2)

  1. Mike Chitty:
    Jul 16, 2020 at 07:27 AM

    I’m so pleased this piece has been written. All labels misrepresent the thing that they attempt to name. All words suffer the same fate. Words, and acronyms don’t have meanings. People do. We need perhaps a much greater awareness of what people mean, and what meanings others make and what impacts those meanings, and the decisions and actions they precipitate, have in the world.
    Across Leeds I am noticing largely white boards encouraging ‘their’ ‘BAME’ networks to ‘step up’ in part to conduct risk assessments related to Covid and partly to show a response to BLM. They seem to ignore the irony of asking largely ‘non white’ colleagues to once again bear the brunt of sorting out the consequences of the historical dynamics of largely white supremacy, through power structures that reflect the same dynamic. If it weren’t so tragic it would be ironic!
    I have been talking widely with colleagues about what this work might be about, and the closest we have come is to the pursuit of social and environmental justice in the wake of colonial and imperialist histories.
    The only part I disagree with is the bit that says white people should make no decisions. As a white person, I think I need to absolutely make decisions that our mine to make; personal values, habits and behaviours (I am trying to break the habit of using the ‘BxxE’ word when I mean non-white people - which I rarely do! How quickly it became normalised.)
    I also think we have to take decisions about what we do? Back in the 70s I marched with the Anti Nazi League and danced with Rock against Racism. These days my contribution might be to help to organise and develop people so that they can act differently and achieve different, perhaps better, results. To perceive, think and to act differently. Seeking advice from a number of colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds (including several VAL members) we decided to establish a Leeds Equality Network to offer this development. Interestingly we found Leeds already has one and has for a decade! So now we are developing a network for social and environmental justice which is perhaps the actual work?
    So thank you again for writing this piece. I hope it provokes many in Leeds to reflect and to decide to be different in the world. Especially to recognise that where decisions are taken without participation from diverse perspectives they are likely to perpetuate systemic and institutional discrimination.
    Our first action is to try to create a safe space for people interested in doing this work to start to connect with each other through Listening deeply to others. We would welcome you and others to come to hear and be heard. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-listening-space-tickets-113322396338

    Thank you again for oxygenating the conversation.

  2. Claire Graham:
    Jul 17, 2020 at 04:32 PM

    Hi Mike, thanks so much for your comments.
    You make some really good points. We rarely do mean 'anyone who is not white British' when we say BAME.
    A good current example of that would be that 90% of Covid cases in Blackburn with Darwin have been from South Asian communities. The danger of using the rhetoric that 'all BAME' communities are more vulnerable to Covid could potentially blinker responses. And like I say, the systemic reasons for this needs desperately to be addressed.
    I do take your point about my assertion that white people should not make any decisions. Of course its a discussion that everyone needs to be involved in. I think it comes down to where the power lies and the danger of meaningless consultations which don't devolve any power to the people who it effects the most.
    Really appreciate the invite to your listening space event. I love the way that it's structured around small groups and everyone getting a chance to have their say.
    Hopefully see you there. Thanks again. Claire

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