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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