Is it Time to Retire the Term ‘BAME’?

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GatenbySanderson recently conducted a poll on social media to ask whether the use of BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) as an acronym was past its used by date. The results were clear, with 76% of respondents on LinkedIn and 61% on Twitter agreeing the term should be retired.

Comments from respondents criticised to its tendency to ignore the diversity that exists within it and its inability to capture nuance and different experiences of different groups. What was clear is that the term is obsolete. What was less clear from those that commented was what – if anything – it should be replaced with.     

In considering the survey responses and broader media coverage, a fundamental issue with BAME as an acronym is that it lumps together a very large and diverse group of people. It homogenises a plethora of cultures, histories, backgrounds and lived experience. It assumes affinity and shared experience that doesn’t always exist. And when you layer gender, sexuality, disability and social background on top of ethnicity, it is clear that there can never be one administrative categorisation that fully captures the challenges, experiences and successes of any one group of people, no matter the characteristics they share; intersectionality matters.  

However, public services have a key responsibility to increase representation of under-represented groups and ethnic diversity is a clear gap across leadership at the most senior levels. To focus attention, ensure data transparency and understand whether we are having the desired impact, some administrative categorisation is necessary. On a fundamental level, using BAME can focus our minds, gives us terminology that allows forthright discussions with our clients about representation within a candidate pool.     

The problem, however, is that it is so embedded in the way society talks about race and ethnicity that it has lost meaning. It is too often used as an umbrella term, is filled with assumptions about individual experience, and is used without thought as to how a more nuanced analysis might provide greater insight. It can also be open to misuse; as a catch all grouping, satisfying a quota without regard for the actual representation of the people within.     

As our survey and research shows, we are beginning to see people and organisations move away from using BAME. It is important that we continue to work together to decide on words that recognise individual experiences while still driving the diversity and inclusion agenda for underrepresented groups. Language is influential and often contentious. Words can make people feel valued and empowered, or they can undermine and upset, and at worst they can be discriminatory and inflammatory. But debating language and doing nothing else is not the way to enact lasting and far-reaching change across society.     

We challenge ourselves and others to take a more in-depth view of diversity, with intersectionality and lived experience at its core. This means exploring the range of characteristics, experiences and influences that contribute to individual identity to better understand how each person can add something new to leadership and enhance service to their communities. When we do take a step back to assess how we’re performing, we use more than an umbrella term, examining the impact we are having for different racial groups and layering intersectional experience over the top of that. 

Ultimately, whether we are talking about our own colleagues at GatenbySanderson, or the organisations across the UK that we partner with, we aim to build spaces in which everyone feels a sense of belonging, and senior leadership teams that truly represent the lived experiences of the communities they serve. Language is an important part of that, but it is not the whole story.