BAME: more harm than good?

The word “BAME” is a commonly used acronym for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. In many ways the terminology has become an umbrella term to describe anything “non-white”.

But what does it actually mean to be BAME? And is grouping “non-white” as BAME a good thing or does it oversimplify and remove the cultural and ethnic nuance which is really needed if we are going to develop a real understanding of cultural diversity?

Deconstructing BAME

The word BAME and its predecessor BME began as a useful tool for addressing the complexities of an increasingly multicultural society. It replaced previous words such as “Coloured” or “People of Colour” and became a method of identifying a sub-set of people for the purpose of collecting data, monitoring statistics; it was introduced as a “catch-all” term for general ease of use.

Considering the wide use of the word by the media, companies, government bodies, etc., it is interesting that very few people that fall within the described groups would actually refer to themselves as BAME (other than when discussing with an audience who may expect them to use the term BAME, for instance, in the context of discussions about diversity in the workplace).

It is important, whether or not the term “BAME” is used, that people do not lose sight that it is a convenient term. It does not obviate the need to explore the issues which affect the sub-groups within BAME.

The overgeneralisation of groups within the “BAME” umbrella can affect the actions we take.

When companies use the word BAME e.g. “we want to see more BAME people in the workplace” and suchlike, the intentions are great but lack specificity.

This issue is reflected in diversity figures. Data collected by firms usually relate to BAME and rarely breaks down what this means.

For example, a company might be doing well in representation for one specific ethnic group but not for another minority group. This then results in warped figures, better BAME statistics that do not reflect the reality and can lead to the further marginalisation of certain groups.

In addition, certain measures might be necessary or useful for one particular group within the “BAME” umbrella, but not for others. Focussing too much on “BAME” generally means that the need for cultural focus can sometimes be lost.

Reconceptualising BAME

So what can we do?

The focus should not be on the correctness of such terms but on the impact the use of the terms has on progress. When it comes to implementing policies, it can do more harm than good to homogenise people from minority groups.

This does not necessarily mean replacing BAME with another word. It is highly unlikely, there will be a single agreed upon term that is specific, accurate and takes a holistic approach to a person that leaves everyone satisfied and accounted for.

Therefore, it is vital to appreciate the nuances of personal preferences in achieving the outcome of greater racial equality. Moreover, going forward, it is clear that organisations are going to have to be more specific with their intentions and move past the collectivism of grouping “non-white”.

It is also necessary to appreciate that measures to address diversity will not land with all “BAME” people in a single way. Firms need to dig into what specific groups in the “BAME” umbrella need, and how their actions can address those needs.

3 Practical things organisations can do to demystify the term “BAME” and foster greater cultural diversity and inclusion:

1. Open up dialogue
  • It is a good thing for workplaces to open the discussion to challenge the use of existing terms and what the impact of the use of those terms may be on their own initiatives to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • It can often feel uncomfortable to speak about race and ethnicity however, it is important to push past that initial discomfort to create a positive atmosphere for discussion and spark conversations.
2. Identify the issue and then work backwards to find a solution.
  • Whilst there is some commonality, not all people that fall within the BAME category will share the same challenges. Therefore, it is important to identify the specific issues that are experienced and then establish action focused initiatives to address them. Overgeneralising when diagnosing the issue will lead to oversimplified solutions, and workplaces won’t generate real and balanced change.
3. Accurately collect, record and provide break downs of data
  • It is important that rather than a blanket BAME figure, there is a more specific break down of ethnic groups. This will create a better gauge of how organisations are progressing. This granular understanding is necessary to generate real change in the workplace.

Dammy Sokale, Trainee Solicitor, Herbert Smith Freehills