Race

Why I’m Saying Bye to ‘BAME’

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a god-awful year for this world. Without a shadow of doubt, it has been particularly awful for Black people. The never-ending fight against institutional racism has intensified in the past three months, with Covid-19 ravaging our community and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd generating global protests against police brutality against Black people. The Black community has had to fight a pandemic and institutional racism at the same time, and it has been traumatising and draining in every way possible. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have led many non-Black people to consider the disease of anti-Blackness, some in rather performative ways and some genuinely. Many conversations have been started across institutions and industries about how they upheld white supremacy for decades and how they can “do better.” It is a shame it has taken the barbaric murder of a Black man to generate engagement in these conversations that Black people have been trying to have for ages, it must be said.

Conversations about institutional racism can be exhausting at the best of times, and for Black British people it is truly like pulling teeth. This country is fully wedded to its racism and white saviourism driven by imperialist notions of superiority, and the standard of education on these matters is woeful. As a result, much of the nuance is wilfully removed because critical thinking is too much to ask of a populace who, let’s face it, doesn’t care that much. “WhY iS iT aLwAyS aBoUt RaCe?” is one of Britain’s favourite sayings, after all.

One of the many ways the nuance regarding racial discrimination has been removed in this country is via the concept and term ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ (BAME). It is quite clearly a catch-all term for anyone who isn’t white, and is a form of othering that has become commonplace and even respectable. There has been much discussion over the years and also recently about how to refer to non-white people in a way that reflects our shared struggles but does not erase our differences, from ‘BME’ to ‘BAME’ to PoC’, the last of which I have used in my own writing previously. The term ‘BAME’ and, crucially, the concept (which I will use interchangeably here) have been problematic for years, but events over the last couple of months have made me really stop and consider how problematic it is and has made me determined to remove it from my lexicon. Here’s why.

  • ‘BAME’ lumps all non-white people together in one category and lets white people off the hook.

 In the first week of June the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was asked during an interview with Sky News how many Black MPs are serving in the current Cabinet. His response – and I quote – was “Well…there’s a whole series of people from a Black and Minority Ethnic background.” He then goes on to identify the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Rishi Sunak) and the Home Secretary (Priti Patel).

Two Asians.

When pushed on this by Sophy Ridge (the Sky News journalist) to specifically discuss Black people, Hancock continued to waffle on about the Cabinet being ‘diverse’, and randomly threw in Kwasi Kwarteng’s name even though he’s not a Cabinet minister.

The correct answer to Sophy Ridge’s question, as we all know, is zero. There are no Black ministers serving in the current Cabinet. Now, notwithstanding that I find Black Tories to be…disappointing to say the least, the point here is that Hancock was able to bumble his way through this interview and paint the Tories as socially progressive by relying on the term BAME. Even when Sophy Ridge rightfully pointed out to him that Black and Asian people should not be lumped together, Hancock insisted on patting the Tory party on the back and saying that Boris Johnson has a “good record on this” because a couple of Asians are in the Cabinet. The term BAME allows white people like Hancock to completely overlook the glaring disparities between Black people, Asians and other racial groups. It allows them to give themselves a cookie and tell themselves that they’ve ‘done’ diversity. It completely erases the specificities of anti-Blackness in this country, which leads me to my next point.

  • ‘BAME’ erases the differences of the Black experience of institutional racism, and encourages non-Black people of colour to do the same.

 On 8 June, Florence Eshalomi (the Labour MP for Vauxhall) asked the Home Secretary Priti Patel in the Commons if the government understands the anger that is fuelling the Black Lives Matter protests in this country. She told Patel that “Black Lives Matter and we need to see the government doing something about that.” Instead of acknowledging that Black people specifically have suffered egregious racism for centuries at the hands of Britain, Patel decided to invoke her own experiences of racism – of being called a “P***i in the playground” among others. Now, we all know that the Asian community has faced abhorrent racism and violence in this country. I would never in my life seek to question Priti Patel’s experiences. That does not, however, mean that Patel’s experiences of racism – and, by extension, the Asian community’s – is the same as the Black community’s. Even though there are definitely commonalities – Black people can talk for days about being called the N-word, being spat at and so on – there are clear disparities when it comes to Black people’s experiences of systemic racism. Sophy Ridge highlighted some of these to Matt Hancock in the aforementioned interview – Black people are three times more likely to be stopped and searched than Asians, for example. Such disparities tell us that Asian people do not experience systemic racism in the same way Black people do.

This is the simple point that a group of Labour MPs made to Priti Patel in a letter written by Naz Shah and co-signed by 31 others, including Kate Osamor, Dawn Butler, Clive Lewis and Rosena Allin-Khan. Patel responded in a rather unsurprisingly simple-minded fashion. She posted the letter on Twitter and accused these Labour MPs of “dismiss(ing) the contributions of those who don’t conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave.”

Sigh.

This letter is not complicated. It does not take superhuman levels of intelligence or comprehension skills to understand. But Priti Patel chose to be wilfully obtuse in her response to it and further gaslight Black people in the process. In one tweet, she completely erased the unique struggles Black people have faced and continue to face as a result of institutional racism, and she weaponised her identity as an ethnic minority to do it. She used her BAME identity to give the impression that our experiences of racism are the same (you know, that ‘lumping’ thing I mentioned earlier) and therefore Black people’s concerns should be dismissed. What I find interesting is the inherent hypocrisy in her stance: if our experiences are the same, surely our response to it should be the same? Surely she should be showing solidarity instead of reducing the conversation to some nonsense argument that these Labour MPs think all ethnic minorities should behave in the same way?

Anyway, forget her. All non-white people are not the same and our communities do not experience racism in the same way. The Black community’s experiences are distinct from the Asian community’s and using terms like BAME erases all of that and encourages the Priti Patels of the world to do the same.

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash
  • Political. Blackness.

 Some may see this as a tenuous or completely made up link, but it is what it is. In my opinion, ‘BAME’ and terms like it reflect and encourage political Blackness, a concept I do not subscribe to for reasons I’ve already outlined in this post. For those who don’t know, political blackness is a concept used to describe anyone who isn’t white and experiences racial discrimination as Black. gal-dem wrote an excellent article on it last year here. Read it. I completely understand how the concept came into being and why it was useful for anti-racist organising in the past. However, I think it is time we consigned it to the past as it is no longer useful, and it has the potential to be harmful to Black people.

An infuriating argument that took place on Twitter at the weekend illustrates why. On Saturday a ton of white fascists came into London looking to clash with BLM protestors under the guise of “protecting statues.” Understandably, the BLM Protests were called off and Black people were encouraged to attend local protests instead. Why? Because these fascist thugs came looking for a fight, and if we had given it to them, (a) we would have been risking our lives, (b) we would have been the ones portrayed as ‘thugs’ by the media, and (c) we would have been the ones facing the brutality of the police and the injustice of the justice system. The 2011 riot powers that Priti Patel and Robert Buckland brought back were intended for the BLM protestors, not the fascists.

Despite this, an Asian man on Twitter decided to lambast the decision to cancel the BLM protest, because “we” had one chance to “outnumber” the fascists and “destroy them.” He then claimed the BLM protests revealed the “tyranny of structurelessness.” Quite a few non-Black people (and some wayward Black people) agreed with him. I could write a separate post about the absolute stupidity of this take, but what really gets me is the sheer audacity of it. Who is this “we” he is referring to? The clue is in the title; BLACK Lives Matter was created by and for Black people as a result of police brutality against BLACK people, not Asians or any other non-Black people of colour. As I’ve said already, there is commonality in our communities’ experiences of racism, but they are not completely the same. Solidarity and collective organising is of course important – no community will dismantle white supremacy single-handedly – but it does Black people a disservice to erase the nuances of our experience and reality in the process. We know white people see us all as the same, but we know we are not. It is also completely disrespectful to co-opt a movement created by and for Black people – with their name. in the title – and then start lecturing them on how to run it and talking about “we.” It is not “we” who would have been facing disproportionately longer prison sentences if the protest had gone ahead. It is not “we” who would have been at the highest risk of dying in police custody. It is not “we” who would have been risking being put on the gangs matrix. Yet it is political blackness that allows him, and others like him, to think he has the right to behave like this. Even though the risks to our communities are nowhere near the same, he thinks he can act like they are and co-opt the movement. Even though anti-Blackness exists in the Asian community, he thinks he can be on Twitter talking about “we.”

As I said, solidarity and inter-community organising locally, nationally, and internationally is imperative to dismantling white supremacy. This post does not intend to pit Black people against non-Black people of colour. But let’s not erase our differences while doing so – let’s highlight those disparities and examine the racist systems that underpin them.

Conclusion

Let’s just be clear: I don’t think that getting rid of ‘BAME’ will fix all the issues I’ve identified here, nor do I think the term BAME directly caused them. But its usage contributes to said issues continuing to be issues. Language is important; meanings are conveyed through implication and our perceptions are shaped by how it is used. I am not BAME, I am Black. Being specific when discussing racism is not only not difficult, it is crucial if we want the conversation to be productive.

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