The term ‘BAME’ is just a way to make white people comfortable – here's why it's hurting ethnic minorities

Diversity and inclusion have been hot topics in business for a few years now, with talk of gender equality, LGBTQ+ inclusion and equal parenting rights high on the agenda. While we know treating people equally is morally the right thing to do, we also know that it makes for more productive and successful businesses – impacting not only company culture and employee morale, but also the bottom line.

The term ‘BAME’ – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – has long been used in the UK to define people from an ethnic minority. In the UK, that’s approximately 13 per cent of the population.

As with many labels, it’s a term that invites and encourages debate around both its use and how appropriate it is as a label which groups a huge and incredibly diverse swathe of UK society under a single term. Labels can be damaging, and while useful in some cases, it’s important to consider the potential damage using such a label can have on ethnic minorities in the workplace.

Race and ethnicity are topics that a lot of (white) people just aren’t comfortable talking about.

Using a term like ‘BAME’, allows the topic to be brought up, while not necessarily acknowledging the level of nuance necessary to have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity in the workplace. It gives permission to glaze over the variety of specific issues different ethnic groups might face in the workplace and beyond – crudely lumping solutions and approaches together under a single “non-white” grouping, as though all ethnic minorities have identical experiences and therefore a one-size-fits-all, ‘BAME plan’ is an appropriate approach to resolving workplace inequalities.

Of course, the term ‘BAME’ can be useful in some ways. Similar to labels such as LGBTQ+, it can allow disparate groups, bound together by similar (though not identical) experiences of discrimination and structural inequities to collectively act, and in the workplace receive resources to act, in ways that single strands might not be able to. As new challenges and learnings in diversity and inclusion arise in the workplace, we find that sometimes language is a culprit in the continued failure to address systemic issues of representation of ethnic minorities.

So, how could the term ‘BAME’ be a part of the problem? Grouping ethnicities ignores the intricacies and nuances of multiple cultures.

People of different ethnic minorities have vastly different experiences that cannot be encompassed in such a restrictive term. BAME is a quick-fix label that groups huge numbers of people together under one umbrella, overlooking cultural differences and nuanced topics. It allows businesses to view ‘diversity’ as a box-ticking exercise.

Using a term like ‘BAME’ gives permission to lazier businesses to say they’ve "ticked their diversity box" when they’ve "hired a BAME person". Hiring one Indian man to the board doesn’t mean there might not be barriers for Black women in your business.

When we talk about representation, we have to make sure we’re taking in the full demography of the UK workforce. The ONS uses 18 official ethnic classifications for the UK census – there is no one ‘BAME box’ to tick. Having true diversity is important, and it’s proven to yield better results – inclusive teams make better business decisions 87 per cent of the time, yet there’s not enough being done internally to support different cultures or backgrounds.

Having employee networks to support different groups can help shape company culture and put pressure on leadership to create more inclusive policies and environments. Having a ‘BAME Network’ is important, but it’s crucial to ensure that this network is takes into account numerous cultures and ethnicities, and doesn’t just focus on one ethnic group, thereby excluding others.

Broadening this out to the company level, this translates into data practices as well. When designing diversity policies and interventions, companies need to make sure the needs and desires of specific groups are being listened to. Different groups may be facing different challenges, and the BAME approach might not be doing much for a lot of people under that umbrella.

Suki Sandhu OBE is the founder and CEO of INvolve, a diversity and inclusion organisation and consultancy.

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