Language matters when we talk about race. Social norms against racism are stronger than they were in the past. A broadly-accepted principle is that we should try to talk about ethnic difference in a way that makes sense to those that we are talking about – including trying to use the language that people would use about themselves.
So there has been an increasing amount of interest, across politics, the media and civic society, about how to do that in practice. What has been missing has been an in-depth account of how the public think about these issues – and what the balance of views are among those from ethnic minority backgrounds about which terms have legitimacy and make most sense.
British Future researched this in discussion groups with mixed-ethnicity groups around the country, alongside nationally representative attitudes research, including a poll of 2000 ethnic minority respondents and 1500 white British respondents, carried out by Number Cruncher Politics in January and February 2021. The British Future research findings were one source of information considered by the independent Race Commission, whose report to the Prime Minister will be releasing shortly.
What do the findings suggest about how we can talk about ethnicity and race?
1. It is better to use words, rather than acronyms
Less than half of ethnic minority Britons (47%) feel confident that they know what ‘BAME’ means, with three in ten (29%) saying that they don’t recognise the term at all. Across the public as a whole, about four out of ten people think they are confident about what the term “BAME” means. One in three people say they are unfamiliar with the term. A further large segment of the population have a sense that this has something to do with ethnic diversity, without being sure of its meaning.
How familiar are you with the term ‘BAME’? (by ethnic group)
In deliberative discussions, “Black Asian Muslim Ethnic” and “British African Multicultural Equality” were proposed as possible definitions. Participants were as or more likely to suggest “Black And Minority Ethnic” as to know that “Black Asian and Minority Ethnic” is the meaning of the acronym.
So we heard a strong preference for spelling out what this was about – partly so that more people would understand it, and also because this seemed more respectful too. If we replace words with ever-changing acronyms, many people are left unsure what we are talking about, and some people become more anxious about being able to talk about race at all, for fear of saying the wrong thing.
“I had not heard the term ‘BAME’ before. But to me, it seems silly. What is wrong with just using the actual terms, which puts into your head that this is talking about several different types of Black and Asian and ethnic minority people? But if you just ‘Bame’ it up into one category, you just kind of forget that we do have different kinds of categories within that. So no, I don’t think we should just put anyone in that box.” (Asian female participant, Glasgow).
“I get really concerned about what to call anybody now. You don’t want to offend anybody, and it would be good to use the terms that people prefer, but if we don’t know what that is, and then it just keeps on changing.” (White British female participant, north-east).
2. Don’t expect a consensus on a single term that everybody agrees on
Talking about ‘BAME people’ fails the test of talking about people in a way that they would refer to themselves. But since identity can be very personal, hunting down labels and categories that everybody agrees on will prove a quixotic quest. Especially as eight million of us have different experiences of being not-white in Britain. Half of us were born here, the children or now grandchildren of those who came as migrants. There are markedly different experiences – by generation and gender, by geography and social class, by faith and ethnic group.
Most people from an ethnic minority background take a pretty pragmatic view of the term “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic” – it is neither loved nor hated. It is considered acceptable by six out of ten people, and unacceptable by one in six.
The research found that most ethnic minority Britons slightly prefer ‘ethnic minority’ as an umbrella term, with two-thirds (68%) saying they either support or accept the term, and 13% opposed to it. This is not a perfect term either – but most people find it serviceable, when an aggregate term is needed. In a group discussion in Leicestershire, some participants thought it was time to move beyond the term “minority”, though the older Asian members of the group preferred ‘ethnic minority’, as a term that did not need changing, to one that they had not heard before.
The American term ‘People of colour’ was less popular, with 50% saying it was acceptable, while ‘Non-white’ was the least popular of the four aggregate terms polled: this met with opposition from 30% of ethnic minority respondents, with less than half (46%) finding it acceptable.
Most ethnic minority Britons (54%) agree that hyphenated identities – like ‘Black British’ or ‘British Asian’ – can help to make national identity feel more inclusive of people from different backgrounds. Twice as many supported such terms, as thought this kind of approach risked emphasising differences.
“We were called coloured, then minorities, then Black and Minority Ethnic, and now it will be something else. All this labelling is separating human beings. With this one, BAME, we don’t own that name. So how can we have something that we don’t own? So I am against this term… We want communities where we can be white, black, white, mixed race and everybody lives together. But we don’t like this word BAME.” (Asian male participant, Preston).
“We should say ‘British Indian’, ‘British Muslim’, ‘Black British’ and so on. Because we are all part of this United Kingdom. What this “BAME” says is that you are part of something completely different and separate. This makes us part of something together. So instead of saying ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani’, let’s say British Indian, instead of Indian or Pakistani, is a way to show that we are all part of something together.” (Asian male participant, Leicestershire).
In asking more specific questions, the polling found that “Black” and “Asian” have very broad legitimacy indeed with those from those backgrounds. How strongly people identify with their national heritage differs by personal circumstance – and is a bit more common among Asian respondents than some black British groups. Faith matters to six out of ten people from minority backgrounds – about twice as high as among the white British, though the priority given to faith as part of identity obviously differs between individuals, and to some extent across different ethnic and faith minority groups.
3. Differentiate between identity and data – and be clear about the practical purpose of collecting data.
Many people feel somewhat torn about the collection of ethnicity data – but participants in both deliberative groups and nationally representative research came down clearly in favour of it, on balance.
In an ideal world, many people would prefer fewer forms asking us to tick which ethnic box we want to put ourselves into. In the real world of Britain in 2021, however, most people recognise that a commitment to equal opportunities for all depends on measuring the progress towards that goal.
What would help is to do more differentiate statistical data more from language about identity – and to clearly explain the purposes that it is being collected for.
When the pattern of opportunity and disadvantage has never been more complex, it is important to drill down into the experiences of different groups in education and employment. One major theme of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests was the specific barriers faced by Black people. There is a practical case for using aggregate data too in some cases. If companies are going to undertake ethnic pay reporting, as they have done for gender, the use of aggregate data may often be necessary to have meaningful statistics and sample sizes, except in the largest and most diverse workplaces. Ethnic minorities are currently invisible in most opinion polls – which decision-makers and opinion formers pay a great deal of attention to – so it would be a step forward to regularly report on whether there are significant white and ethnic minority differences, alongside in-depth research that can dig deeper into the pattern of attitudes across ethnic minority groups.
“I would say that term, BAME, it can be used to decipher data and statistics – but do not use it outside of that boundary. Because that is when it has a negative connotation.” (Black female participant, Lewisham).
4. Don’t make terminology the dominant issue for race in Britain
Most respondents in our research said they had talked about race and racism this year with family, friends and others – particularly in response to the anti-racism protests of last summer. Fewer had heard about any controversy about ethnic terminology – though all participants in the deliberative research, and most respondents in the polling, had things to say about this when asked.
A few people told us it had become “a hot topic at work” – examples included in arts organisations, and a national campaign by youth workers to “Drop BAME”. In one discussion in London, most participants were aware of a debate about the term ‘BAME’ and shared the view it was out-of-date. In Glasgow, only one person knew the term ‘BAME’, in a group with many insights into the city’s lived experience with ethnic diversity. Outside of London, several people had heard the term for the first time in media reporting of the Coronavirus pandemic – on the different impacts on ethnic minority groups. This gave some people the impression that ‘BAME’ was a new term – now being introduced during Covid – rather than understanding it as an existing term, now being challenged.
While arguments about the best terms to use have had a high profile in politics, the media and civic society, this has not been a central topic for most people when they have talked about race this year.
Words matter, but it is important that we don’t get stuck in arguments about language. The research found a considerably stronger focus on how the increasing profile of talking about race will turn into action.
“I think the balance is right when it comes to talking about it. Where the balance is wrong is doing something about it. We’ve been talking about it since the 70s. And maybe it’s not as bad as it was then, but it’s not a whole lot better. People are more aware of it now. But we’re still not doing enough about it. We need less hot air and more action.”
– White British male participant, North-East.
A nationally representative poll was conducted by Number Cruncher Politics from 15 January to 14 February 2021, with an expanded sample of 2,000 ethnic minority UK adults and 1,501 white UK adults. The full findings will be published shortly in the British Future report ‘Race and opportunity in Britain: Finding common ground’.