One thing I’ve noticed in my term at the Student Union but working with university departments and staff, and going to other universities, is how many different terms there is to describe people who do not happen to be born into the comfort of White Privilege. At the University of Northampton, this demographic of students are the majority, so why refer to them as ethnic minorities? We are also the global majority. However, the term “ethnic minority” is only in reference to when take into account the colonial borders that divide us. And in my role at the Union, I had no say in the naming of this role, since it was before my time.
Yet, it is a trend at universities that we have White senior leaderships speaking for what I will refer into this post as the global majority. This very European paternalism in the tint of Out of Africa, Passage to India, and Boris Johnson reciting the lines to Kipling’s Mandalay in Burma! In the public and private sector, we have many acronyms and initialisms and seldom are they properly thought out. i.e BAME / BME. Not only are these terms not widely understood by those they are about (i.e students), they also homogenise identities that don’t happen to be White Anglo-European.
“BAME” [Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic] and “BME” [Black and Minority Ethnic] are commonly used by public bodies, including the education sector, policing and the health service when referring to the global majority. These are not household terms and you don’t know unless you know.
People of Irish heritage in the Traveller communities are also supposedly included within the acronym too; not including them in the overall term is astounding, as they are some of the most marginalised groups in the country.
With the term “BME” in my job title, I admit it is extremely ironic that I disagree with it. I do not see myself ethnically as BAME or BME, and don’t particularly like it when staff describe students in this way, or even members of staff. What ever happened to individuality? I am a very proud British man of Grenadian and Jamaican descent. In this homogenisation, higher education institutions are disregarding individuals’ cultural heritage. It’s really unacceptable, and at universities, it has often been used as term interchangeably for Black students. And even Black, is not a homogenous. Race is nuanced, and identity politics, nuanced, further still.
Furthermore, “non-White” is problematic, still showing that we only exist as an extension of whiteness. Moreover, the term “people of colour”, it’s not a homogeneous group; skin folk ain’t kin folk and diversity doesn’t equal representation
Do we say non-Black when referring to White people? No, as “to be white is to be human; to be white is universal; I know this because I am not” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017). The term BAME / BME disregards geography and cultural heritage, the loaded histories of colonialism and the fact that my country, the country I was born and raised, colonised and enslaved my grandparents’ country. It ignores customs, traditions and language and that “anyone who isn’t white, all us brown-skinned immigrants from Far Far Away, we get lumped together and put in a drawer” (Boakye, 2019)
Whilst higher education institutions often give lip service to decolonial work, they continue to preach diversity and inclusion with terms like BAME, as “the words and terms we use to describe ourselves remain central to the ways we relate to our bodies. Certainly, if we want to set about work of decolonization we need to consider language” (Dabiri, 2019). Dabiri goes onto discuss the disparity between “cornrowing” (US English) and “canerowing” (Caribbean and British English) hair as a sad overhang of slavery. It could be argued that acronyms like BAME are a new brand of colonisation, keeping these Black and brown people in their place.
Universities know that they need to challenge the histories from which they were built. Just, are they a bit reluctant to do so? Yes. Is British traditionalism often standing in the way? Yes. We are living in the ruins of empire, and institutional racism is an overhang of that. And if academics and non-academics are using terminology that’s offensive and that people don’t understand, is it fit for purpose? Knowing what is appropriate language in discussions on race is the first step in this conversation.
If universities are serious about decolonisation, they need to look at more than just adding diverse authors to curricula!
Boakye, J. (2019). Black, Listed. London: Dialogue Books.
Dabiri, E. (2019). Don’t Touch My Hair. London: Allen Lane.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.
Any questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org