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Civil Service

Why we’ve stopped using the term ‘BAME’ in government

Female High School Teacher Sitting At Table With Students Wearing Uniform Using Digital Tablets In Lesson
Government dropped the label BAME, instead advocating a focus on understanding gaps in education

Richard Laux and Summer Nisar explain why the UK Civil Service has scrapped the label ‘BAME’ in referring to different ethnic minority groups within society.

How we write about race and ethnicity matters a lot.

As civil servants, we need to be as precise as we can in our language when describing different ethnic groups. We also need to be precise in developing solutions to address the gaps in outcomes between those groups.

Race inequality

In the summer of 2020, the Prime Minister appointed the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to review the causes for race inequality in the UK. In its report, published on 31 March 2021, the Commission found aggregate terms like ‘BAME’ (black, Asian and minority ethnic) were no longer helpful. It recommended they  should be dropped, advocating instead a focus on understanding disparities and outcomes - such as in education or health - for specific ethnic groups.

The government agreed. Its response to the Commission’s report, ‘Inclusive Britain’, was published on 17 March 2022. This sets out an action plan intended to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. It also includes a commitment to no longer use the term ‘BAME’ in government. But why does this matter? 

Disguising differences

‘BAME’ is a catch-all term, frequently used to group all ethnic minorities together. This can disguise huge differences in outcomes between ethnic groups. For example, we know that the picture of educational achievement  across different ethnic groups is complex.

Teacher helping school kids using tablet computers in class

In 2019, a higher than average percentage of children in state-funded schools from Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi groups achieved strong passes in English and Maths GCSEs. But looking at these results from a ‘BAME’ perspective would have skewed the picture, masking the success of those particular groups and under-performance by others.

Unintentionally divisive

The term ‘BAME’ emphasises certain ethnic minority groups (Asian and black) and excludes others, such as the ‘mixed’, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and ‘other white’ ethnic minority groups that also face negative disparities. ‘BAME’ is also often used as a generic term  for ‘non-white’, which can be unintentionally divisive.

Perhaps more importantly though, many ethnic minorities themselves say they dislike the term ‘BAME’, a finding that has been reinforced by recent research commissioned by the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit (RDU) during the pandemic. 

So what should we say instead?

image of diversity at work with colleagues clasping handsIn 2019, the Race Disparity Unit issued guidance on how to write about ethnicity. This was updated last December and recommends that, wherever possible, we should use the specific ethnic classifications of the census. Where it is absolutely necessary to group together people from different ethnic minority backgrounds, we should say ‘ethnic minorities’ or ‘people from ethnic minority backgrounds’.

We are not the only ones to have reached this conclusion. In December, the BBC and other UK broadcasters said they would no longer use the term BAME. This followed research by the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity which found a lack of trust around the term, with some arguing that it allowed organisations to ‘average out’ and hide a lack of representation or overlook issues faced by particular ethnic groups. 

What's next?

Going forward, we think more precision in our use of language around ethnicity will allow people to pinpoint in greater detail:

where negative disparities lie

why they have arisen

who they are affecting the most.

Doing so will help us to close these gaps in a more meaningful and sustainable way.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but a collective long-term goal towards achieving better outcomes for all is in everyone’s interests.

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  1. Comment by Dr Bernard Horsford posted on

    It is hard to argue for the term 'ethnic minorities.' Firstly, it assumes that everyone who does not identify as White is a minority which is not true globally. Secondly within each 'ethnic' group there is a wide variety of psychological identities. Black and Asian communities may use these terms as shorthand as a sign of solidarity. However, for recruitment it will probably be more effective to refer to identify each group such as Black Caribbean, Black, Chinese, Roma etc., as you will find that there are wide disparity with groups in representation at each level of government.

  2. Comment by Claudine Campbell posted on

    I agree that the term BAME may have given connotations of referring to Black and Asian only, Also referring to a colour as opposed to a culture or ethnicity was not clever. The 'ME' of it was often ignored. I am pleased that it has been reviewed. I for one accept the revised 'Minority Ethnic' as the new catch all term. I only hope that wholesale behavioural change towards MEs follows suit.

  3. Comment by Alfred Oyekoya posted on

    Language matters but what is most important is the removal of barriers and we need to stay united and focused on this issue!

    Service users are not keen on these terminologies. LGBT, BAME etc are merely for statistical administrative convenience, we need to unite and ask relevant questions to advance equity for all.

    Arguably, there is no right or wrong answers.

    Undoubtedly, this is bandwagon effect at its best, and a distraction from substance in my opinion.

  4. Comment by Neelu Jassal posted on

    Why do we feel that there should be labels for everyone? Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer.

  5. Comment by Garth McPherson posted on

    I don't think that the term BAME itself was the problem. I would say it is the mind set of people that is the problem. I sounds to me that this is another 'lip service' exercise.

    It was said by the then PM Theresa May that the issue regarding disparity would be tacked head on, but instead became entangled in the web of Brexit.

    As I said, it is the mind set of Society in general that needs to change on how we see and treat each other as I don't find the term BAME a problem. I understand the term for other people's perspectives that it could be used as a tool to divide and discriminate.

    • Replies to Garth McPherson>

      Comment by Alfred Oyekoya posted on

      Completely agree, the term was never the problem!

      • Replies to Alfred Oyekoya>

        Comment by Richard John posted on

  6. Comment by Emmanuel O posted on

    Now I am getting really confused now. In 5 years time or so yet another phrase shall be created... and that will even breathe more confusion into an already confused environment. And furthermore - other countries will have their own versions too...

    Can't we just - RACE (Respect All and Consider Everyone) - rather than creating more confusions?

    • Replies to Emmanuel O>

      Comment by Emi posted on

      Exactly 🙂 Emmanuel.. We create our own divides by simply not respecting each other. Equally, anger divides. It would be nice to recognise people rather then labels and attachments.

      • Replies to Emi>

        Comment by Emmanuel O posted on

        I concur too Emi. We are creating our own divides and sub-divides - intentionally..., and unintentionally. And a time would come soon when those (anyone) that they are trying to work with, will soon lose patience with the whole process and just 'turn-off' their interest...; and that could take years to re-connect.

    • Replies to Emmanuel O>

      Comment by Tony Whyte posted on

      Now, This is the first time I've seen anyone make Sense. The term "RACE" ie: Respect All and Consider Everyone, includes everyone.

      As A Black Man In the DWP, I don't need a hand out to get promoted. What I would rather see is a recognition of my "Abilities" rather that the colour of my skin. We still have a long way to go in combating "Overt & Covert" behaviours in the department.

  7. Comment by Adrian Treharne MBE posted on

    A little ways along the same path, might we reflect on the term 'blind recruitment'? Something about using such a term, all be it for laudable purposes with regard equality, struck me as somewhat mis-guided... Could we not simply plump for 'anonymous' perhaps? Most institutions have already moved to using an alternative descriptor for this element of job applications. Be great to see the Civil Service do so too.

  8. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Richard Laux and Summer Nisar for explaining the changes in respect to the way that we talk and write about race and ethnicity.

    Whilst I appreciate the rationale for replacing the term BAME and the need for greater clarity, I am not sure that the term has itself was ever the cause in the lack of progress in the Racial Equality space!

    However, as a Person of Colour, I welcome any initiative that will help us to achieve significant changes and outcomes for all and help to create a more trustworthy and inclusive environment.