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18 March 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:19am

Why dropping the term “BAME” won’t fix the media industry’s race problem

Since the 1970s news organisations have generalised the experiences of minority communities, could new terminology change that?

By Kuba Shand-Baptiste

The British media’s dedication to antiquity is nothing if not tenacious. But as parts of it struggle to let go of one outdated concept – namely the idea that the “UK media is not bigoted”, as the Society of Editors recently stated and then withdrew – another seems to be falling out of favour much more rapidly: the use of the term “BAME”.   

To call this a “new” battle against the clumsy 1970s catch-all term would be inaccurate; this is an issue that has been debated for decades. What is new, however, is the recognition by some publications of those long-standing criticisms, and of the impact over-reliance on the term can have on reporting.   

News UK is the latest media company to announce a ban on using BAME, which stands for black, Asian, minority and ethnic. This appears to be part of a wider shift. Last year, following Black Lives Matter protests around the world and the music industry’s rejection of the abbreviation, the Independent also vowed (albeit internally) to phase out or at least rethink its use of the term in its style guide, opting not to use it at all unless in quotes. Other outlets have opted to explore the issue in comment journalism and features, suggesting a gradual understanding of a need to change setting across the industry.   

[See also: How the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is failing to address racial disparities]

Why? As News UK outlined to the Press Gazette, relying on the abbreviation “obscures important differences between ethnic groups” in coverage. The Sun, a News UK publication, went further to explain its own reasoning for axing the acronym: “BAME is an outdated phrase that refers to ethnic groups who do not identify as white British. While it was once a widely used term, the Sun does not use the acronym in its articles due to its offensive nature of grouping ethnicities together.”  

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“BAME” first sprung up after the concept of political blackness – the idea that anyone who isn’t white is considered “politically black” – had taken root in the UK. Though its origins were laudable, promoting solidarity between the majority black and South Asian immigrants who’d settled in the UK during the postwar era, its function has grown ever more useless as Britain has become more ethnically and racially diverse over the past 50 years. It’s also made less and less sense as our understanding of the specific inequalities different groups face has deepened.  

But that hasn’t stopped some publications from leaning on it as an all-encompassing term, even if it means burying the full extent of what’s being reported as a result. 

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Figures around Covid-19 deaths and vaccine hesitation offer a good example of how badly these oversights can conceal the full picture. In a quick Google search for news coverage, it’s often harder to find specific information about how much worse some ethnic groups have fared compared to others, or why. But such distinctions are crucial in ensuring equal healthcare outcomes. 

According to a report by the Greater London Authority published in October, “Bangladeshi [and] Pakistani people had a more than three times higher risk of Covid-19 related mortality compared with white British people, black people a more than four times higher risk, and Indian people and those in the other group [anyone who isn’t black, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese or of mixed heritage] more than two times higher risk”. This information alone shows how much needs vary, and should be better explained in news reports.  

More detailed coverage could provide crucial nuance when dealing with the take-up of vaccines among communities of colour too. Instead of suggesting that all “BAME” groups are predisposed to vaccine hesitancy for similar reasons, delving into the specifics could have helped with outreach, as health professionals have recently argued. Researchers are also beginning to uncover that the lower take-up of vaccines among various communities of colour isn’t always strictly due to vaccine hesitancy, but structural flaws in the healthcare system that could be improved if the issues were more widely publicised. 

[See also: A lifetime of inequality: how black Britons face discrimination at every age]

As more data emerges about the specific and in some cases intra-communal issues facing minority groups, the dangers of leaning on “BAME” should be clear: when we lump everyone together, we understand much less about individual needs.   

So if more news organisations are to stop using the term BAME what should be used in its stead? There are numerous preferred alternative terms – such as people of colour, people who experience racism, marginalised racial groups, ethnic minorities, and “BIPOC” (standing for black, Indigenous, and people of colour, which is a more common term in the US). But this issue isn’t solely about the dearth of more suitable descriptors for ethnic minorities – it’s about whether historically (and enduringly) white newsrooms can break with the habit of generalising the experiences of these communities.  

Remember that this is an industry that has sometimes referred to people within these groups as a singular community, or – nonsensically – using the BAME abbreviation to refer to one person (almost, but not quite like describing a black woman as a “woman of colour” when “black” would have sufficed). Changing the word itself doesn’t fix the issue: using the term people of colour when addressing issues specifically related to Chinese British people, for example, wouldn’t be an improvement on the BAME approach. It would still be erasure.  

Use of the term “non-white” is another common sign of a lack of understanding within newsrooms. It standardises whiteness while forcing readers to look at the identities of people of colour in tandem with it – never in and of themselves. The media industry does not have a good history of being thoughtful or consistent when it comes to such language questions. Days after its widely publicised abandonment of “BAME”, for example, the Sun has already contradicted itself. The term “BAME” has been used again, along with “non-white”, in an article about the Baftas.   

[See also: How schools can play a positive role in promoting racial equality]

Evidently, the temptation of continuing to generalise issues among varying communities of colour in the UK is strong – especially as few members of these groups are in positions to challenge errors in the first place. In an ideal world, as more journalists speak out about the need to commit to making newsrooms more diverse and inclusive, the progressiveness some papers are striving for would manifest in less divisive or outright racist coverage, more diverse hiring and better career progression for journalists of colour.   

For now, paltry gestures like these don’t quite go far enough.

Kuba Shand-Baptiste is society & arts editor at The Conversation UK.