BME or BAME LibDems?

I presented this question to peers, fellow Liberal Democrats and members of EMLD (Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats), after seeing the launch of our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Manifesto in 2015, and I continue to raise this debate while holding office as London Region Vice Chair – because sometimes an acronym is important.

BAME is the acronym for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, whereas BME is the acronym for Black and Minority Ethnic.

The intellectual argument that ‘Black’ is a socially constructed political identity – a way to challenge the racism in England – became absorbed into ethnic and cultural identity politics.  Caribbean people felt their skin was not black but shades of brown.  Their post colonial ‘classification’ had evolved through a range of terms that included ‘coloured’, arriving at the destination term ‘Black’ at a similar time as ‘Afro-Americans’, or ‘African Americans’, or ‘Black Americans’.  The battle to maintain a dual identity, such as Barbados Brits, was less successful and the internalized dislikes of our Africanness during this time made ‘Black’ the compromise that most people could sign up to: one term – serving two purposes.

‘Ethnic Minority’ is used because white-on-white hating is actually xenophobia, but that could not fit neatly into our Race Relations Act because the Act was for the protection of victims against racism.  In order to protect cultural groups like the Irish and Jewish communities from hate, we needed a noun that encapsulated the common experience of all ethnic groups and we arrived at ‘Ethnic Minority’ and with our European countries (Germany), we also arrived at ‘Hate Crime’ to define the offending behaviours.

As identity politics progressed, Asian communities began to challenge England’s use of the word Black to identify Asian peoples.  This was at a time when monitoring of ethnic groups was in its infancy.  Our media reported both Black and Asian peoples as Black, and ‘explained’ how most were in prison.  There were elements within Asian communities, especially in South Asian academia, that wanted to distance themselves from the negative Black stereotype; and some academics went on to deconstruct the prison populations to show that there were more Caribbean boys in prison than Asians.   Not that it was statistically accurate, but essentially the ‘Asian movement’ was an attempt to distance middle class Asians from Blacks – to define Asians as more than Pakistani and to show that Asians were less troublesome than those of Caribbean descent.  That movement is captured within the acronym, which saw Black and Minority Ethnic grow into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – BAME.

Anti-racism discourse was able to show that regardless of how you identified culturally and ethnically, there was a common experience that all ethnic minorities had at the hands of the UK State and its peoples.  These experiences was felt most when trying to get jobs, homes and when accessing education etc., and it was within that collective experience that we settled with the political term Black in that movement and Ethnic Minority in the legislation.  Eventually, Jewish people joined anti-racist marches alongside the Irish, Welsh, English, Scots and Caribbean, Africans and me!  And we did this together with pride and continue to do so to this day.

Despite finally being able to explain the politics of the term Black, and how the British State rejected it when drawing up the Race Relations Act 1976, and despite the Act being driven by those who identified as Black People, (who were more often at the front of racist attacks in the 1960’s and 70’s because they were visible), the legislation settled for the term Ethnic Minorities.

In other words, at the time of implementing the Race Relations Act, we, as a country, were more comfortable with the idea that we can all be racist to each other – equally – and that Black People’s experiences of racism was not because they were Black but was because they are an Ethnic Minority.

What this piece shows is that identity politics is not simple and that we continue to confuse xenophobia behaviours with racism; for example, post Brexit and the crimes against Polish people by other white peoples.  Xenaphobia makes us uncomfortable so we call it racism and within our legal process, racism has come to be the hating of ethnic groups by other ethnic groups.

The collective struggle for equality and against racism in England is a political struggle where we understand that the collective behaviours and crimes against us are the same.  ‘Black’ just happens to be the noun that encapsulates that experience and although it was rejected by the state, it continues within our anti-racist movement, which is why we have Black and Minority Ethnic or BME in anti-racist literature.

Having taken this journey through the complexities of identity politics, one has to ask how and why has our party chose to identify one continent of people in its anti-racist literature above all others?  We did not have a BME Manifesto but a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Manifesto in 2015.

At the event ‘Combatting Racism’ – our open discussion for Black History Month in October 2016, held in Queen Mary University Hospital – we had a varied audience where our leader Tim Farron repeatedly addressed us as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, despite the audience reflecting back to him clearly the BME acronym.  In order for Black People to join the Lib Dems and feel comfortable, we have to be clear about our message and acronym.

If we are to be the anti-racist party, which many of us clearly know we are, and if we are to appeal to all Ethnic Minorities which includes Black British Peoples, is it time to amend our party’s literature to either reflect the legislation – Ethnic Minority – or show with pride and confidence our party’s commitment to the history of anti-racism using the political acronym BME?


* Teena Lashmore is the Vice Chair London Region Liberal Democrats and writes in a personal capacity.

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  • paul barker 8th Nov '16 - 10:55am

    The problem here is that the reality I have seen over decades of living in London doesnt accord with the description Teena is giving. Firstly I dont see the big distinction between Xenophobia & Racism, both seem to carry on to 2nd & 3rd generations, simply being born here, or even having parents born here isnt enough for bigots of either stripe.
    Secondly, I have heard people using Black to mean 4 or 5 different things & swopping them round to suit their argument. I havent seen any evidence of an agreed usage even among people active in politics.
    I think we should just go for Ethnic Minority as the term most likely to be understood by voters in general & the one that needs the least explanation. Trying to explain to recent Polish immigrants why they are Black sounds like a waste of time & energy to me. That is not meant to be flippant, there is a real problem that Political activists ( like any other group) tend to develop their own way of talking which cuts them off from the people they need to convince.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Nov '16 - 11:33am

    This is an odd statement :
    ” Eventually, Jewish people joined anti-racist marches alongside the Irish, Welsh, English, Scots and Caribbean, Africans and me! ”
    Our Jewish community have always been in the fore front of anti racism.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Nov '16 - 1:49pm

    Teena – thanks for your explanation – though i don’t understand what your reference to jews does mean.

    I’m afraid I can’t comment on the rest as I am not clever enough to understand it.

  • As a committed anti-racist all my life, I still find it difficult to appreciate all the nuances of the language around it. Thank you, Teena, for starting the discussion.

    I suppose a good guiding principle is to use the terms that are most acceptable to the people they refer to. At one stage Black was perceived an insult, until black people reclaimed it. Terms like ‘coloured’ and ‘half caste’, which were once commonly used, have fallen out of favour, for obvious political reasons.

    When Obama won 8 years ago I took the newspaper photos to show my mother who was then in her 90s and suffering from Alzheimers, so had little idea that there was an election going on. She was genuinely pleased, and surprised, to see a black President, but she had no idea how to refer to him (I think she tried ‘coloured’). I described him as black and she thought that was offensive.

    What I’m trying to demonstrate is that language is fluid, and sometimes people who are not close to the issues are left floundering a bit about the acceptable words and phrases to use. (This discussion could be easily replicated in relation to LGBT+). Perhaps it is part of our task to empower people by giving them the language in which they can express their values.

    The danger is that people like my mother can easily be labelled as racist, when she was nothing of the sort, simply because she was unaware of the way language was changing.

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Nov '16 - 4:00pm

    Mary I think you’re right that the people concerned should choose the words that are most acceptable to them. I used to work with people with learning difficulties who at that time preferred that phrase to learning disabilities which is more commonly used. This was because disabled people preferred to be referred to as the disabled because they considered they were disabled by society rather than by incapacity. This was some time ago and I don’t know the up to date usage.
    However, within the party, we should agree the usage preferred by the anti racist movement.

  • Hi Teena, thank you for sharing this. It’s a great article and poses fair points for either side. I’ve always, personally, been a fan of having a universal term/acronym and then having sections that then point/sign post to it. For example, say the universal term was “Race Equal”, you could then hold a group with people saying “We’re Black Race Equal” or “We’re Asian Race Equal”. This is just an example. It’s not to weaken or separate the movement, but think of all the groups or branches in terms as structures like students unions with ‘Race Equal’ being like the NUS with the groups acting as arms and legs to that movement. I think it would enable, respectfully, the acknowledgement that groups experience racism differently yet still keep everyone united under “Race Equal”. Obviously, people from their groups can then note more specifically if something is impacting on them and if it’s a shared experience then everyone stands together regardless. Obviously “Race Equal” could be “ethnic minority” or something else. Point I’m making is, maybe it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Maybe both ideas can work together.

  • A year or two back I was responsible for writing an public exam paper, in which I included a question on the ethnic minority experience of education. “It’s not Ethnic Minority”, I was told, “It should be Minority Ethnic”. Didn’t understand then, still don’t today. All I do know is that discrimination based on any racial, cultural or religious characteristic is vile. Since the precise meaning and status of words is always liable to change, it seems to me this whole language debate is built on shifting sand.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Nov '16 - 9:37am

    @ Teena Lashmore,
    I am struggling with this. Is the problem really one of labels?

    I would argue that in this age of genomic research, it is not only ‘Black’ that is a social construct but also ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, ethnic minority having become for many a racialised euphemism. Both terms lead to oversimplification of the glorious genetic variability and diversity of humans.

    I long for a time when we can look at a person and see them as a unique individual, as likely to differ from people with a shared visible characteristic as they are from others who share their same ‘ethnic identity’. Not prejudged, free of the assumptions of others.

    I am not blind, given the make -up of my own family, to the horrors of prejudice and discrimination and the need to monitor and deal with these when they are shown to be an issue, but as important as language is, I don’t think that changing labels changes attitudes. For me it is social mixing that does that, when people have their assumptions confounded, they have to change their thinking.

    I have come to the conclusion that focussing on difference and differentiating labels rather than our shared heritage and the role of shared values in social mixing and understanding, plays into the hands of those who intellectualised and still seek to intellectualise prejudice and discrimination.

    I have changed my view on how it can be best achieved, but fundamentally, I have always believed in the right of individuals to be whatever they want to be ( within the constraints of laws that prevent harm to others).

    I am sure that you would disagree with me on much of this and would be interested in your criticism of my current stance.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Nov '16 - 8:44pm

    Thanks for this Teena. Although aware of the distinction, I’d always taken ‘BAME’ to mean ‘Black AND Minority Ethnic’ in talking about politics, including EMLD. Taking the ‘A’ as ‘Asian’ is a bit odd because it mixes categories.

    Using the former understanding I’ve always used BME and BAME interchangeably, but perhaps it would be clearer to stick to BME.

    Much food for thought here. Thanks.

  • I am hoping for the day when people are no longer judged by their backgrounds.

  • Jayne Mansfield 12th Nov '16 - 9:39am

    @ Teena Lashmore,
    I wish you well.

    I console myself when there are set backs in the struggle for social justice, that we are witnessing the final desperate twitches of reactionary forces.

  • Lester Holloway 12th Nov '16 - 2:39pm

    Liberals, as far as I’m concerned there’s no need to stumble, sweat and twist your tongue to describe ‘we’ so long as the overall sentence is a positive one that takes us beyond passive inaction. Hell, you can even use a really inappropriate old phrase if what you’re saying really and truly addresses what society, government and you personally are going to do to make things better. If the statement isn’t in this category, then yes do make that extra effort to get the terminology just right.

  • Andrew Ihegbu 4th May '17 - 12:19pm

    When I arrived on this page it was initially because I did not understand why Black as a modern ethnic classification had been singled out in the term BME; there are so many other minorities, and Black people are not even the biggest group. I also didn’t understand how BAME had come into usage and why both existed but sites almost exclusively used one: BME. Now I feel it’s an interesting piece of history that perhaps should be taught in schools but otherwise archaic.

    Even by the explanation of your article, the original usage of the B in BME did not identify Black people of the modern meaning, but the older term you mentioned; “Black” (which I will quote to keep a distinction between the modern and the old meaning) which was used to refer to people of Asian descent as well, quite dismissively. It does lip service to the struggle that Asians had to take to be accepted as a separate minority and at the same time acknowledges the loaded-ness of the word “Black” and the fact that it used to be distinct from an Ethnic classification because it was used for barely related groups based purely on skin tone and societal views.

    It seems the possibility that the term Black was not self-selected but owned as a battle scar of sorts by the Black community will always make its use tricky, but if there is a feeling of underrepresentation it’s not fixed by adding a letter to an acronym. That goes for both BAME and BME.

    This is why I cannot understand why BME is used at all instead of just ME. I’m sorry but “…essentially the ‘Asian movement’ was an attempt to distance middle-class Asians from Blacks – to define Asians as more than Pakistani and to show that Asians were less troublesome than those of Caribbean descent.” sounds like a piece of the past that should not have a legacy in the modern world. Whether Asians were or weren’t more troublesome than those of Carribean descent in prisons at the time, inter-minority competitiveness is one of the primary destroyers of progress amongst individual minority groups AND the wider minority community. Were we not vying for equality?

    I also really like the idea of Sean Ash’s concept. Creating a voting “republic” of sorts on race and then dividing the development funding evenly amongst them based on population, representation and existing development within thier communities would greatly improve the current system. That would be a talk I would love to take part in.

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