The following article first appeared in Campaign magazine:
Why BAME ain’t the same
The term BAME may be widely used but that doesn’t mean it can’t be questioned.
Growing up in the salubrious suburb of Harrow meant two cars in the driveway, a nice house and good schooling. So far, so middle class – and what you’d expect to hear from someone writing in Campaign.
In our little cul-de-sac, I watched as more Asian faces moved in to the houses around us over the years, bringing with them a mixture of fences that had "Allah" engraved in them, and Om plaques by the front door. With that, came "World food" aisles in Morrisons (RIP, Safeway), teetotal dessert lounges and an increased availability of halal meat.
Our little suburb has come a long way in the 35 years since my parents moved over from India. My late father told me of the busy main road he lived on in central Bombay, sharing a room with his siblings and parents.
To think of that, and then process a life in Harrow has become a personal obsession lately. As has processing the racism they faced when they arrived; he also told me stories about being the only Asians in their block of flats, getting unwelcome knocks on the door from neighbours who didn’t like the smell of cooking and made my parents feel unwelcome.
Today, my mother tells me about the new halal Indian ready meals she finds in mainstream retailers such as Marks & Spencer. She also tells me about the new neighbours who are well-to-do and, apparently, thriving within British society.
When I grew up, it was all I knew: we were one of a few brown faces in the area who became one of the many. As I’ve grown up, I’ve undergone my own migration, albeit somewhat more contained – moving to Warwick, Munich, Hamburg, west London, north London and finally settling on Peckham and SE15 as my postcode.
Harrow and Peckham are vastly different, and yet united in their "BAMEness". Both areas have high proportions of people from black, Asian or minority ethnicities backgrounds, with the subcultures being the mainstream. This isn’t a phenomenon confined to the M25 – Luton, Bradford, Leicester and Manchester all carry similar histories and cultural mixes.
Over the past five years, there has been a marked increase in attention towards ethnic minorities and racial differences at all levels. As an industry, advertising has developed an unhealthy obsession with the term BAME. I’m afraid I’m here to tell you that this is problematic.
Politicians and think tanks have been calling out the term for years. Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race-equality think tank, highlights that very few people actually identify themselves as BAME. This is echoed by the lived experiences of many (myself included), who say that being grouped together flattens the depth of our lives.
On a surface level you might argue that having neat segments to target is worth this sacrifice, but we’re starting to see why this is a problem under the term of "authenticity". By lumping BAME into one, we either see superficial casting (for example, a black family in an ad, living a white life with a dog – there’s always a dog), or important opportunities missed because our cultural understanding doesn’t go deep enough.
In a recent study we undertook, 67% of 18- to 35-year-old Muslims wished major food brands created special products around Eid. However, this demand goes untapped because we’re trying to tick the BAME box, rather than really understand what is driving purchase behaviour of a large group of consumers and using marketing as a way to drive business.
I set up The Unmistakables in 2018 as a culture and communications consultancy that helps brands better represent society on the inside and out. We do that through grasping how to understand culture, drive conversation and, ultimately, find commercial gain in what makes people different. Yes, being from a BAME background makes someone different from the mainstream, yet there are huge differences between BAME audiences. It’s very similar to the LGBT+ population – as a group, we are united in our difference and, indeed, the history of the term came from a sociologist professor who argued that grouping ethnic minorities together would help to fight against discrimination and lessen undue prominence of any group.
To help navigate this, we’ve developed some useful tips to get under the skin of BAME. Every morning we scan the news, and surface articles to help our followers break out of their filter bubble. We have scanned thousands of articles and, using our human algorithm (his name is Chris), we choose five stories we think people need to know about before getting on with their day.
What we learn through this is how the mainstream media handles stories about difference and the minority experience. Unless it has elements of shock or division, positive stories about minority news rarely reach the front page. That, combined with the current conversation about racism in the media, demonstrates that huge swathes of people are switching to alternative regional, online or audience-specific news sources (enter gal-dem and Burnt Roti) to find stories that resonate with their experience.
Where BAME is the same
We’ve seen that BAME audiences are united in their experiences when it comes to three things:
This has had an impact on many people from BAME backgrounds. Unfortunately, Brexit continues to surface this, with Muslim women (often in the "A", but not exclusively) feeling the brunt of this, as well as talented black footballers.
The opportunities available to BAME communities have remained suppressed. This is starting to correct, with ethnicity pay-gap reporting set to make the same impact as gender pay-gap reporting.
Our parents came here to work and make a better life for themselves and our generation. This has a huge impact on the type of work deemed acceptable today (doctor, lawyer, engineer) and explains in part the lack of diversity in creative industries. Put simply, parental pressure means it’s not an acceptable career. This is an area many BAME people bond over.
Where BAME ain't the same
With ethnic pay-gap reporting becoming more prevalent, we’re starting to see the real difference in earning power within the BAME community. The median gross hourly pay for British Indians is far higher than for the black/African/Caribbean and black British population, and, indeed, higher than the white British population. At the same time, British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are paid the least. This difference in earning power, and therefore spending power, often goes unaccounted for when BAME is used as a tick-box for audience understanding or media buying.
Earning power is intrinsically linked to class and we rarely explore the intersection between the two. When we think about the working class, we often default to the white working class. However, black and Asian women are paying the highest price for austerity, while BAME workers are overrepresented in insecure and low-paid employment. As recently as April 2019, the TUC announced that black and minority ethnic employees are facing a triple hit of lower pay, temporary pay and too few hours. Combine this with the point about pay differentials and we start to see that simply segmenting an audience by "BAME" won’t cut it.
Last year I became slightly obsessed with Ofcom’s "News consumption in the UK" report, particularly after seeing headlines about the behaviour of those from a minority ethnic background. For example, I learned that one of the key findings from the report was that "the internet is the most-used platform for news consumption among 16-24s and those from a minority ethnic background".
Intrigued, we looked through the data tables and started to see that BAME was not the same. Asians use the internet for news over other sources, while black groups use the most types of media (3.8 different platforms). We also found that Asians were least satisfied with news, while black people were most satisfied.
Beyond the report, we have heard that black groups are three times more likely to tweet and that black Twitter is a powerful force, largely copied or misunderstood by marketers. It’s hardly surprising, given the reports of lack of diversity within marketing departments, and the depth and nuance within black identities.
Rather than throwing the BAME-y out with the bath water, I recommend unticking the box on your diversity efforts. On the inside of your organisations, look at how you can really understand the stories and backgrounds of your ethnic minority employees, and how they could be fertile grounds for better workplaces and more creative work.
On the outside, try to see ethnic minority groups for the richness that exists within them. There are similarities and differences with the mainstream, so rather than seeing BAME as "other" and something elusive, break down the constituent parts of the groups and you’ll find deeper and richer territories for creative work.