Last year I picked up The Unmistakables’ first ever award. It was at the ‘Great British Business Awards’ and there I was at the back of the room, feeling sheepish about our chances of winning ‘BAME business of the year’ . It was a new accolade that had been created to celebrate businesses run by people from the Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority backgrounds.
As Cheryl Cole, editor of DiversityQ, announced us as the winners I felt a sense of pride combined with a sense of impatience. It was humbling to win and be recognised, but a ‘BAME’ award could send a signal that our diversity consultancy was ‘niche’. I never wanted ours to be the business that was called at the end of a campaign in order to try and tick a box.
Luckily my angst was soothed soon after when we also picked up ‘best new agency’ at Oystercatchers following a string of previous winners, such as Uncommon.
Making diversity everyone’s business
After the first win I set about really questioning and deconstructed the catch-all-other term ‘BAME’. Then I made it my mission to try and smash it up.
First and foremost it’s a British term - using a Quid search we discovered almost 14,000 articles mentioned the term ‘BAME’ in the UK and only 1,000 in the US. In February I wrote a piece entitled ‘Why BAME ain’t the same’ in Campaign (which we later republished on this blog). I had comments from White people telling me that although it was now so obvious, they hadn’t thought about all the nuances between the communities within the grouping. Of course, their Indian friends weren’t the same as their Black friends (if they had any of course).
I also had comments from non-White people telling me the article resonated with them - of course seeing an Asian person in an ad didn’t make a Black person feel more represented or seen, but both groups could agree that neither family was likely to have a dog. More often than not it’s quite easy to tell if the creative team behind any advertising contains non-White people based on the cultural cues you see.
The article made some waves at the time, but ‘BAME’ remained a fairly narrow term and only popped up in mainstream press when Laurence Fox decided to announce he wouldn’t date woke women (funny that...they wouldn’t date him), or when the press tried to push back on Harry and Meghan’s claims of racism (who’s having the last laugh now?) At the time we saw about 200 stories containing terms relating to ‘BAME’ per week.
And then Covid happened
We went into lockdown on March 16th ahead of the UK Government announcement, and until March 29th we started to see a dip in ‘BAME’ stories. The media was too concerned with sourdough bread and toilet paper (which, for the record, is why we created Covid-26: an A-to-Z of the most glossed over terms of the pandemic).
By the beginning of April we started to see an increase in stories about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity communities - but for all of the wrong reasons. It had become clear that Covid-19 had begun to disproportionately claim the lives of people from BAME backgrounds.
Over the course of April the number of stories featuring the term ‘BAME’ increased 100 per cent and by the week commencing 19th April, 400 stories appeared. It marked the first time I had ever heard mainstream news presenters across all channels using the term ‘BAME’ on air; the context brought about mixed feelings given the contents of the stories were about the deaths, the calls for inquiries and the Government’s mishandling of the issue.
‘BAME’ in the national psyche explains the spikes of Google searches of the term ‘BAME’ starting from April 8th, with the top related query being ‘BAME meaning’. When we drill down on ‘BAME meaning’ as a term, or ‘What does BAME people mean?’, we see huge spikes in-line with major announcements about BAME people and the overwhelming impact Covid-19 has had on the community.
And then George Floyd was murdered
In a matter of days the level of conversation about ‘BAME’ people and structural racism exploded. Between the week commencing 17th and 24th May the number of ‘BAME’ stories more than doubled, hitting a peak of 1,000. Think about that: 200 stories a week, rising to 400 by the time of Covid-19 and then 1,000 by the time of the renewed Black Lives Matter protests.
The media has cottoned on, but the world - particularly those who are shouting for justice - remain unconvinced. Black squares ignited a reaction from businesses and thousands of people around the world defied lockdown laws to march under banners reading ‘Black Lives Matter’. But hang on a second. ‘Black Lives Matter’. Not ‘BAME Lives Matter’, black lives. (I’m not even going to humour you if you have something to say about how ‘All Lives Matter’).
Yet ‘BAME’ continues to be used and thought of as the way to address Black people and the injustices they face right now. We had another Matt Hancock-up when the Health Secretary was asked if there are any Black people in the cabinet by Sky News.
‘We have the Chancellor and the Home Secretary,’ he replied in the same way a racist may claim not to be a racist because they love an Indian takeaway.
Matt, mate, if you’re reading this then know that BAME ain’t the same. Her question was ‘Black’ and ‘diversity of thought’ was not the answer.
BAME over. Time to rethink terms.
People are saying ‘BAME’ right now when they mean Black.
Yes the whole ‘BAME’ community will benefit from you being more woke, but it’s the Black community that have been singled out the most and for whom the structure is simply not fit. That shows in almost every data point I can find - whether it’s police brutality or Covid-19 deaths.
With that, acknowledge the differences in the group. It’s only fairly recently that people realised the ‘T’ experiences of the LGBT+ community were far different to the L, G and B experiences. The ‘BAME’ community in itself has work to do to level things out - for example the level of anti-Blackness within the Asian community is unacceptable - if you’re not in that group it’s even more important to bear in mind that everyone in the ‘BAME’ community is trying to work this out.
Most importantly, ‘BAME’ people are waking up to the fact that they have been categorised in a way that is impacting their work, their opportunities and their livelihoods in a negative sense. ‘BAME’ programmes are now popping up everywhere, but there’s a real worry that they aren’t going to achieve the structural change we need because they don’t factor in any nuance.
The easiest way to make a change today is to check and challenge our language. So next time you think of the word BAME, ask yourself - do you really mean Black? The likelihood is that right now, you do.
A big thanks to Alex Vass for the data analysis, which was powered by Quid.