BAMEOver: an essay on terminology

Proposition: replacing ‘BAME’ with ‘people who experience racism’.

Words are important. Terminology is important. How we identify ourselves and how we are identified by others is important.

In recent months, years of cumulative dissatisfaction over the term BAME have swelled and it seems as though the wave may be about to break. If BAME is to be swept away, I’d like to propose an alternative that is active and honest and brave.

Though the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has existed since 2013, seven years later the George Floyd protests finally made inroads within the consciousness of the white liberal. And not before time.

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963)

In this febrile context, it has become clear that the current racial relations settlement is unsatisfactory. It is inequitable. It is unjust. And so we seek to change the terms of that discourse.

In this moment of change, allow me this disclaimer: in proposing an alternative terminology, I only have recourse to the current terminology. I will use and have already used various terminology because the current terminology does not satisfy me. It is messy, self-contradictory, and multitudinous. However, I hope I will make it clear what terminology would indicate progress rather than stagnation.

When describing myself, I’ve used any number of terms — and rarely felt comfortable with many of them. Mixed race. British East Asian. Dual heritage. Ethnic minority. A person of colour. Other: please specify. When I’ve been asked that most banal of exclusionary questions, “But where are you really from?”, I’ve said Sheffield. When in a generous mood, I’ve explained that my mother is White British and that my father was born in Hong Kong.

At my most punchy, and when amongst friends, I’ve described myself as non-white. I’ve used this term because I want to be honest — and non-white is how the dominating culture sees me. I’ve also used this term because I want to be provocative — non-white is also a statement of my rejection of white supremacy. I won’t be advocating for the adoption of that terminology, but the underlying rationale remains.

And, of course, I’ve described myself as BAME.

I was led to think more deeply about terminology and the problems of BAME by Inc Arts’ #BAMEOver Campaign and Live Debate. I was moved to speak in that debate and this essay represents the coagulation of those thoughts.

Surrounding that discourse there have been voices that have stressed that this conversation is a waste of time and effort, that it should not be the focus of those who are fighting for justice, that there are more important battlegrounds.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (James Baldwin)

If we must adopt this militaristic langauge, I prefer to think that this is one of many battlegrounds, one of many fronts in this war, and all have their utility. I believe we must attack from many sides (a Schlieffen Plan of debate, if you will, though I suspect I won’t). I’d argue for a plurality rather than a binary of discourse. And I firmly believe that language is important; that discourse is key and language is the tool of discourse; and that if we are to dismantle the structures of oppression we must also dismantle the language that maintains those structures.

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, 1984)

So this is essay is placed firmly within the field of language, terminology and discourse.

Let us name it.

This is not about pride. Black pride should exist. South Asian Pride should exist. East Asian pride should exist. Latinx pride should exist. Romani pride should exist. Use those terms to give yourself pride.

This is about the terminology that the dominating culture will use to describe those who face barriers because of their relationship to the structural supremacy. We cannot stop the dominating culture from using a term. What we can do is exert control over the terms they use. What we can do is build both solidarity and plurality amongst those who are disadvantaged by white supremacy.

Let us name it.

In recent years, the term that they have used is BAME.

I oppose that term because of its colourism and because colourism is the hangover of a colonial mindset.

I oppose that term because one letter encapsulates a global majority.

I oppose that term because it is dishonest.

I do not face barriers because of the pigmentation of my skin, because of my culture, because I belong to some kind of pre-described minority. I face barriers because of the actions of others, because of the behaviours of others, because others reassert a white supremacist structure. I face barriers because others commit racism. My solidarity is with people who experience racism. (I thank Marcus Ryder for this term — I do not know if he originated it.)

I choose that term because it is active — it describes the live actions of others and prompts us to question our own actions.

I choose that term because it is not about colour but about revelation.

I choose that term because it provokes change.

I choose that term because it removes the binary — there are those who experience racism, there are those who do not experience racism, there are those who commit racism, there are those who do not commit racism, and there are those who occupy more than one of these spaces. It allows for the fact that those who experience racism can also commit racism.

I choose that term because it begs the question — if we are those who experience racism, what is the dominating culture? How will it choose to define itself?

“Racism is a white problem. It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum.” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 2018)

We will not remove the oppression of white supremacy by using its terminology. We will not remove the harm of colonialism by using its terminology. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

So let us name it. Let us name it. Let us describe with bravery and honesty the actions and structures that exist. I am a person who experiences racism.

Actor and activist