To BAME or not to BAME: the problem with racial terminology in the civil service

Finding the right words to describe a problem is important, but we shouldn’t let uncertainty about terminology stop us tackling the challenge of racial disparity, argues a group of civil servants from across government

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As you would reasonably expect of a bunch of civil servants, part of our job is finding the right language to describe a problem in order to tackle it effectively. But when it comes to tackling the problem of racial disparity, we seem to be stuck. We dither between the correctness of terms like BAME, ethnic minority, non-white, people of colour. We declare the W in “White” and B in “Black” must be capitalised. We simply cannot seem to move beyond this debate – which hinders any work we might have otherwise progressed.

Because there is a collective experience of discrimination for those who don’t fit the “White British” mould, it’s necessary to be able to describe them (us) as a group for monitoring purposes. Since the Nationality Act 1948, specifically after the arrival of the Empire Windrush, the state has always offered a collective descriptor for “non-white” people. Officials in the Colonial Office, politicians, and even those addressing post-war racism used “Blacks”, “coloured immigrants” or “coloured’ interchangeably.

As we embark on the journey to becoming the UK’s most inclusive employer by the year 2025, the question we need to ask is not: “What term do we use?” The question is: “How do we achieve the ultimate objective of racial equality?”

So that we can get to that real work, let’s first take a look at the history of our ever-changing racial terminology.


“Coloured” was the popular descriptor for people from the “non-governing Dominions”, according to Dr Clive Harris, a sociologist from the University of Warwick who has explored the history of class and racism in the civil service. It was also the descriptor used since the possibility of hiring non-white civil servants was discussed in Whitehall in the 1950s.


Before the 1950s, the term “Black” was considered derogatory. However, it acquired a more positive meaning via the 1950s American civil rights movement. Black was then used in the UK in a political sense as an umbrella term for all people who faced discrimination on racial grounds. It was mostly used with reference to, and by, Asians (who felt that common experience of racism outweighed cultural differences), Africans, and Caribbeans. It did not prohibit any other self-determination, but asked that people recognised the existence of this political meta-identity.

BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic)

“BME” first gained currency in the 1980s among local authorities with sizeable non-white populations. These councils were at the forefront of the equality debate after the Scarman Report – commissioned in response the 1981 Brixton riots – called for “urgent action” to address racial disadvantage and inner city decline. The rationale for the term was that it was important to retain the use of Black for its political effectiveness, but add Minority Ethnic because census data showed that minority communities were becoming more ethnically diverse.

Another debate began in academia in the 1990s. Since South Asians had become the largest minority group in the country, it was argued that they should be reflected in a new descriptor. The then Commission for Racial Equality and Institute of Race Relations agreed, and BAME emerged. Proponents said that with “minority ethnic” included, BAME became an inclusive catch-all – no matter how you self-identified.

The term BAME has been adopted by many race equality-focused organisations, such as Business in the Community, Race on the Agenda, most civil service departments, and third and private sectors organisations.

Ethnic Minority

The term ethnic minority is used in a variety of ways, which sometimes includes anyone who is not White British. However, social anthropologist Richard Jenkins says that everyone is an ethnic minority depending on where you live – the Irish are an EM in England, White Brits are an EM in India, and so on. This truism is supported by the latest global population statistics which indicate that over 200 million people live in a country other than the one in which they were born – and that figure is rising.

Indeed, when you think about the world as a whole, non-white people are not a minority. And since one in four children in primary school right now are non-white, this country will look very different as they grow up and have children of their own.

So which term should we use?

Any term is going to have its pinch points. BAME isn’t specific enough; non-white defines people by what they’re not rather than what they are; minority ethnic isn’t always accurate depending on which country you travel to; person of colour doesn’t account for the fact that everyone has a colour, etc. Even poking at the terms “White British” and “race” reveals them as nebulous social constructs. We will continue to be dissatisfied with these words until we live in a world where race is not something that can shape your life experiences, and then these terms won’t matter at all. But we don’t yet live in that world.

If we are going to be serious about eliminating racism and delivering greater racial equality, we should agree that we all have our own individual preferences when it comes to terminology. Instead of having to agree on a single term, we should be committed to understanding the history and context of the language we use, while accepting that each one of us will have deeply personal reasons for our choice of terminology. This will allow us to get on with the priority actions, such as the recommendations made in 2017’s Race in the workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review. Project Race in both Defra and the DfE, and previously in the MoJ, along with the series of race conversations held earlier this year at Civil Service Live, have made significant headway in facilitating open conversations about race, precisely by respecting the fact that people have different preferences when it comes to racial terminology, and not policing these in favour of one term.

Whether your personal preference is BAME, ethnic minority, minority ethnic, or person of colour, the real issue isn’t what we are called. The real issue is the fact that largely, the civil service is not representative of the population it serves, particularly at its most senior levels. Let’s see this as a call to action to continue, and step up, the work being done to address racial inequality in the civil service. With more unity, resources and action-focused initiatives, we can reduce our levels of race-based bullying and harassment. We are confident that we can create the kind of civil service that we can all be proud of; one where everybody, regardless of race or any other characteristic, can feel at home and thrive.

The Race at Work Report, which surveyed over 7000 people across sectors and races, showed that one in three BAME respondents don’t have a preference for terminology. And neither do we. As one colleague said, “So long as you’re not using a slur, I don’t care if you call me BAME or BME – I just want you to talk about the issues that matter to most of us and the legacy that we should be creating for those coming after us”.

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