Last week, former Conservative cabinet minister Priti Patel told BBC Radio Kent that she doesn’t like the “labelling of people” specifically in reference to the term ‘BME’ (an acronym for Black and Minority Ethnic people in the UK). Though this was seemingly more to do with how tokenism undermines merit, it does bring us back to a very important conversation.
It’s not the first time politicians have wrestled with identity politics. In 2015 former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, in his speech suggested that terms such as BME are unable to sensitively capture the varying social differences amongst non-white communities in the UK. The entire qualification is based off having “only one [shared] characteristic”, namely not having “white skin”, Philips said.
Most British identity references standardise whiteness and so ideologies that help white people organise minorities have proven useless when minorities attempt to conceptualise themselves. Race is not often discussed in British politics because most of our politicians are white, and probably have no deep connection to racialisation. Policies and resources targeting individual race groups are often met with hostility as senior members in certain institutions such as schools and universities are more comfortable addressing umbrella identities than distinct ones – a testament, perhaps, to their own racialised ignorance. Funnily enough, though, the white working class have had no trouble finding racial legitimacy following concerns over academic underperformance.
More to the point, the term BME serves a particular purpose: a reference to British or Western non-white communities. That is all. But due to the limited race-related vocabulary in the English language the term is often used extensively out of context and to dilute the importance distinct ‘subgroups’. People seem less concerned with why an entire race (i.e. Black) is grouped with a multitude of ethnicities (i.e. minority ethnic) but hey, maybe one day!
The British political culture of “she who hates my enemy is my friend” is the root cause of these resurfacing debates. Naturally, politics prioritises left- and right-wing partisan agendas and puts little importance on the daily, people-to-people relations that the person on the street is concerned with. Encouraging solidarity by any means necessary, even if it erases your sense of self and living reality, is a sacrifice the political Left encourages people to make; without first the option to understand one’s ‘ally’. So what happens is we endorse or inherit certain identity labels out of fear of being perceived as divisive or disloyal to multiculturalism.
In the defense of BME terminology, people may appreciate the simplicity. When discussing racism, BME references can be effective especially if you believe that there are important shared experiences amongst that group. So some could argue that BME goes beyond a measurement of whiteness and highlights a common racialized experience in the UK.
However, as Nike found out in response to its iconic ‘Nothing Beats A Londoner’ advert that aired last month a conversation needs to be had on the extent to which Black and Asian communities welcome the depiction of their societal uniformity. For example, some Asian people didn’t feel empowered by the [predominantly Black] representation Nike featured in their advert. This shows that there is a demand for Asian acknowledgment that black representation alone cannot satisfy (and vice versa).
Despite loving the new @NikeUK #AirForce range, and of course the current @SpursOfficial shirt, I'm hugely disappointed the new @Nike #LDNR TV advert, doesn't feature a single ASIAN personality of note. #London is a diverse multi-ethnic city and WE'VE been left out! Shame on you. https://t.co/0QycFUMciz
— Ray Verma (@rayverma) February 10, 2018
The appropriateness of the BME label outside parliament and political organisation is a very different one for communities to whom the term refers. Terms like BME aren’t as extensive as they might appear. There needs to be a proactive effort to use it appropriately and find other words to better articulate the differences amongst racialised groups in any given context. And funnily enough although the British don’t like to talk about race these one-dimensional racialised labels suggest that all minority problems are exclusively race related. When there is no white man, minority groups still have other oppressive systems for which they need to address, some of racist origin and some sustained by other means. Whether it be capitalism and the patriarchy or non-western forms of prejudice and discrimination, fingers may have to be pointed at other races and complicity of other communities. The term BME will not capture this complexity, nor was it designed to.
It’s easier for minority groups to come together to oppose the use of racialised rhetorics from a white person, but there is still very little agreement within the minority communities on how non-white groups should be referred. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) Black Students’ Campaign (BSC) branch, which acts in the interests of Black and Minority Ethnic students in the UK, is a great example of intra-minority identity conflict. It takes on the classification of ‘political Blackness’ where all students of Black, Asian and Arab descent form one bloc and some people feel the name is insensitive to racially black students who have a distinct relationship with the concept of blackness. The BSC are in the process of a name change consultation which will attempt to find a better suited title to match both the aims and membership of the campaign.
In the wider world, there have been fewer opportunities for and attempts made by ‘BME’ groups themselves to determine their own labels. What do black and minority groups want to be called? What alternatives have been put forth? Have we properly addressed the historical origins and purpose for racial categorisation?
For a long time the priority has been to turn labels prescribed by white people or politicians into camps of liberation and empowerment. This may have worked in the past as the debates keep resurfacing it might be time to just address it.
The fear of distinguishing experiences between minority groups has turned into political paranoia of activists and politicians, who, instead of trying to resolve issues and answer questions, prefer to maintain homogeneity in groups to win elections at all levels. Mobilising people on an anti-Other agenda may reap short term electoral benefits but hasn’t got the longevity to achieve social harmony. Each generation deserves the opportunity to review identity classifications and determine whether they accurately capture contemporary relations. It’s difficult to progress a conversation stating everything we don’t like without suggesting how to move forward. Without alternatives then we haven’t got anything to bring to the table. It is by no means easy. It is by no means solvable in the way we imagine. It may very well raise painful questions. Someone will lose out. This is life.
Let me know your thoughts!