BLOG July 2020:
'What is in an Acronym?
BAME and Black Political Struggle'
I remember in one of my many long conversations with my dear exemplar the late Ambalavanar Sivanandan, Director of the Institute of Race Relations, I made a remark about how ‘the personal is political and the political is personal’ and I was immediately called out on that comment. Sivanandan rebuked me and said ‘the personal is never political’ but rather ‘the political is personal’. To say that ‘the personal is political’ is a call to identity politics which is very divisive. But the statement ‘the political is personal’ calls us to see in each other’s struggle our own struggle for equality and justice and to come together in solidarity to fight for equality and justice. The sudden interest the media has taken in the acronym BAME / BME and the flawed discourse around it is taking us down the road of identity politics. It is yet another distraction that takes away the focus from the real issues, which are structural.
What is in an acronym?
What is the Acronym BAME used for? BAME has been used by race equality organisations to refer to communities that have been racialised and when advocating and lobbying on behalf of racialised communities. This includes or at least should include the many Black British, Asian, European, Roma, Gypsy, Traveller, Muslim, refugee, asylum seeking, and undocumented migrant communities that have been racialised. However, this lack of clarity by the race equality sector itself on what it means by the acronym BAME has at times led to divisive identity politics, often within the race equality sector itself. It is not a term or acronym that should be used to identify, or group people, or to refer to particular race and ethnicities, but if used should be limited to the context of addressing disadvantages and injustices faced by racialised communities.
Government and public authorities on the other hand have often used it as a ‘catch all’ phrase in order not to address disparities and injustices that are faced by specific race and ethnicities. So, for example within the education sector we find the discussion around educational disparities being framed around BAME vs White working class. We hear arguments that BAME pupils are doing better in education than White working class pupils and that more attention needs to be paid to White working class pupils, and by doing so conflating race and class. In doing so, firstly it fails to see the difference in the educational experience of Nigerian pupils vs. Black Caribbean Pupils, Indian pupils vs. Pakistani pupils. If the racial disparities in educational outcome are to be identified and addressed, education authorities must gather robust data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and where disparities are identified they must take steps address it. There is a clear requirement to do so under the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010, which is disregarded by educational authorities. The second problem with conflating race and class when addressing racial disparities is that it attempts to pose the poor educational outcomes of ‘White working class’ pupils as a race issue. The poor educational outcomes of White working class pupils is not a racial issue but rather a result of socio-economic disadvantage. Poor educational outcomes due to socio-economic disadvantage is an issue that also disproportionately impacts communities that are racialised. If the government were serious about taking measure to address socio-economic disadvantage they could begin by enforcing the Socio-economic Duty of the Equality Act 2010.
In all of this if we fail to see the universal in our particular experiences and fail to stand in solidarity, we fall into the trap of sectarian and identity politics. Sivanandan warned that to pull rank on suffering and ‘who is oppressed more’, leads to greater and more compound oppressions. In dealing with racial disparities we must deal with the politics of discrimination and fight to alter the structures of inequality. In doing so we must find language that sees our own experiences of oppression in the experiences of others. The face, shape, and form of racism is forever changing and we must find a term that defines us and unifies us in terms of our struggle against the many faces of racism than a term that defines us by the colour of our skin, ethnicity or nationality. We find this in the term ‘Black communities’ coined by Sivanandan. It is not a term that refers to skin colour, race, ethnicity, or nationality but rather to being ‘politically’ black, to the political experience of discrimination, oppression, and resistance. It is not about pulling rank on ‘who is oppressed’ more but about being ‘anti-racist’. And so, through our explorations for a term that encompasses the ‘Black’ albeit ‘politically black’ experience, we arrive at where we started and know it for the very first time.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot