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After ‘BAME’: getting terminology right when talking about race

Written by Jermaine Haughton Wednesday 05 May 2021
Conscientious managers will want to use the appropriate terminology when talking about race and ethnicity in the workplace
Woman leading a meeting

The recent government-commissioned report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the term ‘BAME’ should not be used by organisations and public bodies. The acronym stands for ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ and has become commonly used in recent years but which has the effect of categorising, even marginalising, Black and Asian people, and those from other ethnic minorities, into one group.

So how can individual managers get the terminology right when talking about race in the workplace? After all, having empathetic conversations with colleagues about race, no matter how uncomfortable, is a key part of developing an anti-racist organisation.

CMI Race’s webinar Getting the Terminology Right tackled this important topic in order to continue the conversation started last year in  Moving the Dial on Race: A Practical Guide on Workplace Inclusion.

Our expert panellists were: CMI Race advisory committee member Daljit Kaur; Scarlett Luo, the associate director at Ipsos MORI and deputy chair of its Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (REACH) network; and Kully Kaur-Ballagan, senior director within the social research division of Ipsos MORI.

The problem with ‘BAME’

As a member of the audience said in one of the many questions received in advance and during the lively conversation, “BAME was never intended as an identity, but as a way of gathering data about unequal outcomes for Black and Minorities groups.” Terms such as ‘BAME’ and ‘ethnic minorities’ have been used for years by businesses, organisations and governments as a way to gather and report data in order to inform pay gap studies and issues of recruitment disparity. Very few people are likely to self-identify as ‘BAME’.

The market research company Ipsos MORI discovered the problems with the ‘BAME’ terminology when it canvassed opinion about its own internal network for people from different ethnic and minority groups. Many people felt that BAME would not resonate with stakeholders, indeed many people probably wouldn’t know what it means. Ipsos MORI eventually decided to name its internal network ‘REACH’, which stands for ‘Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage’. Scarlett Luo, deputy chair of the network, says this name is positive, uplifting and, in itself, inclusive. While not always the case in practice, in her opinion “White colleagues would clearly be excluded from a ‘BAME Network’.”

So, where next?

Kully Kaur-Ballagan from Ipsos MORI says leaders must be “very careful” when using umbrella terms. She encourages managers, where possible, to be “as specific and nuanced as possible.” The company has created a style guide of appropriate terminology that is, says, Kully “a living document that will be updated as the language evolves.” Right now at Ipsos MORI, they are using the terminology ‘ethnic minorities’, though Kully and Scarlett accept that this isn’t perfect and may well need to change again.

This approach is echoed in CMI Race’s Moving the Dial report, which says: “Terminology around race and ethnicity evolves continuously, so managers should learn about preferred terminology in their organisation and remain actively conscious of changes. This commitment alone can be considered a powerful act of allyship.”

Daljit Kaur adds: “Race is adapting all the time in terms of the ‘-isms’. As the demographic changes, society changes.” Fundamentally, she says, managers should “think about the interconnectivity and those that feel excluded or not part of what's going on around you.” The right terminology should foster a sense of belonging among all team members, an inclusive workplace where people of all backgrounds feel comfortable to perform at their best.

Want to identify the right terminology? Ask

Many managers fear using the wrong term and inadvertently offending or being accused of discriminating against colleagues. However, the webinar panel believes managers can avoid this issue by being proactive and consulting with their team, finding out how they would prefer to be described. Scarlett Luo said: “You can't really tell [your teammate’s ethnicity or racial identity] by looking at their face. You will probably get it wrong, so if you're not sure or if they haven’t told you already, just ask them.”

In approaching this subject, line managers should be supported by HR and senior leadership, says Kully. “Internally a manager of senior level should have those conversations, and everyone needs to be on board and understand why we're doing this. It’s not just a sort of paper exercise to make us look good, it's about making sure our employees can be who they are at work.”

Finally, says Kully, managers and organisations need to be careful about putting all the responsibility on your ethnic minority employees to make the change. This can bring its own pressures, adding to a feeling of exclusion. “You can listen to their views and they can advise [on the right racial language] and they can be part of the change, but the entire company needs to be part of that change. It's not about delegating responsibility to a particular group. It's about involving that group in the decision to change.”

Looking for ways to get involved with supporting people from diverse ethnic groups in their careers, or help organisations tackle inequalities? Find out how you can help on our CMI Race page and join our next online conversation on Building a Support Network, featuring the Ethnic Diversity and Inclusion Network at Mace Group.

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