Is the 'BAME' acronym outdated?

Written by Alaa Fawaz

What does it mean to be BAME?

Does the term do more harm than good in improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

The term Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) is not a term I use to identify myself. I am not ‘BAME’, I am Lebanese Arab. I am not alone in the rejection of using the term as a form of identification. Despite the acronym becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the communities it describes, I wonder why the legal sector continues to use it.

I interviewed Shannett Thompson, a partner at Kingsley Napley who discussed the rejection of the use of the acronym at the law firm, and the dangers of its continued use. Kingsley Napley decided to rename their BAME & Allies Network into the Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage (REACH) group in order to accurately represent the group’s ethos, promoting “‘equality, understanding and actively taking a stand against discrimination based on one’s race ethnicity or cultural heritage.”

Wanting to hear from someone who had recently entered the industry, I also spoke to Simranjeet Kaur Mann, trainee solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson, who highlighted the need for transparency and the positive impact this change could have on aspiring lawyers.

The dangers

Proximity to privilege varies significantly within the ‘BAME’ group. In my case, although I am an ethnic minority, I am white passing, and have benefitted from some of the privileges that come along with that. It would be misrepresentative and counterproductive to lump my experiences together with those who have not benefited in the same way.

The term serves to homogenise all ethnic groups and conflate ethnic groups’ issues. This is unhelpful when tackling diversity and retention in the legal profession as it does not highlight exactly where the problems lay. The SRA found that in the largest firms (with 50 or more partners) only 8% of partners are ‘BAME’. When we dive deeper into the figures, the numbers are alarming, disguising the lack of progress made in certain communities such as the Black community. Statistical evidence is an essential tool to measure progress and therefore greater granularity and transparency of data is required. Statistical data, alone, can be a blunt instrument if it is not coupled with active steps and wider conversations about the working environment and the lived experiences of the individuals it refers to.

In the 1970s, the term ‘BME’ united ethnic minorities against racism and discrimination. More recently, ‘BAME’ has been used to highlight the lack of representation in corporate industries. However, there are signs that it now does more harm than good. Allyship can be encouraged without imposing a one size fits all approach. Rejecting the term ‘BAME’ does not mean that there are no shared experiences between ethnic minority communities. For instance, many across the UK can attest to experiencing racism, microaggressions, and discomfort in the workplace. These issues still need to be tackled, recognising the specific needs of each community. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that such issues are rife within the BAME community. Being an ethnic minority does not absolve someone from harbouring anti-black sentiment, for example.

Language matters

Language matters. It impacts how we are perceived and thus how we are treated. Most importantly, it also impacts how we view and identify ourselves. We must be intentional with the language we use with others in order to create safe environments. Targets made for entry level trainees are insufficient if there is not an environment that actively celebrates and values their identity once they are in the workforce. We must move away from using ‘Diverse’ or ‘BAME’ as a synonym for Black or Arab or any other ethnic group. Rejecting the term BAME contributes to wider discussions around race and ethnicity, confronting the fact that many are afraid to break the term down and, for example, say the word ‘Black’.

Diversity and inclusion is more than a trend or a competition in the industry; it is about actively dismantling barriers to access, retention and promotion. Firms are taking great steps to improve equality and access into the profession. With schemes such as Clifford Chance’s ACCESS Programme and Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Programme, the industry is moving in the right direction and the impact can already be seen at the junior levels. It is now time that the language we use reflects this change. The next step is to revisit the acronym and listen to those that it addresses.

As a future trainee solicitor, I will not merely enter my legal career with qualifications and promising skills, but carrying my culture, religion, and all the values I hold close to me. We all have rich histories and cultures that deserve to be recognised, and particular needs that should be addressed specifically.

Take a look at our latest Crafty Investigates episode where we investigate the term ‘BAME’. We would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.