Op-Ed: What's in a name? Why "BAME" can be problematic

06 Aug 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As sport reacts to the Black Lives Matter movement and organisations move to do better at addressing structural racism and inequality in the sector, Sport Industry NextGen Leader Preeti Shetty, Head of Upshot at The Football Foundation, highlights why the terminology we use is important, and why we shouldn't be afraid to have conversations about it.


Last week I joined a call with a group of Sport Industry NextGen Leaders - both the current 2020 cohort and alumni - to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and how we can collectively and individually do better to improve representation in sport, at all levels. 

More to come on this soon!

But it creates the question, ‘representation for whom?’ Black people, BAME people, BIPOC, people of colour? The list of terms seems to be endless but what they all have in common is the characteristic of being ‘non-white’. 

This got us thinking (and talking) about terminology. Before we even seek to find solutions, we need to clearly articulate the problems. The Black Lives Matter movement originally started in response to the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 and has now come back into the mainstream after the killing of George Floyd. Sport organisations all around the globe are looking inwards and trying to understand the implications of this through our own Diversity and Inclusion agendas. 

But does it really take multiple killings for us to realise that we need to be more representative of the communities we live and work in? That racism, sexism, and lots of other -isms are so deep rooted within our society that it will take a lifetime of positive action to change perceptions? That diversity is good for business and our bottom lines?

A common concern I’ve heard recently is that people and organisations in the sector don’t want to speak out about representation because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. They don’t want to get it wrong so they think it’s better to stay silent. But conversation matters. Because identity matters. 

I personally dislike the term BAME. I feel it lumps all us into an ‘other’ category. And I’m not an other.

I want to feel part of the society I live in – not a minority. I personally refer to myself as a ‘Person of Colour’ or ‘brown’. Still an ‘other’, sure, but one I am more comfortable with as I feel it speaks more closely to my own identity. 

But who am I to speak on behalf of all people of colour? That implies that all people of colour face the same challenges – which we know isn’t true. Using catch-all terms means we often ignore the challenges of a particular subset. “We don’t have a diversity problem, we have lots of Asians working with us”. Great – but where are the black people? Black Lives Matter is a specific issue, aimed at a specific proportion of the ‘BAME’ community. Don’t ignore their issues because you are catering to a different minority. All that does is fudge the stats, cover up the problem and puts a racial wedge between us. It reinforces the Model Minority Myth and does more harm than good. 

I’ve heard people say they don’t like the term ‘People of Colour’ because it reminds them too closely of the derogatory term ‘coloured’. All of these terms were originally born out of a desire to create solidary between minorities, to have an easy catch-all to define non-white people. But how can we collectively group such a diverse range of people? 

As John Amaechi recently put it: “BAME is a statistical convenience; it’s the description of a vast, unrelated group, not a person. The group of people ‘BAME’ encompasses are so varied as to make the label meaningless, except as a means to suggest – without actually saying it – that those being described are not white”. 

Having one term just because it’s neater, shorter, easier to pronounce isn’t the answer. Honestly I think it’s just lazy.

So to go back to where I started, diversity and inclusion is very broad. If we want to make tangible change then we need to be targeted and specific while recognising the intersectionality that exists within it. I am brown. I am BAME. I am a person of colour. I am a woman. I am many things. The words you use to describe me matter. Lumping me into one category hides the realities of the different discriminations I face. 

I don’t have a solution. I just know that we need to be having these conversations, however uncomfortable. Saying the wrong thing or using the wrong term is okay, as long as it’s well intentioned, you are happy to stand corrected and you learn from it. But staying silent isn’t helping anyone and ultimately makes us part of the problem not the solution. 

For those of us who are invested in working toward equality for all people, it’s important not to only see colour, to talk about terminology, to ask questions but most importantly to work on levelling the playing field. We want equality but we are not there yet. First we need equity.

So have uncomfortable conversations – I know I will be.