The problem with minoritsing “communities” and “cultures” in British society.
“Politically correct” terminology for non-english, non-white, “ethnic” groups has been constructed and reconstructed in order to reflect changing social and political discourses – as well as the changing numbers of migrant/immigrant populations in Britain.
In the 1960s, the term “black” emerged as a political term and form of identity adopted by anti-racism activists of African, Caribbean and Asian descent, through to the mid 1980s. “Black” was the term through which Black and Asians united on political grounds, as a result of a “shared” experience of racism and discrimination in “white” Britain. According to sociologist Paul Gilroy, the term illustrated that the racism of white British society seemed to consider ‘the racial characteristics of both “Paki” and “nigger” as being equally worthy of hatred’. It is this “shared” experience of racism as immigrants” from former colonies (or former colonised nations) which unites these groups on politcal lines. However, whilst the general experience of racism is arguably “shared” between these groups, their experiences are not the same. As a result, theorists like Modood (1994) problematised this notion of a “universal struggle” suggesting that the experience of those considered “black” had similarities, but were also fundamentally different – the experience of an Asian man is different to that of a black woman.
By the 1980s and 90s, we see a shift towards terms such as BME (Black, Minority and Ethnic) and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic). However, I argue that this rigidly constructed categorisation is just as problematic as the political use of the term “black”.
BME is a problematic term because of the way in which it homogenises all “non-white” people and “non-english” cultures. Just like Modood (1994) argues that the use of “black” to indicate a “universal struggle” between African-Caribbean black people and Asian people is problematic, I argue that the universal BME grouping is also problematic. Although systemic racism and discrimination are inherent in the lives of all minoritised people, as well as in the more personal experiences of microagressions, I believe that there are specific experiences and/or racisms that are specific to particular groups and people. For example, both black and asian brits experience racism however, the racism I experience as a black woman with natural hair is a specific experience of discrimination that is not a universal BAME experience.
The problem with the BME and BAME categories is that they minoritise “non-english” (often migrant or immigrant) communities from mainstream British – or rather, English – society. By minoritsing “communities” and “cultures” in British society, the “othering” of “non-white”, non-english minoritised groups is reinforced, which helps to fuel racism and discrimination in society. “Othering” refers to the way in which particular people and/or groups are made to feel intrinsically different, and often inferior to, (in this case) mainstream, “white” Western society. For example, by minoritsing Afican-Caribbean culture, it has enabled the pathologising of “black culture” and black people who are often criminalised in social and media discourse.
So the question is, how then do we describe the various cultural groups in Britain without homogenising, or even essentialisng?
Honestly, I don’t know. The language we have to describe difference is riddled with notions of racism and a socio-historical narrative of needing to classify things, animals, people. The BME and BAME categories are part of a historical narrative/trajectory of classification. These categories are not employed to be representative or historically descriptive instead, they are generalised and help to contain the identities of minoritised people.
The social construction of the BME and BAME groupings reflect social attitudes towards difference in Britain. And whilst they don’t represent our individual identities, it does not mean that we cannot create and embrace our own identity constructs that are widerspread and specific to our historical and cultural narratives.
Modood, T. 1994. ‘Political Blackness and British Asians’, Sociology, 28(4).
Gilroy, P. 1987. There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. London: Routledge.
Gilroy, P. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso.