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Black, BAME or People of Colour: what’s in a name?

Satnam Ner, Alan Gooden · 12 October 2020

Prospect reps, Satnam Ner and Alan Gooden, discuss the different terms that are used to describe Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals, and whether it really matters. 

October is Black History Month. Prospect has an informal but flourishing network of its Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) members that meets monthly online.  

Recently at one of these network meetings we discussed anti-racist terminology. There was such a wide range of valid views that we resolved to write a blog on the subject. 

The target audience for this blog is the entire Prospect membership. And employers. And society. Actually, it’s for everyone.  

Why? Because, as we have discovered in the wake of George Floyd and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement, the responsibility for tackling racism, injustice and discrimination lies with each and every one of us.  

So that being the case, we need to be broadening this discussion out across the union and in our workspaces. The question is how we can encourage all of us to get involved, to recognise this is a union issue and to take responsibility for doing the right thing.  

Language barriers 

Sometimes, taking on responsibility for challenging racism is hindered by an uncomfortableness with the language used.  

This is particularly true for those privileged enough to not experience, know or understand, the issues of disadvantage resulting from race discrimination. 

The disadvantage can be from overt and deliberate racism, but also from hidden or unwitting systematic racism, sometimes referred to as institutional racism. But that uncomfortableness around language also extends to those who are very much at the receiving end of racism. 

Many trade union anti-racism activists will be all too familiar with the regular debate that goes on, both inside and outside of trade union circles, about what is the best and most inclusive descriptor for persons who suffer any form of detriment as a result of the colour of their skin. This discussion can get particularly passionate, heated and, in some cases, dismissive, or unhelpfully aggressive. 

But the reality is that we should welcome such dialogue. In fact, we believe that such debates should take place as often as is needed. Hopefully, this blog will help to explain why we take this position. 

History 

There are those who align themselves to the term Black. It is a political term rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That movement was badly needed because it openly challenged the accepted racism that pervaded directly from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It has become a critical part of Black History.  

Everyone remembers Dr Martin Luther King. In the US, Dr King’s birthday is a national holiday. So, any debate involving the term Black serves an invaluable purpose – as a reminder, whether it is Black History Month or not – that while slavery was abolished centuries ago, its legacy of suffering and disadvantage very much remains today in its various modern guises.  

Nowhere did we see this manifested more clearly than with George Floyd’s murder. But there is a recognised danger that Black is interpreted literally and non-politically. In so doing, Black becomes restricted just to certain African, Afro-Caribbean or Afro-American groupings.  

There are others, notably from Asia and the Middle East, that specifically want to detach themselves from being associated with the term Black and this is often due to the literal association. Many of these are citizens or descendants of former colonial countries and often are able to articulate their own race-based disadvantage.  

Another term that is often used is Person of Colour (POC), which again, perhaps for the same reasons, is seen by some as being more inclusive that just Black. 

Some years ago there was a debate within Prospect on the use of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), which had at the time been the terminology of choice.  

Through Prospect’s structures and in particular as a result of adopting a core principle of trade unions – that of self-organisation and self-definition – the recommendation was made by the Equal Opportunities Advisory Committee to our National Executive Committee (NEC), to use BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) as it was felt at the time, by the then serving EOAC members, to be most inclusive. It was accepted by the NEC and is the current norm. 

Many, who self-identify as politically Black dislike any terminology that involves the use of the word “Minority” and, understandably, their rationale is that Black people are actually the true global majority.  

There is also an accompanying resentment that using terms such as BAME, BME, or POC serve to sow internal divisions and weaken the unity of the anti-racist movement, whereas the term Black, if it is seen in its widest political sense, is fully inclusive and therefore has a power to unite everyone who is, or has the potential to be, a victim of racism. 

Union conundrum 

Within the trade union movement, which is based on collective action and unity but also on self-determination/self-organisation, this kind of debate can at times present a conundrum. 

Race is union business 

The important point is that we continue to allow our members to focus on what unites us, our common humanity and the power of allies in taking collective action in support of all of our members. 

This means that anti-racism must become a core part of union business at Branch level, at sector level and at national level.  

Is there a definitive answer from this blog? Perhaps not, but hopefully it has served to educate everyone to a more common understanding in terms of terminology and history.  

Slavery and colonialism, and the consequences thereof, have pervaded for centuries. We can all work to accelerate the eradication of those consequences.  

It is evident that terminology really does not matter as much as the debate, education, discussion and the actions that flow from it. 

Now that everyone is aware of the sad story of George Floyd and how it gave prominence to the #BLM movement, we must ensure that, for our members, #BLM is indeed fully brought into the trade union movement and not side-lined as just another unfortunate moment in history.

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