Language and Terminology
Adapted from: Understanding and overcoming the challenges of ethnicity targeting – Office for Students
In the UK, the umbrella term ‘black and minority ethnic’ (BME or less often BaME) or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) are the terms most commonly used to describe all those who are non-white British, and thus may also include those who describe themselves as ‘white other’. Key higher education (HE) policy-making organisations including the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) (now together the Office for Students), the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) (now together, Advance HE) use the acronym BME whilst simultaneously recognising the problematic nature of using a reductionist term to describe a population that is highly diverse not just in terms of ethnic or racial background but also by dint of socio-economic status, religion and gender amongst others.
As Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality has argued, the term BME exists purely ‘to tidy away the messy jumble of real human beings who share only one characteristic – that they don’t have white skin’ (reported in The Times, 2015).
In their recent articles for the BBC News and Shades of Noir, Rajdeep Sandhu and Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark respectively describe the distaste felt by many to the use of BME and BAME. As D’Clark notes (2018, n.p.):
“Once upon a time, a longitudinal study assessing the attainment outcomes for (HE) higher education black, brown and Asian students came to consequently define them as BAME. Why because their numbers so devastatingly low that the only way to produce any substantial outcomes was to bring all of these groups together. Similarly, the commonality in all being non-white meant that this act seemed like good thing to do.”
In addition, ‘whilst racial [or ethnic] categorising is useful for assigning data and as a basis of measurement, it often limits the reader’s ability to compare a range of categories and can be seen to neglect factors such as religion, culture and/or language. These other facets of an individual’s identity can play a major role in understanding experiences’ (Elevations Networks Trust, 2012: 9).
Alternative definitions, used in other contexts, are:
- Minority ethnic: used as a corrective to the term ethnic minority as the latter suggests that minority status arise from simply being from an ethnic background rather than from the low value accorded to any particular ethnic group
- Minoritised ethnic people: used by academics amongst others to further emphasise that minority status is arrived at through particular process of discrimination, racism or exclusion. This can particularly be the case where students are studying in HEIs where non-white students are either in the majority, or are a large cohort, yet the policies and practices of the institution remain largely ‘white’. Used by a number of academics including Carlton Howson.
- People of color or people of colour: the category was formed in the late 1970s as a purposeful claim to a common group identity, in particular as a positive alternative to ‘non-white’, which, it was argued, perpetuates a deficit account of other races. The term was also adopted as a move to develop understandings of race beyond the black-white binary. The term ‘people of color/people of colour’ encompasses all categories of people who do not identify as ‘white’. Sara Ahmed, the British-Australian scholar uses the term people of color in her writing as do a number of other academics.
On this website we have therefore grappled with how to frame our discussion in ways which recognise the perils of homogenising a diverse group – which we acknowledge is problematic – whilst making the website readable.
We would therefore welcome a debate on terminology.
 Along with Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
 Singh, G. (2011) A synthesis of research evidence. Black and minority ethnic (BME) students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success. York: HEA. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/bme_synthesis_final.pdf
 Authors’ addition
 Elevation Networks Trust (2012) Race to the Top. The Experience of Black Students in Higher Education. Available at: https://www.bowgroup.org/sites/bowgroup.uat.pleasetest.co.uk/files/Race%2520to%2520the%2520Top%2520-%2520Bow%2520Group%2520-%2520Elevation%2520Networks%2520(April%25202012)_0.pdf Elevation Networks Trust (2012) Race to the Top. The Experience of Black Students in Higher Education. Available at: https://www.bowgroup.org/sites/bowgroup.uat.pleasetest.co.uk/files/Race%2520to%2520the%2520Top%2520-%2520Bow%2520Group%2520-%2520Elevation%2520Networks%2520(April%25202012)_0.pdf