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An all-encompassing term to capture the UK’s diverse population or woefully outdated in the wake of BLM? Natasha Mwansa explores the politics and nuances of using cultural acronyms

What’s in a name? Or in this case, an acronym. As a black woman, should I describe myself as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) or BME (Black and Minority Ethnic)? Have we graduated to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour)? Or perhaps that’s more American? I’m a WOC (Woman Of Colour) but not a NBPOC (Non-Black Person Of Colour) because I’m black. Have you lost track yet? Did you ever even know? It may come as a surprise but I’m not so sure either.

Lumping things into groups is an understandably convenient way for humans to ascribe meaning to things with commonalities. It’s how we achieve a sense of belonging, how we easily identify things and people in order to understand how to interact with them. With a billion acronyms being bandied about essentially to describe everyone who is not white, surely it’s all becoming a bit ineffective, very reductive and majorly confusing?

At the same time, this infinite menu of acronyms seems to have created an environment where people are terrified of saying the wrong thing and causing offence. Surely this isn’t any more helpful?

So how should white people refer to ethnic minorities without causing offence? By asking. There is no one correct term and what one person takes issue with, others are fine with. BAME is lazy but good for identifying eligible people for professional opportunities.

“We could keep breaking down these acronyms like some kind of ethnic edition of a Russian doll”

POC is just a few steps removed from ‘coloured’, which is territory nobody should be treading. ‘Ethnic minority’ is the only term that seems like a safe bet, but that’s the thing — other ethnic minorities will read all of the above and completely disagree. The main thing is to tailor to your audience and not be afraid to ask.

Where a lot of people from ethnic minorities take issue is where any of the terms are used as a one-size-fits-all on topics that contain a lot of nuance that may apply differently to different races. Often this is out of laziness but other times out of fear of causing offence. I’ve been in several situations where people will go through every descriptor in the book before they refer to someone as ‘black’, as if it’s a derogatory word!

One PR reaching out to me once referred to me as African American despite me being a Londoner through and through. I’d rather be called BAME than be completely misidentified or have my ethnicity dodged altogether.
On a broad societal level, it’s easy to see why terminology that groups ethnic minorities together can work.

Beyond ticking boxes on forms — everything from understanding demographic breakdowns in work environments to breaking down representation in mainstream media — it makes things that much clearer when it comes to who we’re discussing and who has been receiving all of the advantages. When it comes to levelling out the playing field, it helps to have a clear label for whom we need to be offering support.

But grouping minorities together also implies a shared experience, which just isn’t the case. My experiences as a black WOC will be vastly different from those of an Asian WOC. In fact, my experiences as a black WOC of African descent would be very different from a black WOC of Caribbean heritage.

Natasha Mwansa

Grouping ethnicities together also infers whiteness as the status quo, with everybody else fitting into one neat ‘other’ box, reduced to letters and generalisations. Even when we break down these acronyms, we see a secondary othering — BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic but why do black and Asian people get named status but Latinx, indigenous and Arab people don’t? Where do Gypsies and Travellers fit in? We could keep breaking it down like some kind of ethnic edition of a Russian doll but we’d probably run out of wood.

On a personal level I’m a black woman, someone who faces a separate set of obstacles than my black older brothers do and a whole new set of obstacles compared with my Indian best friend. This is how I describe myself in conversations and when I refer to other individuals from ethnic minorities I will usually be just as specific.

On a more general level, I’m stumped. Should we all just pick a stance and hold on to it or should we just choose depending on our audience? Is there some kind of black people/POC/WOC/BAME/BME conference we can hold so that we can settle this once and for all?