This blog forms part of ARE’s new Racial Terminology Project.
Throughout history, many words have been used to try to categorize people’s race and ethnicity. Some of these have had racist, derogatory and oppressive origins, and have been phased out of use due to the troubled history associated with them.
Many have also been inherently rejected by people of African, Asian and mixed heritage across the globe.
However, there still remains widespread misunderstanding and disagreement around the vocabulary we should be using to understand race and ethnicity.
That is why we’re running the Racial Terminology Project.
We’ll be launching a UK-wide survey, alongside running focus group sessions with young people and voluntary & community organisations led by Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, to gauge today’s use of terms. Crucially, we want to know what you think the UK should be using in the future.
But what are the terms we are dealing with exactly?
Read our short guide below to understand the difference between terms frequently used and/or debated in the UK.
Glossary of race terminology
Academics have argued for decades that race is a social construct that has no scientific basis, and we should stop using the term altogether.
According to an article published by the law society, “race is a categorisation that is based mainly on physical attributes or traits, assigning people to a specific race simply by having similar appearances or skin colour (for example, Black or White)”. (See Robert Miles, Racism after Race Relations)
However, the parameters of racial categorization have been notoriously fluid and unsystematic, as ideas of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ have shifted over time and across specific historical contexts.
Did you know?
Ethnicity is much broader than race and has usually been used to refer to long shared cultural experiences, religious practices, traditions, ancestry, language, dialect or national origins (for example, African-Caribbean, Indian, Irish). Ethnicity can be seen as a more positive identity than one forged from the shared negative experiences of racism. It’s more commonly used and asked about within diversity questionnaires in the UK.
Today, it is common in language used in areas such as the media for the term “ethnic” to be synonymous with not-white or not-western, for example with ‘ethnic clothes’ or ‘ethnic restaurants’. (Bhavnani et al. 2005, p. 213)
According to IGI Global, “minoritized groups in any society are those defined as “minorities’ by a dominant group that is numerically larger than the ethnic group. This involves a power relationship between dominant and minoritized groups who often prefer not to be labelled as a ‘minority’ because of the suggestion that they are somehow subordinate to the larger dominant group”.
This term can also be used in different, intersecting contexts as it does not just apply exclusively to racial and ethnic groups – it can also be used for other minority groups such as those with disability and LGBTQ+ groups.
Global majority communities
Though not commonly used in either the UK or the US, this refers to those that are from countries outside of the US, UK and other white-majority countries. When taking a step back and having a look at the global population, white people make up the global minority – whereas those of Black, Brown, Asian and mixed heritage, from the global perspective, are the majority.
These acronyms are used to refer to people of non-White ethnicities who are minoritised in the UK. Note that these categories do not include White minority ethnic groups and they do include those who identify as having a mixed ethnicity.
Both BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) and BME (Black and minority ethnic) are often used when making comparisons with the White population in the UK and reflect a common way of gathering and collating statistics, for example, by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and in company diversity monitoring.
BAME became more frequently used than BME to recognise the significant and distinct Asian population in the UK. It should be noted too that the ‘Asian’ category used by the ONS includes South Asian ethnicities (for example, Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani) and East Asian ethnicities (for example, Chinese).
This term focuses solely on those of African and Caribbean descent, including those of bi-racial heritage.
Black and minoritized
This term is not commonly used, and implies that Black people are not minoritised, and group all other races together.
People of Colour
This term, much like BAME and BME, groups together people of great ethnic diversity and different backgrounds. People of Colour (POC) was a term historically used in the U.S. to refer to African American people, individuals of African descent, and people of Asian ancestry. The term’s use has become increasingly common here in Britain over the past several years/decades. It is not viewed as respectful by some people, due to the historic stigma attached to the word ‘colour’, which was used to describe Black people, those of African ancestry, and individuals of Asian heritage during the period of American racial segregation.
According to the Law Society, however, others see it as similarly problematic, in that it groups together people of great ethnic diversity and different shared experiences and identities.
This term refers to people who are not wholly of White European descent.
Are you a member of a Black, Asian or minority group and interested in the debate? Join one of our focus groups to share your views!