Why language matters when talking about race and diversity

Author's position
Inclusion Development Worker
Primary interest
Voluntary sector

Azra Raja is working on an inclusion framework for the voluntary sector in Reading, to help managers and trustees consider equality, diversity and inclusion in their own organisations. Here is a link to Azra’s introductory article if you missed it the first time round. Please contact Azra by emailing azra.raja@rva.org.uk if you have any questions or would like to have a informal chat around this area. 

The focus on racial inequality and the steps taken to improve this inevitably means we will be using related terminology and words more in conversation with colleagues, friends and family. Language evolves and for those who express a desire to move forward in regards to making effective, positive changes in this area, there is also an impetus to reflect upon and review terminology.

UK music industry’s ten-point plan for increased diversity

For example, the body representing record shops and musicians in the UK urged the UK Music industry to drop the term BAME as their taskforce said the widely-used term for black, Asian and minority ethnic people was seen by many as ‘misleading and inappropriate’. Taskforce chairman and record shop owner Ammo Talwar, described it as a ‘careless catch-all acronym. This description came before their ten-point plan on how to make the UK Music scene more inclusive, which now does include that members will stop using the acronym BAME and will use Black, Asian or ethnic minority background instead. Industries such as music and football may represent better diversity at some levels, but both have recognised this needs to improve as does their culture of inclusion.

BAME – the history of a problematic term

Scholar-Activist and CEO of Ladders4Action, Dr Addy Adelaine says that understanding the history of BAME will help us to understand why the term is problematic. ‘The term BAME is rarely used outside of the UK, as it reflects the UK’s contentious and unique conceptual struggle with human identity. Throughout British history, how we identify individuals has evolved. The term BAME reflects the UK’s social and legal history, it is a strange conceptual mix of race, ethnicity and nationality.’ Dr Addy explains that in the late 18th Century, colonialism enabled white people to present themselves as inherently superior to others. She says racial hierarchies were created to specifically enable slavery and to ‘other’ the people they wished to claim power over. ‘Nuance of identity was removed because it is easier to mistreat and abuse those we do not see with nuance,’ she explains. ‘Nuance of identity helps us to see individuals, with individual stories, individual families and histories. Individuals who are deserving of equal treatment and a respected part of a collective humanity. While white people maintained individuality and nuance of identity, history tells us that nuance of identity is a privilege that not everyone is afforded’.

The words we use matter

She also tackles the issue of those who may become tired when discussing the correct terminology, as there is an assumption that the words we use are superficial and unimportant compared to what we mean, and the intention behind those words. ‘A common argument is that it’s hard to ‘keep up’ with the changing terminology around race. Our grandparents might have been taught to say ‘coloured’, our parents might think it’s impolite to say the word ‘Black’, and it can be easy to dismiss new terms as unnecessary political correctness. But the words we use do matter, they affect the people who hear them – regardless of the intention. And it is important to be open to hearing criticism and learning about context as language inevitably evolves’.

In her Point of View article, Na Shai Alexander offers the following advice: ‘As the meanings of words continue to change and evolve, our use of them should also adapt. We may not always know the history or etymology of the language that we use but we should always be striving to learn, grow, and understand.’

How does language matter in the context of your organisation with your service users, staff and volunteers?

Read these articles in full

The BAME debate: Why terminology matters when we’re talking about race

A Point of View: Language Matters: Everyday Words and Sayings Rooted in Racism


UK Music issues ten-point plan for increased diversity in workforce