Somia R Bibi and Loreen Chikwira
Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) is a contested category used within social policy and various academic spaces to refer to Black, Asian and other non-white minorities in Britain. The category is utilised based on the premise of shared traditions, religion, culture and experiences of inequality. In an examination of British policies and initiatives since post-World War II migration, social sciences and Humanities scholarship shows that the use of the BAME category has evolved and splintered to varying degrees across time and different locales.
Various activists and academics critique the use of the category in issues of policy and experiences of inequality. For example, in 2015, at the launch of the Integration Hub, Trevor Philips, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, criticised the use of the BAME category, stating that it serves to hide specific inequalities experienced by diverse groups. Additionally, Aspinall (2009) notes that the use of Black and South Asian categories in research and policy is contested due to ambiguity about the populations they refer to.
We further assert that categories such as British Black African (BBA), British South Asian (BSA) and BAME in government policies and research reports tends to invoke flawed concepts of belonging and identity. We point to the need to challenge the use of umbrella ethnic classifications, and to question how discourse on identity and ethnicity can be transformed to capture subtleties in a way that enriches empirical investigations, public policies and engagement with diverse groups. We acknowledge the need for some categorisation, but determining where and how it is cultivated is crucial.
This piece is shaped by our own reflections on being positioned as a Black African and BSA, and on conversations we had with other women during our respective PhD research.
Somia Bibi’s PhD project explored lived experiences around racialised beauty of those positioned as BSA, with a specific focus on complexion. 30 BSA women were interviewed – 10 Pakistani women whose families migrated from Mirpur, 10 Bangladeshi women whose families migrated from Sylhet and 10 Indian Gujarati women who twice migrated. She focused on these specific groups to explore the nuances and complexities in lived experiences when it comes to the enactment, embodiment and potential negotiation of race, racism and beauty standards and expectations.
Loreen Chikwira’s project involved first-generation Black Zimbabwean migrant women who have lived in Britain for more than 10 years. Qualitative methods were used to focus specifically on how gender intersects with race, immigration status, sociocultural status and economic factors in the women’s constructions of identity in Britain. 5 focus group interviews were conducted with existing women’s groups across the Midlands and South East England, and 9 further individual interviews were conducted with women from across the country.
Within our work Yuval Davis’s 2006 conceptualisation of belonging, relating to feelings of home, emotional attachment, inclusion and exclusion, provides a framework for our discussion. Davis (2018) notes that belonging is multi-scalar, and individuals may therefore belong to multiple groups that position them in contradictory ways. For example, women may belong to more than one national or ethnic identity simultaneously.
Black and Asian communities have a long history in Britain. Data from the 2011 census shows that ethnic minorities made up 15% of the total population of Britain (Gov.UK, 2018). We do note that discrepancies exist within the census data and that the population has changed over the last 9 years. We do not have space here to provide an extensive historical analysis of Black and Asian voluntary and involuntary migration to Britain, but we recognise the significant role of, for example European expansion through colonisation and slavery.
South Asian and Black Commonwealth migrants arriving in Britain were rarely ‘viewed as internal migrants moving within a common British world from one part of the empire to another. By the 1950s despite substantial migration from other countries, the term ‘immigrant’ was widely used to mean a black or Asian person’ (Webster 2019:266). The connotations attached to this label were negative, reinforcing and perpetuating racism and racial inequality. The South Asian and Black migrants who came to Britain were not uniform. Instead, significant, and often subtle but important differences existed and continue to exist within these groups. These differences were disregarded by the British state and those positioned as British, who only saw similarities in complexion, language and dress, reinforcing the binary positioning and differentiation of Black and South Asian vs White.
The evolving legacies of European expansion, the colonial era, Indian Partition and post-World War II migration still matter today in how we identify and perceive ourselves and are seen by the ‘Other’. The historical legacy is an intricate strand that ensures that there is a way to fortify and mark boundaries of belonging and unbelonging within the everyday differentiation between communities. This was potently reinforced by the women interviewed in our research projects.
Although research and policy audits have shown that ethnic minorities in Britain experience inequality, ethnic groups such as women who identify as British; Zimbabwean, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian Gujarati become homogenised within these large umbrella categories, which they don’t use and often reject. Both our studies highlighted that the categories of BBA, BSA and BAME collapse intersecting identities into the politics of ‘sameness’, obscuring tensions that exist in everyday experiences and differences in embodiment, negotiation and performativity of race, racism and gender within different spaces.
Such categories can even help conceal the reality of intra-racism. There is a need to defragment this binary positioning, which is significant but is only one contour of a complex reality. Findings from our projects revealed that, the borders and boundaries of belonging and unbelonging could be marked, reinforced and at times altered in complex ways in the divergent spaces that the women inhabited and moved through.
Large umbrella ethnic categories also imply a unitary identity that is fixed and does not leave room for change or the way gender affects experiences of inequality and notions of belonging. The research with Zimbabwean women showed that the women shared experiences of inequality such as racism and discrimination with other Black Africans in Britain. However, gender also intersected with immigration status, class and culture in the women’s reconstructions of their identities, how they were socially positioned by others and how they positioned themselves. ‘Other’, in this case, refers to other African and White women in Britain.
The women’s racialised identities and labels were ascribed to them by the society in which they live and are based on their immigration status. Migrants are assigned labels by the government which effectively define them as a collective and designate them as ‘the other’. Based on Yuval Davis’ (2010) arguments on multiple facets of belongings, ascribed labels of ‘immigrant’, ‘(failed) asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are part of a political project that defines individuals in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes of migrants in the country. The women interviewed also differentiated themselves from each other based on class and immigration status, reporting that those who were perceived as coming from lower socioeconomic positions in Zimbabwe were excluded from some social and religious spaces.
The BAME category does not reveal the nuanced differences and complexities that exist within the large umbrella categories of ethnicity. These nuances of identity and belonging are important to social policy and the effective implementation of these policies within the diverse areas of Britain. The findings from engaging with Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian Gujarati women showed that they experienced racism and discrimination, but that the focus on racism through a binary lens concealed the intra-racism and differentiation that exist within the group of women who are categorised as BSA. Although there are commonalities and shared cultural practices, the perceived differences that have been steadily marked, entrenched and naturalised within these communities over decades indicate that, often, members of each group of women, perceive a marked difference between one another in aspects such as their complexions and phenotypes. Thus, they use each other to understand and mark the spaces and enclaves in which they belong and where others belong or do not belong. Complexion and physical appearance are a medium through which other factors such as cultural mores reaffirm the boundaries and borders of belonging and unbelonging.
Overall, our studies demonstrated how categories such as BAME, BSA and BBA are insufficient to represent the nuanced experiences and identities that are fragmented across other factors such as class, ethnicity, culture and immigration status of ethnic minority women in Britain. Our analysis adds to existing work and commentary that challenges one to think about alternatives that can be incorporated into academic scholarship and policy research. Although we challenge the use of umbrella ethnic categories, we note the importance and benefits of their use in policy and research. Such categories have and always will face some form of contention and critique. Therefore, our discussion produces more questions than answers. What, then, are the categories we should use, and who gets to define these categories?
Anthias, F. (2008) ‘Thinking through the lens of translocational positionality: an intersectionality frame for understanding identity and belonging’. Translocations, Volume. 4, Issue 1, pp.5-20.
Aspinall, P.J. (2009) The Future of Ethnicity Classifications, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35:9, pp.1417-1435.
Bald, R.S. (1991) ‘Images of South Asian Migrants in Literature: Differing Perspectives’. New Community. 17, 3. Pp.413–31.
Webster, W. (2019) The Empire Comes Home: Commonwealth Migration to Britain. From: Levine, P. (ed.) The British Empire; Critical Readings. People, Volume 1. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp.265-300.
Yuval-Davis, N. (2006) ‘Belonging and the Politics of Belonging’. Pattern of Prejudice, 40 (3), pp.197–214.
Somia. R. Bibi is a PhD student. She is also a Sociologist at Birmingham City University. Her research interests include: Politics of beauty, race, racism and mental health. Loreen Chikwira is a Sociologist at Birmingham City University. Her research interests include: Researching and theorising of new African diaspora, Decoloniality, gender and identity. My Twitter handle is @Lochiks.