An independent body set up by the NHS to tackle health inequalities has formally committed to never use blanket acronyms such as “BAME” after feedback that they are not representative.
The NHS Race and Health Observatory launched a four-week consultation with the public in July on how best to collectively refer to people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups.
The Observatory said it has become the norm in public policy to use initialisms to refer to a “hugely diverse” group of people, but that renewed scrutiny has been spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It said terminology that “crudely conflates” different groups “does not just erase identities; it can also lead to broad brush policy decisions that fail to appreciate the nuance of ethnic inequality in the UK”.
Generic collective terms such as “BAME”, “BME” and “ethnic minority” are “not representative or universally popular”, the Observatory said after receiving responses from 5,104 people.
It found no single, collective umbrella term to describe ethnic groups was agreed by the majority of respondents.
The body had previously said it was committed to avoiding the use of acronyms and initialisms, but has now formalised this as one of five key principles it is adopting in its communications.
Where possible it will be specific about the ethnic groups it is referring to, but where collective terminology is necessary it will “always be guided by context and not adopt a blanket term”.
It said it will remain adaptable and open to changing its approach to language.
Dr Habib Naqvi, director of the Observatory, said: “The communities we engage and work with needed to be at the centre of these broad conversations before the Observatory took a final decision on its own approach towards terminology use.
“We hope that the proposed principles will help others to reflect on their own approaches to language use.
“This is not the end of the conversation as we remain open to revisit preferences over time.”
The survey found “ethnic minority” was the least unpopular collective term, with equal proportions feeling unhappy and happy with it (37.9%).
Some 30% of respondents were happy with the term “BAME”.
White British people made up the largest group of respondents (38.2% of the total), but their responses were not counted when questions were asked about feeling comfortable about collective terms for non-White British groups.
This was followed by Asian Indian (11.2%), and black African (8.8%) respondents.
The Observatory also held five focus groups with around 100 participants over September and October.
Annette Hay, chairwoman of Coventry University Race Equality Council, said the discussion had been “very timely and much needed”.
She said: “I found the discussion very dynamic and engaging because, like many others, it is something that I have personally battled with and against for a long time now.
“There were some very compelling arguments for and against the use of various phrases, acronyms and terminology, most of which seemed to reinforce the need for more conversations and consultations, so that we might find new and more nuanced ways of referencing, describing and analysing, typically marginalised and minoritised groups.”