guest blog: the problem with ‘bame’ / roy alexander weise
“I rant. A lot. Because I have to. Because things just don’t sit right with me, and seeing as my ancestors and people like me have fought for the right to speak, I must. I have also been watching The Kalief Browder Story on Netflix, so I’m feeling particularly woke right now.
I DON’T LIKE THE TERM BAME! IT’S RUDE. IT’S INEFFICIENT. IT’S REDUCTIVE. I’ve been on a bit of a mini-crusade on Twitter because the term kept popping up on my timeline, on job descriptions, in the news. Thankfully, I’m not alone. Natalie and tiata fahodzi don’t like it either – in fact, they held a Devoted & Disgruntled event to explore alternatives, and they’ve given me a platform beyond 140 characters to creatively, and more wholesomely, get to the bottom of my disdain for the term BAME.
To give some context: I am a theatre director. I am a man. I am Black. My heritage is Jamaican and Ghanaian. My parents met here in London and this is where I was born. I grew up in Brixton, South London, a place that was once famous for riots and the best market in the country but is now the hotspot for overpriced Jerk Chicken and overpriced housing. Luckily, I still live in the house that I grew up in. Many of my neighbours still live here too. Most of us are Black African and Caribbean. I have always known I was Black, but I also, kinda, didn’t know. There wasn’t really a need for me to know.
Let me explain.
I had never experienced racism or racial discrimination because the MAJORITY of people in the environments that I grew up in, played in, learned in, worshipped in and partied in, were Black. I was living in the majority most of the time and hadn’t really cottoned onto just how much being Black would affect the rest of my life. The first time I was in the MINORITY was when I went to drama school, Rose Bruford College. Now, we know that such institutions are notoriously atrocious when it comes to diversity, so I won’t go in on them right now. I’ll leave that to the brilliant and tenacious Steven Kavuma and The Diversity School. Like many of the Black artists that I meet, drama school and the entertainment industry were the first times that people understood what it meant to be made a minority. And I say ‘made’ very intentionally, because there is nothing that should make anybody a minority in an educational establishment. We all got into the same school to learn the same shit.
The small minority of black students very instinctively gravitated towards one another. That wasn’t necessarily by choice. I was quite disorientated, I didn’t feel as if there was a desire from the white students to connect with me. When they did, it felt incredibly superficial most of the time. There were lots of out-of-date Hip-Hop references banded about whenever I was near, lots of badly pronounced ‘Wagwarns’. We all gravitated towards one another out of necessity to retain sanity, to feel comfortable, to feel equal, to feel safe. We found a confidence in our tribe. We didn’t have to shy away from who we were or speak ‘proper’ English all the time. We spoke in slang, sang Bashment out loud, bussed a couple dance moves in the canteen or courtyard; like we would if we were in our more familiar MAJORITY setting.
This offended people. We were somehow louder than everybody else. Somehow took up more space. We definitely weren’t louder than everyone else, and if we were, so what? There was nothing aggressive about us at all. It was impossible to take the MAJORITY of the space because there were literally no more than 30-40 Black, Asian and Hispanic students in the entire campus. It was like we had swallowed amplifiers for some people: too loud, too sassy, too rude, too present. But we were just different.
Then came a point towards the end of school when we were riffing about all the concerns we had about going out into the big wide world, and somebody in my class said, “You’ll be fine, Roy. You’re a minority. There’s not as much competition”. I was stunned. What did that mean? Why am I not a part of the same competition as they were? The same industry that they’re part of? And furthermore: who the fuck are you calling a minority?
I realised that I was seen as ‘less than’ then, and coming into the industry I realised the same. I had a decent run of successful job applications and I kept wondering whether it was because I was ‘BAME’. How shit it would be if that was the reason why I got all these jobs? It’s awful to question your ability to do the job because you feel like you’re ticking a box for someone. We’re all fragile enough to have such pressure applied to you solely because of the colour of your skin.
So the term ‘BAME’ just doesn’t sit right with me. It never has. And with this article as a provocation, I feel like I might be discovering more specifically why.
BAME. It’s an acronym. Acronyms are words or names formed of as abbreviations for something. Usually a company or organisation have an acronym; like ACE (Arts Council England) or NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). It’s a shortcut, but not a shortcut really, just lazy. Black and Asian people aren’t the same. Our experiences aren’t the same. Culturally, we are vastly different. This shortcut removes the complexity of Black and Asian people, cultures and experiences; placing us into a box of problems to be solved, boxes to be ticked, quotas to be met, documentation, filing, bureaucracy, paperwork. There is an immediate prompt to erase the narrative of those in this category as the very nature of referring to them all as ‘other’, diminishes the rich and differing experiences of integration and migration.
MINORITY. So minority means: 1. the smaller number or part. The opposite of minority is majority. Major as an adjective means more important, bigger, or more serious than others of the same type. Minor means having little importance, influence, or effect, especially when compared with other things of the same type. Now, I have to admit that, as a lover of stories, I am partial to the odd conspiracy theory and the nature of conspiracy theory is to question everything, not take it all as a given. So I am sitting here wondering how in the hell are policymakers able to call people like me – people who aren’t white and European, essentially – as ‘having little importance, influence, or effect, especially when compared with other things of the same type’. I mean, WOW! That’s some fucked up shit, right? That’s very fucked up. And we accept it. We don’t interrogate it like we should. We seem content with every small gesture given towards equality. But is this equality? We all see the job adverts inviting applications from BAME candidates. We all see the adverts asking for people who are of less importance, influence and effect, especially when compared to our white counterparts. And the truth is that we do have to work much harder and the assumption is that we aren’t as good. And why is that? There is power in words (and acronyms).
MINORITY ETHNIC. I really struggle to know what is meant by ‘Minority Ethnic’. Is this other ethic groups who are marginalised? Is this referring to Black and Asian people as Minority Ethnic? What do these people look like? What are their experiences? I need clarity. BAME completely erases other experiences. It doesn’t allow you to think of the Hispanic experience, the South American experience, the Native Amerindian, the Aborigine experience. Because none of the above are Black or Asian and minority ethnic is vague and allows for one to not regard such experiences when considering these terms. It seems that the term was adopted to appease the discontent that comes from the oppressed communities. It was BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), but then became BAME (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic). Now we all know that historically Black communities have been much more vocal and active about combating the oppression that we have experienced and so, of course, it makes sense for policymakers to appease the tensions that arise with positive discrimination.
It seems that four letters make the white experience easier; for the purpose of more fluid conversation. It means that we don’t actually have to have uncomfortable conversations addressing the complexity of difference. What a shame! What a waste of time! What a waste of human interaction if we are not to really truly understand the human experience. It shocks me more that in theatre – the world where language is sovereign, where the world’s greatest wordsmiths have roamed and delved into the depths of darkness to explore the human condition – we aren’t able to have conversations that make us feel uncomfortable. What’s the worst that might happen? Somebody gets a bit heated and passionate? Well, obviously. What else do you expect when they’ve been referred to as LESS THAN their whole lives? Those moments of discomfort cannot stop us from facing the societal shitstorm that we have inherited. We all have to work to find better ways to communicate about identity.”
Photo credit: Diversity Mark by ArtsWorkers on Flickr.
roy alexander weise is the 19th annual winner of the James Menzies-Kitchin Award and directed his critically acclaimed, sell out production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall at the Young Vic. He is now Associate Director at the Harts Theatre Company, Lead Acting Tutor at Young & Talented School of Stage & Screen and an Associate Artist at Hightide Festival Theatre.