A guide to race and ethnicity terminology and language

There are a significant number of words, phrases and acronyms that appear when talking about race and ethnicity which often change depending on the context of the conversation.

Language is continuously evolving. It's important to understand the meaning behind the terms we use to address people and to keep updated and willing to refresh our language so we use appropriate and respectful terms.

It’s also imperative to remember that individuals will have their own particular preferences as to how they would describe themselves, and how they would wish to be described. Identity is extremely personal. You should listen, educate yourself, learn, and politely ask about preferences, if in doubt.

Race versus ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are commonly used and are often used interchangeably. However, they evolved in different ways and do not hold the same meaning (although there is overlap).

Race

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). The categorisation is rooted in White supremacy and efforts to prove biological superiority and maintain dominance over others.

It's now widely accepted that race is a social construct. However, having been racialised and shared common experiences of racism, racial identity is important to many and can be a basis for collective organising and support for racially minoritised individuals.

Ethnicity

Ethnicity is 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.

Equality Act definitions

In the Equality Act 2010, the protected characteristic of ‘race’ is defined as including colour, ethnic or national origin, or nationality.

There is some overlap with the characteristic of religion or belief too with Jews and Sikhs considered to be ethnic groups under the act, although Muslims are not considered an ethnic group but a religious group only under the act’s definitions.

Other commonly used terms

Ethnic minority, minority ethnic or minoritised ethnic

These terms usually refer to racial and ethnic groups that are in a minority in the population. In the UK, they usually cover all ethnic groups except White British. For example, they include White minority ethnic groups such as Polish or Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller.

‘Minority ethnic’ is sometimes preferred over ‘ethnic minority’. Use of minority ethnic was proposed to help counter the use of the term ‘ethnic’ when referring to people who are not White British. Some felt that by not putting ‘ethnic’ first, ‘minority ethnic’ better recognised the fact that everyone has an ethnicity including White British people.

‘Minoritised ethnic’ (or the similar term ‘racially minoritised’) has been recommended more recently as it recognises that individuals have been minoritised through social processes of power and domination rather than just existing in distinct statistical minorities. It also better reflects the fact that ethnic groups that are minorities in the UK are majorities in the global population.

As we discuss further below, you should take care when using umbrella terms such as these. Users should be aware of the negative consequences of grouping all minoritised individuals together in this way, especially when there is significant diversity between them.

Always consider use of these terms carefully and be sure and prepared to clarify which races and/or ethnicities you are actually speaking about.

BAME and BME

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).

Use of the term BAME has been increasingly criticised. In Black History Month, our Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division recorded a podcast on ‘Is BAME problematic?’

BAME has become over-used, inappropriately used, and pronounced as a word, which means many are no longer comfortable with it. The controversy stems from the grouping together of diverse ethnicities, and the implication that it reflects a singular or homogenous ethnic identity.

BAME/BME may be appropriate in some contexts, for example, when you are making statistical comparisons between White and BAME/BME populations. However, write them in full at first use so as to let the reader know what they stand for.

You should also use capitals and avoid writing ‘Bame’ which implies it's a distinct word or identity. When speaking, spell out ‘B-A-M-E’ for this reason too.

The population of the UK has become much more ethnically diverse since the categories BME and BAME were first used and the range of differing experiences and identities within them has grown. There is a real need to acknowledge this and improve our understanding of the experiences of the different constituent groups rather than lumping them all together as one. Data collection and statistical analysis (sample size permitting) should seek to move beyond simplistic White and BAME/BME comparisons.

BAME or BME should not be used as a replacement for directly addressing a specific racial or ethnic group or individual when that is who we are speaking about. They are not adjectives and do not describe an individual identity (for example, avoid saying “He’s a BAME solicitor”, where possible be specific and say “He’s a Black solicitor” or “She’s an Asian solicitor”).

People of Colour

This is primarily used in the USA and has not been fully adopted within the UK although it has become more popular.

Some perceive it as a more positive term than BAME/BME because it does not assume or make reference to a majority White race. However, others see it as similarly problematic as BAME or BME, in that it groups together people of great ethnic diversity and different shared experiences and identities.

Tips

  • Consider which racial or ethnic groups you're talking about and ensure the terms you're using accurately reflect them
  • Avoid using umbrella terms like BAME or BME unnecessarily and remember they do not refer to a singular homogenous ethnic group
  • Avoid using BAME when other terms like race or ethnicity may be more appropriate, for example: avoid saying ‘BAME inclusion’ when you can say ‘racial inclusion’
  • Always explain acronyms in full in any writing, particularly at first use, and avoid pronouncing or writing as words, for example, ‘Bame’
  • Seek more detailed data and insights wherever possible so you can better recognise, understand and reflect the experiences of different minoritised ethnic groups
  • Accept and acknowledge that ethnicity is an integral part of a person’s identity and treat it as such; avoid describing a person’s identity as ‘BAME’
  • Think carefully about whether it's relevant to refer to someone’s racial or ethnic identity, for example, news stories sometimes refer to a minoritised individual’s ethnicity when it's not relevant and they would not do so if speaking about a White person
  • Respect people’s preferences and allow options to self-describe when asking survey questions
  • In the right context and when ethnicity is relevant, it can be ok to clarify how people describe their identity, but first, question why you need to know and avoid making racially minoritised individuals feel like outsiders by asking questions like “where are you from?”
  • Continue to educate yourself, listen and learn as language continually evolves
  • Own and learn from your mistakes, apologise if you get terminology wrong and cause offence

Having conversations about race, ethnicity, racism and discrimination

Often people avoid discussing race/ethnicity and related issues due to fear of saying the wrong thing. Although a natural feeling, we must get better at talking about race even when it's uncomfortable, to progress racial equality.

Open conversations, including about language, are of great significance to both allyship and inclusion. An ability to communicate with someone, to understand their experiences and empathise with their struggles is incredibly meaningful and an important part of forming human connections – including in professional contexts.

During Black History Month, we worked with Doyin Atewologun, Manjari Prashar and Fatima Tresh from Delta Alpha Psi on actions individuals can take to be more confident in discussions on race and ethnicity and how organisations can facilitate them.

Read the conversation on race

Terms frequently used when discussing race

White privilege

White privilege is the innate advantage White people have within society solely based on their race. This can manifest in a vast variety of ways.

Some examples include:

  • people that look like you are largely represented within media
  • you can easily find products which match your skin tone and hair type
  • your history is a part of the curriculum
  • you generally have a positive relationship with the police

The term does not discount the challenges White people have faced but describes the reality that, although White people and people of all races can have similar negative and disadvantageous experiences, White people will not suffer the biases of race in addition.

The word 'privilege' is intrinsically associated with wealth and power and while you may not have these attributes physically, it's true that you will, as a White person, have them socially.

Being aware of White privilege and being aware that many situations are often much less difficult for you because you are White creates an awareness that is both beneficial and necessary to dismantling racism. If people are not consciously aware of this advantage, it's perpetuated.

Anti-racism

Anti-racism is an active commitment to working against racial injustice and discrimination.

It's making conscious and thoughtful decisions regarding your own behaviours and how they negatively influence and impact your own stereotypes, biases and discriminatory actions. You do not have to be free of racism or bias to be anti-racist. Part of the role as an anti-racist person is self-reflection and self-improvement.

Practising anti-racism also includes actively fighting racism whenever it presents itself to you. An anti-racist is different from a non-racist due to the active nature of the position. To be anti-racist is to be an active part of the solution, whereas a non-racist is a bystander of the problem.

Other resources

Office for National Statistics – House style guidance on race and ethnicity terminology

GOV.UK – Writing about race and ethnicity

Institute of Race Relations – Definitions of terms

Black British Academics – Racial categorisation and terminology

BRAP – Race fluency

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