The Poverty of Labels: Why we should dismiss the ‘BME’ label as illogical, otherizing, and counter-productive

I shall start this piece with full disclosure: my ancestry is ‘white’, rendering me part of a group deemed privileged by birth. I am nevertheless a supporter of diversity: people with different backgrounds and experiences should mix and learn from each other. How else, after all, would J. S. Mill’s ‘cauldron of ideas’ boil and bubble, and society thrive? But ‘BME’ categorisation and things like SU BME offices don’t help: they perpetuate unequal treatment and division, obscure the more pertinent socio-economic inequalities under the guise of institutional racism, and are, plainly, racialist.

Let’s look at what ‘BME’ stands for – ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’. It originated in the US, where it was used to extend the discussion of rights beyond African-Americans. In a country where the words ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ were enshrined in law, ‘BME’ may have seemed appropriate (although I fail to see how ‘BME’ is in any way substantively different to the word ‘coloured’). In a UK context, BME defines people who are ‘non-white’. This immediately makes the BME/non-BME split biological, and not too dissimilar to categorisations used to justify horrendous acts of segregation in the past (and current) century.

Even an ancestry-based definition fails to inject the ‘BME’ term with an ounce of logic. Where do you draw the line at who is ‘white’ and who isn’t? Are Arabs, commonly defined as ‘BME’ despite many having fair skin, white? What about Turks, Iranians, and Armenians? If we were to (prejudicially) distinguish based on colour, as ‘BME’ ultimately does, these people don’t differ much from darker-skinned Europeans living around the Mediterranean.

Having said that, ‘BME’ aims to address very real societal problems, such as social inequality. Once again, it fails. Let us examine some arguments for why British ‘BME’ communities are uniquely disadvantaged:

1) “People from BME backgrounds disproportionately come from lower-income backgrounds, have fewer connections and have been brought up with worse schooling and more struggles. Therefore, they need all the help they can get.”

True, the ugly side of Britain’s colonial past has led to many inescapable societal disadvantages affecting British people of African and Asian origin more than others. Yet, this argument is socio-economic. White working-class students, of whom there are many, are left behind by initiatives that solely help ‘BME’ students, and remain disadvantaged as a result. This is quite unfair, and dangerous.

2) “‘BME’ people have different cultural backgrounds and may not fit in easily in white-dominated professional and educational environments, which inhibits their success.”

This argument has merit, yet ‘BME’ has nothing to do with it. What about white students from non-English cultures? Other ethnic minorities like Greeks, Italians and East Europeans, who all face the same ‘barrier’?

Furthermore, this leads to misguided initiatives such as ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’. For one, judging scholarly works by the author’s skin colour is, again, racist. Secondly, in a UK context, it is natural that most reputable academic work over the last 300 years has been authored by the dominant demographic: that is a function of numbers and old power relations. Being Russian, I do not, for instance, complain that my curriculum at a British university is not ‘Russian’ enough, as that would be laughable.

I accept the point that past power relations and their socio-economic consequences have resulted in ‘whites’ being overrepresented in universities. This is something that the egalitarian approach of modern higher education should eventually remedy. After all, upon admission and assessment, LSE students are judged just by their achievements and, when it comes to exams, an anonymised candidate number. Attributing the ‘BME attainment gap’ to institutionalised racism is, therefore, misinformed.

3) “The top-professions are dominated by whites. White people like to hire their own. Such institutional racism means ‘BMEs’ need support”

This seems problematic. Speaking from my own experience at City firms, I realised that people do not care about where you come from, or what colour your skin is: what they care about is you being an effective worker, pleasant to be around, and appropriately behaved. It’s clear that none of these have to do with race. Furthermore, it does not make commercial sense to limit diversity, as clients come from all over the world and would not respond well to firms with racist hiring policies. As a result, firms like Goldman Sachs, Freshfields, and McKinsey all devote special attention to people from ethnic minority backgrounds. For a fair job market, one must ensure equality of opportunity and treat candidates based on potential ability, rather than skin colour.

All things considered, ‘BME’ categorisation only achieves ‘otherization’: an us/them distinction to which Oxford neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor attributes much of human cruelty. If I were to draw a common line through the problems above, it would be socio-economic disadvantage; but this is not something shared exclusively by non-whites, and the solutions to these problems should not be offered in racial terms. This is why I welcome general social mobility initiatives, such as the LSE SU’s landmark decision to introduce a Social Mobility and Class Officer last year, and frown at most things labelled ‘BME only’.

As Trevor Philips said, ‘BME’ exists purely “to tidy away the messy jumble of real human beings who share only one characteristic – that they don’t have white skin”. Let’s end it.

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