Masterclass: How to get race terminology right

Employers must make sure they ask employees directly how they would like to be referred to, says Sandra Kerr

Two recent events have brought race and disparity into sharp focus. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected black and Asian people, while the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted societal inequality. 

It’s positive that more businesses are now talking about racism, but many still feel discomfort when bringing up the subject – especially around terminology. There is a need for a new language, so how can employers make sure they use race terminology correctly? 

When Business in the Community (BITC) ran its first Race at Work survey in 2015, only one in three of 7,000 BAME respondents said they didn’t mind what terms employers used, and a third said they didn’t like any of the existing terminology, such as BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic), BME (black and minority ethnic), people of colour (PoC) and ethnic minority. The other third said they would choose to be referred to using any of these terms.

So in BITC’s Let’s Talk About Race booklet, I spelled out the preference: there is none. It’s a mixed economy and the consensus was that you do need some terminology if you are going to speak or write about race, but beyond that we just need to get past being uncomfortable. Some individuals do not like the term BAME or the phrase ‘minority’, and, while that may be an individual’s preference, when employers are trying to talk or write about this topic they simply cannot list everything.

Businesses that want to progress the conversation should admit their lack of confidence on the subject and move past it. The more you talk about it, the less uncomfortable you will become. It’s challenging to admit we might need to change our language but, if an employer is still unsure, the best course of action is to ask their employee network what terms they prefer. Their opinions matter the most, so the employer can then continue with confidence knowing they won’t offend anyone.

Sandra Kerr is race director at Business in the Community