Survey finds ‘BAME’, ‘BME’ and ‘Ethnic Minority’ not representative

  • Published: 26.11.2021

Generic collective terms such as ‘BAME’, ‘BME’ and ‘Ethnic Minority’ are not representative or universally popular, according to the latest results of a consultation led by the NHS Race and Health Observatory.

The Observatory has today (26 November), announced the approach it will take to language when describing race and ethnicity.

It follows a month-long public survey, launched in July, which sought views on collective terminology such as ‘BAME’, ‘BME’ and ‘Ethnic Minority,’ language used to describe Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups.

Over 5,000 survey responses were received but no single, collective umbrella term to describe ethnic groups was agreed by the majority of respondents.

Responses from White British respondents were not counted where key questions asked whether individuals were comfortable being identified ‘as part of a collective’ group of people who are not White British.

As a result, the independent health body will use findings from the survey and focus groups to adopt five key principles in its communications which other organisations across the health and care system can also explore.

The report makes no recommendations for other organisations but encourages others in the system to have their own conversations about language.

Dr Habib Naqvi, director of the NHS Race and Health 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.”

Respondents were asked about their level of awareness of and comfort with specific terms, and whether they identified with any additional terms not included below.

  • Black and minority ethnic (BME)
  • Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME)
  • Ethnic minority
  • Minority ethnic
  • People of colour
  • Racialised minority
  • Racially minoritised
  • Global ethnic majority


In the survey in which 5,104 people took part;

  • “Ethnic minority” emerged as the least unpopular term although there were significant differences between ethnic groups with Black and Arab respondents less comfortable with the term. In total, 37.9% were “happy” with it, 37.9% were “unhappy”.
  • The terminology with the second highest number of people being “happy”, was Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME), 30.0%.
  • Excluding ‘ethnic minority’, there was no overall term that people were more happy than unhappy with, the terms “racialised minority” and “racially minoritised” were the least well known.

The Observatory will now undertake the following five key principles:

  1. Where possible, the Observatory will always be specific about the ethnic groups it is referring to – only using collective terminology where appropriate and necessary.
  2. The Observatory will not use acronyms or initialisms such as ‘BME’ or ‘BAME’.
  3. Where collective terminology is needed, the Observatory will always be guided by context, and not adopt a blanket term. Where there is a need to refer to more than one ethnic group at a time, the Observatory will use terms such as ‘Black and minority ethnic’, ‘ethnic minority’, ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’, interchangeably, to reflect the varying views of its stakeholders.
  4. The Observatory will always be transparent about its approach to language.
  5. The Observatory will be adaptable and remain open to changing its approach to language in the future.

Following the survey, the Observatory hosted a series of five focus group discussions with around 100 participants, including stakeholders with a professional interest, during September and October, designed to explore people’s preferences more deeply.

Focus Group participant, Clarissa Gardner, Researcher in Digital Health at Imperial College London, said:

“There are various opinions around the use of collective terms such as BAME and BME amongst people from ethnic minority communities in the UK. The focus group discussions served as a space to hear about individuals’ complex relationships with their race, ethnic background, nationality, and place of residence, and how this informed their opinions on the use of collective terms.

“It also allowed us to address each other regarding other terms or phrasings related to race and ethnicity that we find acceptable or unacceptable. Such ongoing discussions are vital for ensuring that our choice of language evolves with the times.”

The groups were limited to 20 participants per session, facilitated by Jacynth Ivey and Abdul Choudhry.

Facilitator, Jacynth Ivey, a non-executive director of Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Managing Director of Inspiring Hope, said:

“This work, to explore the impact that language has on individuals as well as policy making decisions within the wider healthcare system, has been challenging but crucial. We thank all participants for giving their time to support and engage in this important exercise. Whilst the Observatory was already committed to using specific terms where possible and avoiding acronyms, this engagement has provided greater insight into the diverse range of views held.”

Annette Hay, Chair of Coventry University Race Equality Council, said:

“This was a very timely and much needed discussion centred around the discourse on the growing number of generic and sometimes disagreeable terms used to describe individuals and communities who fall outside of the contrasting  ‘white British/white other’ ethnic categories.

“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”.


  • Respondents to the survey were from a diverse range of backgrounds; White British respondents made up the largest ethnic group of respondents at 1949 (38.2%). This was followed by Asian Indian with 574 (11.2%) and Black African with 451 (8.8%) respondents. For respondents who chose Other (Asian, Black, Mixed and White), the highest proportion were from mixed background (151 people)  or Filipino (68 people).
  • The survey was open from 13 July until 10 August, ethnicity categories were used from the 2021 Census, with participants given an option to self-identify where they don’t relate to existing classifications.
  • Jacynth Ivey is a non-executive director of Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS FT and Managing Director of Inspiring Hope, specialising in equality and diversity. She is also a member of the NHS Race and Health Observatory stakeholder engagement group. Abdul Choudhry is an associate of Inspiring Hope.
  • Over 375 people applied to join the ethnicity terminology focus groups.