The Power of Language: A Consultation Report on The Use Of Collective Terminology At The NHS Race and Health Observatory


The NHS Race & Health Observatory was formally established in April 2021, with a remit to examine ethnic health inequalities in England and beyond. Its primary objective is to commission new research and synthesise existing evidence to support the NHS and other national bodies to reduce these inequalities through evidence-based policy recommendations. In pursuing this objective, it is important not just to consider what our priorities should be, but also how we talk about them. 

As an organisation working in the field of race equality, we recognise the profound power of language. Terminology that crudely conflates different groups of people does not just erase identities; it can also lead to broad brush policy decisions that fail to appreciate the nuance of ethnic inequality in the UK.  

This report details the findings of a stakeholder engagement exercise held over the Summer of 2021. We engaged with thousands of people to better understand how our stakeholders feel about collective terminology, and about terminology around race in general. We learned not only people’s views about language, but also found that conversations about language are a gateway to reflections about so much more – power, belonging, identity, collectivism – and that it is impossible to divorce what we do from the language we use. 

We began this process intending to settle on terminology that we, as an organisation, would use to speak collectively about groups who experience ethnic health inequalities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not as simple as that. The diversity in this country – cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity of thought – is such that no one term could ever suit all of our stakeholders. We are a nation of complex individuals, each person a rich intersection of characteristics, values, and backgrounds. 

Our outcome then, much like the issues we are grappling with, is nuanced. We have not settled on a term, but on a set of principles, drawn from the enriching and enlightening conversations we’ve had on this topic over the past months. This report was designed primarily to look inward, and we will not be recommending that other organisations follow our path. Instead, we recommend that others take their own time to listen to and learn from the people they work with and for. 

Our principles 

  • We will always be specific where possible about the ethnic groups we are referring to, only using collective terminology where there is a legitimate need to do so.  
  • We will not use acronyms or initialisms such as BME or BAME.  
  • Where collective terminology is needed, we will always be guided by context, and will not adopt a blanket term. In the event that the context is not decisive, we will use collective terms such as ‘Black and minority ethnic’, ‘ethnic minority’, ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic’ interchangeably. This is to reflect the fact that no one term is suitable to all of our stakeholders and to respect individual and community dignity. 
  • We will always be transparent about our approach to language. 
  • We will always be adaptable and remain open to changing our approach to language in the future.