27/07/2019 07:37 BST | Updated 28/07/2019 11:07 BST

'As If The ‘B’ In BAME Is Silent': Are Javid And Patel A Victory For All Ethnic Minorities?

Boris Johnson's cabinet was hailed as the most diverse ever – but when we use BAME, are we using the advancement of some communities to hide the fact others are held back?

HuffPost UK
Sajid Javid and Priti Patel have been appointed Chancellor and Home Secretary respectively.

Why should I be personally optimistic about two Asian politicians in office? Their achievement should be acknowledged and learned from – but not celebrated as if a victory for black people.”

Denzel, 25, is reflecting on the announcement this week of the “most ethnically diverse cabinet in history,” with the appointment of Sajid Javid and Priti Patel to two of the biggest job in government, chancellor and home secretary.

“People need to stop assuming that positive societal progression for any type of ethnicity or diverse group is beneficial for all, ” he told HuffPost.

The announcement of Javid and Patel’s new roles was a historic moment for Britain’s BAME (black and ethnic minority) community – the first time that two non-white people have held those posts at the same time.

Both are of south-Asian descent and children of immigrants; Javid is the son of a Pakistani bus driver and Patel has Ugandan-Indian heritage. 

In the days leading up to the Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle, and the announcement of his new government line-up, sources close to Johnson were briefing journalists that, “Boris will build a cabinet showcasing all the talents within the party that truly reflect modern Britain.”

“The Conservatives are finally taking their ethnic minority problem seriously,” one commentator wrote.

But some people in Britain’s black community reject the term BAME, fearing that lumping ethnic minorities together in one category means that the advancement of some communities can hide the fact others are held back. 

It’s important context that the Tory Party Chair, James Cleverly, is black and will also attend cabinet. So will Kwasi Kwarteng, who has been appointed a minister in the Business Department. But some believe that the celebration of the cabinet’s new BAME credentials – when only really referring to the two biggest Asian appointments – is problematic. 

Sajid and Priti only got appointed by mimicking ‘massa’.”Andrea Price

Arguments around the use of the term BAME are ongoing within the black community, and many people feel that it allows institutions and society to disguise a lack of representation of some groups, by pointing to the inclusion of others. 

As one journalist, Winnie Ngozi Okocha, put it: “I’m gonna speak for myself: it’d be refreshing to see the B in BAME for damn once.”

The Windrush Scandal last year was, for many, the death knell in an already troubled relationship between Britain’s black community and the Conservative government. 

One of the biggest political scandals of recent years, it saw dozens of black Brits wrongly deported, and many others denied access to housing, healthcare and the right to work. This scale of the problem was exposed within weeks of the Race Disparity Audit, which revealed numerous public service failures in the treatment of black people. 

From the Brixton riots to the implementation of the Race Equality Act, and the MacPherson Inquiry, which laid bare institutional racism within the Metropolitan police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, there has been an ongoing concern that Britain’s government does not do enough to protect the interests of black people in this country. 

Given this sentiment, HuffPost UK asked people from the black British community whether they feel the new cabinet – and specifically the appointment of a home secretary and chancellor from ethnic minorities – is a win for inclusion. We found a resounding lack of optimism about Patel and Javid. Moreover, many black people - not ‘BAME’ or Asian - expressed concern that they do not feel the government represents their community specifically. 

Andrea Price, a 34-year old media executive from South London, spoke to us while she was enjoying the heatwave on her day off from work. “This is not a positive move for diversity and I do not feel represented as a black woman because they only got there by mimicking ‘massa’.” Massa, or ‘master’, is how black people referred to their white masters during slavery.

Florence Eshalomi is a London Assembly member and has been involved in local politics for over a decade – something she says she did in order to advocate for the black community. “As a black woman in politics, when speaking to local residents, there is a feeling from the black communities that politicians do not care about them and their interests,” she told us.

Eshalomi believes the new cabinet line-up is not indicative of lasting change and will not undo damage done to BAME communities by policies.

It’s always the ‘black’ in BAME that’s missing in action and this why so many black people – and increasing numbers of people of colour – despise this term BAMEShaista Aziz

“The appointment of Priti Patel and Sajid Javid should be welcomed and undoubtedly it will send a message to many Asian children that you can achieve two of the greatest roles in government, but it is only symbolic on the surface, especially if you look at the history of the new prime minister, his wider cabinet team and the Conservative Party as a whole,” she said.

Simon Mills is a 31-year-old black Rastafarian man from from East London, who told HuffPost UK that he doesn’t see himself mirrored in the senior members of the government.

“There is no diversity in politics. You cannot have diversity when it’s still controlled by dominant culture and history shows that having more black people in parliament doesn’t positively affect the lives of black people - unless they have the mindset to do something for black people,” he said.

PA Images via Getty Images
[L-R] Diane Abbott, Keith Vaz, Bernie Grant and Paul Boateng shortly after being elected in 1987

However, citing the late Tottenham MP Bernie Grant and the current Labour shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, as positive role models, Mills said that there are few black politicians that “put their head above the parapet for black people”.

“Fair play to them [...] but they may as well be whiteAndrea Price

Rachelle Romeo, the daughter of Windrush victim Elwaldo Romeo, echoed this sentiment: “I wish [the lack of black cabinet members] didn’t matter as I don’t feel we are different; we are just part of the human race just with different geographical origins. The problem I have is how it seems that the Asian community are deemed as more tolerable than the black community by the British.”

Campaigners have argued for some time that the term BAME often serves to meet diversity quotas in organisations and institutions where black people remain exclusion.

“It’s as though the ‘B’ in BAME is silent,” one black woman – who didn’t want to be named in this article – told us.

Johnson and Javid
Why should I be personally optimistic about two Asian politicians in office? Their achievement should be acknowledged and learned from – but not celebrated as if a victory for black peopleDenzel Walters

Shaista Aziz, journalist and equalities campaigner, said “over the past few years I’ve seen up close and personal how horrific identity politics are being wielded by the right and the left to promote and celebrate incompetent people with the shadiest of political records.

“I can’t help but notice that overwhelmingly its upper class, wealthy, elite and light-skinned British people of South Asian heritage benefiting from this form of politics. It’s always the ‘black’ in BAME that’s missing in action and this why so many black people – and increasing numbers of people of colour – despise this term BAME,” she told HuffPost UK.

Aziz, who herself is of Pakistani-descent said “representation absolutely matters - but only when it’s meaningful and grounded in substance.

“To suggest British Asians should celebrate these figures being appointed by a prime minister who has referred to Muslim women who wear niqab as bank robbers and letter boxes and called black people ‘piccaninies’ and as having watermelon smiles is a ‘collective win’ for BAME people is reductive, patronising, dangerous and tokenistic.

“These cabinet appointments are not about representation, they’re about furthering and legitimising horrifying policies damaging and destroying the lives of the most vulnerable in our country and disproportionately impacting black people and people of colour”.  

BBC presenter Lukwesa Burak said this situation can be seen beyond politics. “The mistake made is that colour, any colour = BAME. Diversity job done! Any yet black Britain looks on and still thinks ‘he/she does not represent me’.” 

Of course, what Patel and Javid will do in their new positions remains to be seen. While Javid’s role will oversee managing Britain’s finances, Patel’s tenure as Home Secretary will see her looking after the hugely controversial areas of immigration and crime and policing. Black people are over-represented in the criminal justice system in the UK.

She has previously backed Theresa May’s hostile environment policies, which are deeply unpopular in the black community, and spoken in favour of the death penalty.

Broadcaster Edward Adoo says, “it’s imperative for Boris to connect with black people and other communities by ensuring they are represented within the cabinet.”

“It’s probably time to cut the chord on the term ‘BAME’ and have a better definition.”