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We are BAME too, but what does it really mean?

Is Sajid Javid the first minority ethnic person to be Home Secretary?

    Sajid Javid is the new Home Secretary
    Sajid Javid is the new Home Secretary

    The appointment of Sajid Javid was noted as a moment of progress in British politics, as he was hailed as the first BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) Home Secretary.

    To see someone visibly from an ethnic minority running the Home Office is absolutely worthy of remark, particularly in our anti-immigration and Brexit climate, but my niggling question is this: is Mr Javid the first minority ethnic person to hold that office? 

    There have been Jewish Home Secretaries; Leon Brittan, Michael Howard, even Jack Straw, who has a Jewish great-grandparent in his lineage. Where do they sit under the BAME umbrella term?

    There is some debate about what BAME means. It is mostly defined as an umbrella term for people who are part of non-white communities in the UK or of non-white descent. Some interpret it to include ethnic minorities regardless of skin colour. 

    Either way it is a complex term for the diverse heritages making up the UK Jewish community. Our Jewish identities and legally protected ethnic minority status under the Race Relations Act are not dependent on skin colour. 

    I have never felt fully comfortable with “White — British” when box ticking on forms, but I feel silly ticking “White — Other”, as if I’m deliberately making a point. 

    But Jews are “other” and have always been treated as such. So perhaps it is a point worth making.

    Part of the complication is that we are seen primarily as a religion rather than a race or ethnicity. On equality and diversity forms you will rarely find “Jewish” listed as an option in the ethnicity category. 

    But another part of this is the perception of our privilege. In a line up you could not necessarily identify a secular Jew as he or she would not have any distinguishing features or clothing to indicate Judaism. 

    Unless you are strictly Orthodox, choose to wear a kippah or bear another emblem of Judaism on your person, you blend in. You pass as white if that’s your skin tone and

    therefore on physical first impressions carry the privileges associated with appearing to be part of the powerful majority. 

    And that’s before we factor in the antisemitic tropes that Jews have money and social status. 

    Michael Howard was Home Secretary in the 1990s (Photo: Getty)
    Michael Howard was Home Secretary in the 1990s (Photo: Getty)

    So even when we “come out” as Jewish, many do not see us as the minority we statistically, legally and rightfully are. And those tropes are helping to write us out of progressive historical narratives.

    Of course, the Sephardi community may more easily identify with the BAME term despite being no more or less Jewish than any pale Ashkenazi Jew. 

    In 2015 Trevor Phillips spoke about how the term BAME had become out-dated. He said its use can “mask the real disadvantages suffered by ethnic and cultural groups”. But his suggested replacement was “visible minorities” — a nice idea, but a lateral move for the Jewish community. 

    There is an idea that privilege is invisible. You cannot see the advantages someone has behind them and often they cannot see them either. I believe this works both ways and you cannot always see disadvantages or persecution either. 

    At such an important time when we are actively protesting and trying to tackle ingrained societal antisemitism, we must not let ourselves be written out of the historical places where we have achieved. 

    This is not the minority Olympics — it’s not a petty attempt to take away anything from Sajid Javid or the minorities who identify with him. 

    I am looking forward to seeing what he achieves in his new position. But the media coverage surrounding his appointment shows that Jews are not perceived accurately as the diverse minority ethnic group that we are.

    Abi Symons is a freelance writer 

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