Finding the proper word to describe the diverse minority groups within Britain is about more than just semantics; it becomes an issue of finding a single word that is both accurate and respectful. In contemporary Britain, the acronym ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) is often used as a catch-all term to describe non-white people. However, this superficially conflates Black and Asian identities and promotes a false sense of unity in favour of linguistic expediency.
Reviewing the historical dynamic between Africans and Indians in the British Caribbean exemplifies how the burden of societal injustice is seldom borne uniformly; using a single umbrella term to encapsulate an inherently diverse experience obfuscates the social realities of each group.
In the wake of the emancipation of African slaves in 1833, British plantation owners were desperate for a new source of cheap labour. To fill the labour vacuum, destitute Indians were recruited by the hundreds of thousands through the promise of a better life in the British Caribbean. Known as the indentured labour system, Indians who were otherwise unable to pay for the voyage signed a contract binding them to approximately five years of plantation labour for a fixed wage in exchange for passage to the British Caribbean. Between 1845-1917, 147,592 Indians arrived in Trinidad under the indentured labour system and an approximate total of 239,000 Indians arrived in Guyana. While slavery was technically illegal, indentured servitude became a new form of government-sanctioned ‘unfreedom’.
The influx of cheap Indian labour kept wages artificially low. Workers were unable to strike for higher wages or better treatment because the constant arrival of new Indians with contracts binding them to low-wage labour made all workers dispensable. Additionally, the draconian terms of Indian labour contracts, strictly enforced by colonial authorities, meant that any insurrection or refusal to work would result in heavy fines and imprisonment. Although initially the white plantation owners were outraged by African emancipation, the indentured labour system filled the labour vacuum as Africans moved to other occupations, which ultimately enabled the British to consolidate power and production that might have otherwise been challenged by freed Africans on their own.
Although Indian indentured labourers occupied the lowest socio-economic positions in Trinidad and Guyana, emancipated Africans generally viewed these new arrivals as an existential threat to their economic livelihood. Few freed Africans worked for their former slave masters. Rather, their newfound economic mobility had laid the foundations for a fragile yet burgeoning middle class. In his book Caribbean Masala: Indian identity in Guyana and Trinidad, Dave Ramsaran explains how “Africans, once at the bottom of the social scale, now had an easily recognisable class to which they could feel superior”. Furthermore, “Indo-Trinidadians were also hostile to African Trinidadians […] because of the colour of the Africans’ skin and the texture of their hair, Indo-Trinidadians equated them with the followers of the demon god Raavan from the Hindu Ramayana”. British colonial authorities recognised and manipulated these economic and political conditions to consolidate the social divisions amongst Indians and freed Africans, thereby pre-empting any threat of a unified African-Indian front.
While there is inherent power in solidarity, this extends only as far as it does not compromise the unique interests of each group. In the case of colonial Trinidad and Guyana, both Africans and Indians may have benefitted from lobbying collectively for fairer labour laws. However, despite both groups being oppressed under British rule, the African and Indian experience under this repressive rule diverged greatly. Using a single term to describe this oppression would unjustly conflate the experience of both groups and promote a false sense of historical unity.
Similarly, using the term BAME when describing the nuances of contemporary societal injustices, would be as futile as trying to use this umbrella term to understand the diverse historical reality of oppressed groups in colonial Trinidad and Guyana.
Furthermore, the term BAME explicitly singles out two groups: black and Asian. Yet delineating a rigid separation between these two groups implies that ethnic identities are mutually-exclusive. In reality, according to the CIA World Factbook, around 20% of Guyanese and 23% of Trinidadians today identify as ‘mixed race’ to some degree. Umbrella terms with specific delineations, therefore, run the risk both being too ambiguous and too specific to represent the true intersectional nature of identity.
Viewing racial oppression in colonial Trinidad and Guyana through a BAME lens exemplifies how superficial terms often lead to a superficial understanding of reality. The contemporary use of the term in the UK equally conflates the unique experience of each group it is meant to represent, which undermines its overall utility as an accurate descriptor. While there is space in the English vernacular for certain umbrella terms, BAME attempts to balance the intersection between generalisation and specificity, but ultimately fails at both.
Christopher Lindrud is International Coordinator at the Trade Center of the Americas.