18 March 2011

Our racialising Census...

I totally loathe the racialising nature of the categories used so often in large-scale, quantitative government research. The old and guilty divisions by pigmentation - black and white - are racialising categories. Period. I cannot understand, on any level, how we can claim that "white" is a plausible ethnic group. Ethnicity explicitly recognises the social and cultural nature of the ties which constitute it. Our understanding of ethnic distinctions ought to be self-consciously poised, mutable and content with overlapping identifies; constructions, constituted by a legacy of our biographical connections, and spurning anything which smacks of the biological concerns of racist theory.

Opening up my census, then, I looked with incredulous disappointment at the questions asked, the options furnished, and the assumptions which the questionnaire implicitly subscribes to. Worse, the census asks us the question what is your ethnic group? Its emphasis is not on ethnic background, your parents or wherever in the world they may have hailed from. Throughout, the questions are obsessed with pigmentation. It is grotesque. Interestingly, I discover that the Census questionnaire differs in different parts of the United Kingdom - and that the offending section on ethnicity is also different, North of the Tweed.  Britology Watch has the full text of both English and Welsh and Scottish questions, and subsequently pens a very sharp post on the implications of this, which largely captures my own feelings. I'd vigorously encourage everyone to read the post and have a think about it. Here's an excerpt from his analysis:

"Spot the difference? In England and Wales, non-white ethnic groups, are not offered the standard option of including ‘English’ as part of their ethnic group: they’re officially classified only as ‘Black British’, ‘Asian British’, etc., and not ‘Black English’ or ‘Asian English’. By contrast, black and Asian persons living in Scotland are permitted to identify as ‘Black Scottish’ and ‘Asian Scottish’.

Not only is the ethnicity of black and minority ethnic (BAME) persons in England and Wales not officially to be classified as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’, but those latter terms are reserved as ethnic categories exclusively for white persons. I.e., according to British officialdom, if you’re ethnically English, you’re white. If that sounds a bit like the BNP, that’s because this is a form of – indeed, a form for – racial apartheid."

Read the full post here: White and English, but not white-English: how to deal with the discriminatory Census for England and Wales...


  1. Lol. What is your self-consciously poised, mutable and content with overlapping identity? Tick box that applies.

  2. Heh. A fair point, Indy. I should say, I'm not sufficiently post-modern to reject all categorisation as an inherently reactionary endeavour. That said, I do think it is important to know what sort of thinking underpins - or does not underpin - the categories we find ourselves using.

  3. This is a test post, having lost one to cyberspace.

  4. I was not aware of any regional differences being applicable to the Census.

    Equally I can see no legitimate purpose in including ethnicity in a census. What purpose does it serve or help to define other than a grading of British citizenship?

    While I can understand the need for this ten yearly stock-take I rail against the lost opportunity it could have to comprehensively audit the democratic health of the country.

    Generic questions, such as - do you consider the present model of democracy benefits the people - The Sovereign as Head of State or a Republic - to continue or rescind membership of the EU - for or against the privatisation of health services and utilities - sovereignty of parliament or of the people? All of these and probably more could be asked and answered in tick box yes or no boxes with no reference to partisan party politics.

    It would in fact be the poll of polls and give a fairly comprehensive reading of the efficacy of the governors by the governed.

    Do I think it will happen? The short answer is no. One of the edicts of establishments is never to expose it to criticism or ridicule by allowing fact to destabilise statistics.

  5. In fairness the purpose of the census is to describe who the Scottish or British people are, not to analyse their opinions.

    I think there are some issues with how definitions of ethnicity etc. But on the other hand it would be handy the next time some blowhard who has been reading the Daily Mail too much says you know the Muslims are taking over, it's only a matter of time before we are all living under Shariah Law to be able to say with some degree of certainty what margin they are wrong by.

  6. Crinkly,

    Sorry to hear that my blog are your remarks. I too hadn't twigged about the regional differences until I read yon post from Britology. That said, I was mostly just being obtuse - as I'd read a piece or two referring to the question about speaking Scots, and didn't anticipate that it would be posed throughout the UK.

    On ethnicity, I'm torn on these matters. With my quantitative hat on, I can't pretend I'm not interested in how the population self-identifies through the census. However, some states - such as France I believe - do not officially collect this sort of data. As the foregoing makes clear, it is full of problems, iffy racialising tendencies - and enshrines potentially ugly assumptions.

    Like you, I was struck by the comparative paltriness of the questions being posed - and the obvious opportunities missed to use this gigantic research exercise to solicit other information. A shame.

  7. Indy,

    Quite so. The quantitative data in the census is grand for subverting local experiences and understanding of something like demographics, by tabulating the true (or at least more accurate) situation. Your example is a good 'un.