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Ethnicity: what the census doesn't tell us

United Kingdom

Looking closer at the census. Photo: comedy_nose, under a CC License.

As the story goes, we are hurtling towards the anniversary of an important census, when Jesus’s family made its way to Bethlehem. Here in Britain, we have recently been analysing the results of our own 2011 survey – completed without most of us having to undertake an arduous journey (on donkey) back to our home towns.

Now the results are in, it’s fascinating to have statistics on the people that make up the country. Ethnicity has been getting a lot of attention in the press, but for the people being discussed the issue is more complicated than the graphs and headlines. People are lot more complex than tick boxes.

Although the 2011 census added a question on national identity, ethnic monitoring is still more about how a person self-identifies and how they are labelled and treated by society than where their families are from.

I have had countless conversations with curious strangers who ask me: ‘Where are you from?’ I would normally answer Cornwall, England or Britain. I often receive a sympathetic smile, or a mildly infuriated expression, and then a ‘yes, but where are you actually from?’ Short of producing a copy of my birth certificate, it can be hard to know how to reply.

The more accusatory their tone, the more they actually mean ‘why are you not white?’ After all, if I were, my initial reply would have been enough. So I explain that my dad was born in Jamaica, my mother in England.

The 2011 census results have been reported as evidence of ‘the changing face of Britain’, celebrating the harmony of the production of children like myself – the ‘Jessica Ennis generation’. There are now over a million people ticking the ‘mixed/multiple ethnic groups’ box.

But nowhere in the mixed section (which wasn’t even added until 2001) is ‘British’ mentioned, despite the presence of mixed-race people being almost as old as the country itself. We are told that immigrants and their descendants need to identify more closely with Britain, but even when they do it is not reflected in monitoring forms like the census. Many mixed-race people can follow multiple cultures and religions, speak multiple languages and support multiple teams in the World Cup and while still feeling British.

And the topic is bigger than that, especially given the wording of the other boxes, including ‘Asian/Asian British’ and ‘Black/African/Caribbean/Black British’. If both my parents were white, even if they were born elsewhere, I would find myself ticking the ‘white British’ box. As it is, I would feel just as happy ticking ‘Black British’ as ‘mixed’; after all, society and self-identity to do with histories and life experience means that to be non-white is usually taken to be ‘black’. But maybe ‘other ethnic group’ would be more accurate? With a note saying: ‘See attached family tree.’

We need to be careful how we use this data; it doesn’t mean the end of racism, either explicit or institutional. People like the Daily Mail’s Rick Dewsbury still exist. This summer in a rant about the ‘lefty’ Olympic opening ceremony, the journalist wrote, among other offensive things: ‘it is likely to be a challenge for the organizers to find an educated, white, middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family.’ The comments were hastily removed after a backlash, and Daily Mail racism is nothing new, but the fact they were published in the first place is sobering.

The way in which people responded to the census questions shows their social experience, as well as identity. This was highlighted by Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust think tank speaking to The Voice newspaper: ‘Black Caribbean-White and Black African-White people more likely to have outcomes similar to black people generally,’ he says. ‘Rather than viewing the “mixed” population as a single group with shared social experiences, we should rather focus on the continued salience of race, and how the racial background of parents affects the social outcomes of children.’

More than ever we need to read between the lines – and the tick boxes.

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