Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:

White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background


White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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  1. Interesting. Another aspect of such categories came from an alarmist DNA book advertisement (I saw it a few days ago but do not recall the name) that essentially declares ethnicity in the DNA string will not merely be discovered, but used as a base for bio warfare.

    Comment by sobiop — 15 July 2007 @ 4.20 am | Reply

  2. You are quite right Britology Watch. If one is dealing purely with ethnicity for medical purposes it is totally superfluous for somebody with both parents and grandparents originally from India to put ‘British’ in the string at all. It is completely meaningless and is only there for politically correct purposes, a worry that they might offend such a person for not including them in ‘British’. That very person might prefer to put ‘English’ as their cultural identity and nationality anyway but in this case cultural and national or civic identity are irrelevant. It shows how stupid all this is with ‘Britishness’ getting in the way time and time again. Of course such a medical question must look more deeply into anybody’s genetic heritage to determine anything useful anyway such as do you have an Italian or Greek grandmother or a Japanese grandfather? Such questions can be of importance in searching for mutations for cystic fibrosis for example.

    Comment by K2 — 24 July 2007 @ 8.35 am | Reply

  3. Yes, I agree such questions can have a useful purpose from a medical point of view. But, as you observe, it’s more to do with political correctness in the example I was discussing.

    Comment by David — 24 July 2007 @ 9.11 am | Reply

  4. When I was at school many, many years ago, we were told our country was called England and we learned to call ourselves English people. Just like the scottish, Welsh, chinese,afican,carabian, American, canadian, Austrailian etc. I am English, and that choice should be there on every form.

    Comment by Joan — 27 July 2007 @ 6.12 pm | Reply

  5. An idiotic post.

    “Any other ethnic group”.

    The English are ‘White’ – like Zulus are ‘Black’, Iroquois are ‘Amerind’, and the Han are ‘oriental’.

    Lots of nouns are only applicable to certain ethnic groups – only peoples happening to be White face a constant onslaught of ethnic deconstructionism.

    (Actually that’s not true, the Tibetans and Palestinians and a few others suffer the same thing. But millions of Whites campaign for those groups’ ethnic interests and label their travails ‘genocide’ while condemning those Whites who express any concerns for their own peoples as ‘racists.’ So same result).

    Comment by glad thereafter — 28 July 2007 @ 1.31 am | Reply

  6. Hi, glad thereafter. I think you’ve slightly misunderstood the point I was making. I’m also extremely critical of politically-correct efforts to deny the status and dignity of ‘white’ ethnicity, as exemplified by the form I discuss. I suppose the ultimate point is that these terms are highly relative and political, your own included. E.g. you seem to think that ‘white’ and ‘black’ are somehow givens. But they’re inconsistent with the other two ethnic designators you refer to, which are geographical. Wouldn’t it be more consistent to call the ‘Amerind’ (or native North American) ‘red’ and the Han ‘yellow’ using such colour coding – but I don’t think that would go down too well.

    My own view is that if you want an ETHNIC description of the ‘native Briton’ or ‘native Anglo-Saxon’ as such, the least problematic (not necessarily an ideal) term is ‘white-European’: an indicator of historical geographical origin together with a moderately referential colour designator that also implicitly makes the political point that Europeans are not by definition ‘white’. But that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to deny the NATIONAL identity of English, Welsh and Scottish people. But you need to be clear about the information you’re asking for in forms like this. And by conflating the ethnic and national-civic identities of the native peoples of Britain into the term ‘white-British’, this seemed to me to be part of the bigger agenda to create a new homogeneous British identity that denies the national identities and aspirations of the various nations of Britain.

    Comment by David — 29 July 2007 @ 8.25 am | Reply

  7. “…by conflating the ethnic and national-civic identities of the native peoples of Britain into the term ‘white-British’, this seemed to me to be part of the bigger agenda to create a new homogeneous British identity that denies the national identities and aspirations of the various nations of Britain.”

    Absolutely true! Isn’t it also so the non-white people living in England feel British? They can’t feel/be British if the English, scottish, Nth Irish, Irish and welsh claim that there is no British ethnicity!
    Gordon Brown (now) claims that Britishness is great! New labour have to spout this, they can’t survive if they don’t. They need the non-white people in England to be British rather than English. It’s all about votes and keeping them in power. If these non-white people start to view Englishness as their identity then new labour will not be able to get their vote. If the non-white people in England vote for pro-England parties then new labour are finished. The same applies to the conservatives and so-called liberal democrats. Look at what just happened to new labour and the tories in scotland and wales. I don’t see why this won’t happen in England.
    Also, I s’pose the people who get all hot under the collar about race and ethnicity decided that they just can’t tolerate the five main ethnic groups of the various islands of Britain keeping their identities! Of course I would say that by far the worst tactic they could’ve used was to start denying that people/nations exist! That is what has been happening to the English in the last decade. Look what the pro-lets mix everyone together brigade have achieved. They have single-handedly managed to wake the English up!
    I imagine the people with the p.c. (not-so-secret) agenda think that all the problems associated with bigotry will disappear when white people do! Wrong! Just a few weeks ago the bbc website had a story about Pygmies being housed for an African festival. The hosts housed them in a zoo! I fully expected the pc rent a mob to be utilised; but no, there wasn’t a squeak! Which just proves that it’s us they have a problem with and not bigotry.

    “Europeans are not by definition ‘white’.” Oh yeah, and millions of “black” people aren’t black.

    Comment by cujimmy — 30 July 2007 @ 1.59 am | Reply

  8. David, I’m sorry for not responding sooner.

    I don’t claim that White and Amerind are racial descriptors with the same logical basis – White always seemed rather an illogical term to me – just that they are people specific: and all the English are White.

    Your claim on our name, and intention to use it as an umbrella term for any number of other ethnic groups happening to live among us, is the worst possible aggression you could make upon an ethny (outside of physical attack). It would eliminate our public identity.

    Comment by glad thereafter — 14 August 2007 @ 10.35 pm | Reply

  9. Hi, glad thereafter. I actually don’t understand what you mean in the last paragraph of your comment. What do you mean by ‘your claim on our name’? Is this the way I would like to see ‘English’ used as a term of national identity (applicable to people of any race who are currently British citizens and are happy to call themselves English) but not as a designator of ethnic identity?

    If so, how is this to ‘eliminate our public identity’? If that’s not your meaning, can you clarify what it is?

    Questioning the validity of using ‘English’ or indeed ‘British’ uncritically – or indeed as part of a political agenda – as a simple designator of ethnic identity does not equate to saying that there isn’t such a thing as ‘native English’ or ‘native British’. But how you categorise and differentiate those terms in relation to either the historical patterns of migration and settlement in this country, or scientifically / genetically is a very complex matter. I would, for instance, reject the idea that you could simply view the English as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – ignoring all the other historical and genetic heritage: pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Norse, Norman, Jewish, Irish and – in more recent times – ‘black’ and ‘Asian’, etc.

    Not that I’m saying that’s what your position is. But it would be interesting if you could clarify your remarks.

    Comment by David — 16 August 2007 @ 1.31 am | Reply

  10. I had a very similar discussion with Danivon here.

    Yes, the English like all other peoples were formed from diverse antecedents. This was as true for Normans, Saxons and Danes as it is for the Jews and Irish, a small number of whose individual members have been assimilated into the English ethny. This says nothing.

    However, the fact that the English, Jews and Irish remain distinct peoples, and the recent Black and Asian migrations into England have not assimilated into the English community – that they remain distinctly and proudly members of OTHER ethnic communities, says all.

    But if members of every ethnic group living in England – and there are hundreds – were to start to call themselves English and be publically recognised as such, it would strike the severest blow possible to the English etyhny’s survival outside of physical acts of violence (including mass-immigration).

    It is OUR NAME David – it delimits US in our own minds and grants us recognition in the eyes of others. Without a name we become a non-people, dissolved into the ‘global traffic station’ that our homeland has become.

    The nation is the ethny is the name.

    The English defined.

    Comment by glad thereafter — 16 August 2007 @ 1.07 pm | Reply

  11. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, glad thereafter. I had a look at your disputation with Danivon, and I don’t feel any inclination to replicate it here!

    The greatest challenge in arguments like this – and perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the English today – is to reconcile homogeneity with diversity: to arrive at a coherent consensus about what it is to be English (including taking account of both ethnic commonalities and differences) at the same time as remaining alive and open to the problems and opportunities of a globalised world – one which, arguably, the English have done more than any other people to create.

    I don’t think that defining English nationhood in narrow, exclusive ethnic terms is the best way of addressing these challenges. Equally, ethnicity is an integral and vital part of any nation’s self-understanding. We should be able to apply the word ‘English’ to both cultural / civic and ethnic Englishness. We could perhaps talk of ‘native’ and ‘adoptive’ Englishness: just as familial bonds can form between genetically related and unrelated (adopted) family members, so common bonds should be able to be forged between ethnically close and distant members of the English family. And of course, the longer different ethnies, as you put it, live side by side and integrate socio-culturally, the more they will inter-breed and the genetic inheritances will converge.

    This social and genetic convergence is already a reality. But I’m confident we can continue to be English and move forward together to face the future as we evolve, in both senses.

    Comment by David — 17 August 2007 @ 1.15 am | Reply

  12. As an interesting comparison to the form on the post, these are the categories and choices for the Scottish 2001 census form.

    The “Scottish” word appears a lot.

    White: Scottish, Other British, Irish, Any other White Background

    Mixed: Any Mixed Background

    Asian, Asian Scottish or Asian British: Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Any other Asian Background

    Black, Black Scottish or Black British: Caribbean, African, Any other Black Background.

    Other Ethnic Background: Any other background.

    Comment by Dougthedug — 25 August 2007 @ 1.23 pm | Reply

  13. Thanks, Dougthedug. Interesting that people living in Scotland are allowed to declare Scottish ethnicity but not English (or Welsh, for that matter). If that’s not discriminatory, I don’t know what is. But of course, it’s just pure politics. Is there such a thing as Scottish ethnicity that can be differentiated from Irish or other British in this way?

    The Scottish census form also carries out the same conflation of nationality and ethnicity, while giving ethnic minorities the right to call themselves Scottish as an alternative to British; whereas ethnic minorities in England are only allowed to use British as an alternative to other ethnic / national designators. Then surely, to be consistent, all ethnically British / white British people should have the option ‘white, white Scottish or white British’, with separate check boxes for Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish. But the form is wanting to appease the nationalists, who are essentially basing their concept of Scottish nationality on an idea of Scottish ethnicity – without wanting to admit it.

    Comment by David — 26 August 2007 @ 5.10 am | Reply

  14. […] of the extreme challenges faced by British identity and, as a consequence, English identity. In a previous post, I discussed the multiple ‘ethnic’ categories by which I was confronted when filling in […]

    Pingback by Is UK Immigration Policy Designed To Undermine Englishness? « Britology Watch: Deconstructing ‘British Values’ — 7 September 2007 @ 11.35 am | Reply

  15. David stated”

    I would, for instance, reject the idea that you could simply view the English as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ – ignoring all the other historical and genetic heritage: pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Norse, Norman, Jewish, Irish and – in more recent times – ‘black’ and ‘Asian’, etc.

    “Pre-celtic”? HA! HA! HA! HA! You must be scottish or welsh etc to state that. Never heard of it mate. You mean the people who were in what is now called the uk before the supposed celts right? Is this just a way of you keeping your “we were here first” power or what? I think you’ll find the first people in what is now the the uk were Cro Magnon. I dont think anybody knows what they called themselves. Calling them pre-celts is entirely false. It implies that they were in some way connected to the so-called celts. Just so you know. The “celts” were never a distinct tribe. I suppose I can now refer to the “celts” as pre-English ah?
    Your comments are more of the same old “the English dont really exist” rubbish. Oh but we do exist! We aren’t going anywhere either despite the bigotry we have to face.

    Comment by cujimmy — 27 September 2007 @ 3.38 pm | Reply

  16. I think you’ve misread my intentions there a bit, cujimmy. By ‘pre-Celtic’, I did just unscientifically mean the people who were here before the different groups of Celts arrived. But that doesn’t mean they were ethnically connected to the Celts: that might be ‘proto-Celtic’ rather than ‘pre-Celtic’.

    I just take the view that the genetic and ethnic characteristics of different nations go back thousands of years, and are derived from all the different tribes and peoples who’ve come and gone over that time. But because a nation’s (e.g. England’s) genetic heritage is diverse, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a nation. On the contrary, if the English are seen as descended from people who’ve lived in these islands for thousands of years (including the Anglo-Saxons who, after all, did arrive 1500-odd years ago!), that makes the identity of the English and of England even more authentic and native to this land, not less.

    I’m far from wanting to deny the existence of the English; quite the contrary is my intention. And yes, I am partly Welsh (Welsh mother); but I’ve lived in England all my life, was born in England and my father was also born and raised in England (of joint-English-Irish parentage). Does that mean I’m only one-quarter English, on some sort of narrow three-generation measure of ethnic descent! I don’t think so! I’m as English as anyone, thank you very much, while being proud of my extended British / ‘Celtic’ inheritance.

    Comment by David — 28 September 2007 @ 4.15 am | Reply

  17. I know this isn’t really within the sphere you were talking about, but one area where “ethnic British” really does apply is in the colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where many people are descended from all areas: Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall. In such a case one can either go with one’s “dominant” ancestry, if there is any, and say one is ethnically English, Irish etc. But a far more satisfactory and encompassing label is “ethnic British”, which is, for instance, how many people in New Zealand label themselves.

    Another problem, though, is that “ethnicity” can refer to either genetic heritage OR enculturation. In the sense that you are using, it refers to genetic heritage, so obviously an ethnic Englishman would have primarily English roots, an ethnic Irishman would have primarily Irish roots etc. But people always get muddled up by nationality, which is something completely different. Someone living in England with Irish ancestry is still ethnically Irish, no matter how attached they are to England. Just living somewhere and feeling loyal to that place does not change your ethnicity if it originated elsewhere. Mixed ancestry, though, is another story. Outside the U.K., as I said, the solution is “ethnically British”; but within the U.K., I suppose one would go with whatever predominated, perhaps in combination with the area in which one lived. So someone of Irish and English ancestry living in England could consider himself ethnically Irish, if that predominates, or ethnically English, since he has English ancestry and lives there.

    Me, I’ve got English, Scottish, Cornish (yes, I do consider that different from English) and Irish; I was born and raised in New Zealand; and I consider myself ethnically British.

    Comment by Aelswyth — 8 November 2007 @ 5.31 pm | Reply

  18. Thanks, Aelswyth. You could compare this post with another on a similar theme:

    In this one, I try to untangle some of the confusing mix up between ethnic, national and cultural meanings all combined in what is described as ethnicity. All of these things are relative to each country’s social and cultural mix; and, as you say, what makes sense in New Zealand may not be adequate for the UK. In the UK, in addition, there is a huge amount of politics involved as many English people are seeking to assert a separate national identity and political representation for England. Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by David — 8 November 2007 @ 6.27 pm | Reply

  19. Where are all of the previous posts in this forum? I posted at least two and they have disappeared. Are previous posts deleted on a regular basis? If so, shouldn’t the threads at least be longer in order for people to follow in context of the overall discussion?

    Comment by English Yank Kevin — 5 June 2010 @ 10.30 pm | Reply

    • Hi, Kevin. I haven’t deleted any of your – or anyone else’s – previous comments. Your previous three were made in my ‘About’ page, and they’re still there. Cheers.

      Comment by David — 6 June 2010 @ 7.28 am | Reply

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