On Wednesday of this week, the Office for National Statistics (for England and Wales) published their final recommendations for the 2011 census questions, including those on national identity and ethnic group. I’ve written about these questions on three previous occasions (here, here and here). I don’t want to rehearse those long and complex arguments. However, I do want to voice a strong protest.
The proposed questions for England are essentially the same as those used for the trials in 2007, discussed in the last of the previous posts linked above. For reference, they are as follows:
National identity questions
The essential point I want to make here is that these questions deny any status for ‘English’ (and ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’, for that matter) as objective, civic national identities at the same time as confining the use of ‘English’ as an objective term to the ‘white-British-racial’ portion of English society.
It does this by combining four distinct categorisations within the two headings it uses (national identity and ethnic group). These categories are:
- nationality in the political sense (equated with citizenship)
- national identity in the subjective, personal sense (in the way I and many others identify primarily as English, as opposed to British, which is my official nationality)
- ethnic / cultural background and history.
The documents about the national-identity and ethnic-group questions released this week (linked above) explicitly acknowledge the fact that the two categorisations are framed in complementary terms: the available national-identity categories are ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British / Other’; and the first option in the ethnic-group categories is ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’. The ethnic-group categories are supposed to be objective: the question is asked using the words, “What is your ethnic group?” [my emphasis]. This implies that ‘ethnic group’ is an unquestionable, objective fact that the respondent will have no problem in ascribing to themself. And the reason why the respondent will not object to these ethnic-group classifications (or, at least, the ONS hopes they will not object) is because they will have willingly expressed their ‘national identity’ in the same terms in the previous question.
By contrast, the ‘national identity’ question is subjective: “How would you describe your national identity?”. A white Englishman like me might come along and happily tick the ‘English’ box in the national-identity question and then go on to blithely to classify myself as ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ in the ethnic-group question because my Englishness (national identity), which I’m happy to affirm, appears to also be acknowledged as an integral part of my white ethnicity, and therefore I should have no problems with ticking that box. However, in so doing, what I’ve actually done is frame myself as only subjectively English (personal identity) but objectively white-British (race).
The ethnic-group categories borrow a spurious veneer of objectivity from being based on the first of the four categorisations listed above: political nationality / citizenship. For all the apparent concession of a distinct English (and, indeed, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish) ethnic group, these are all clearly sub-categories of ‘British’, which really designates political nationality not ethnicity. This is evident from the fact that the ethnic-group questions distinguish between ‘Northern Irish’ (paired with ‘British’ alongside the other UK nations / ethnic groups) and ‘Irish’. But this is a purely political distinction: are we really saying that there is a Northern Irish race or ethnic group distinct from the ‘Irish’ (i.e. Irish Republic) race / ethnicity? Clearly, that is ridiculous.
So these ‘ethnic-group’ categories are in fact based on formal nationality, and the ‘White – English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’ category really just means ‘white British’. But, while being endowed with an air of scientific objectivity by being assimilated to nationality, the ethnic-group classifications do double duty as designators of race. Five fundamental racial categories are offered: white / mixed race / Asian / black / other. Respondents are invited to ascribe one of these categories to themselves by virtue of identifying with the ethnic-group sub-categories, which are geo-political in nature: ‘objective’ by virtue of being based on terms designating official nationalities (i.e. nation-states) or regions – India, Pakistan, China, Africa, the Caribbean, etc. Note, however, that all of these sub-categories are at a higher level in the categorial hierarchy than ‘English’. I.e. if ‘English’ were an ethnic-group category that was truly equal and regarded as ‘objective’ in the same way as these other ethnic groups, then the ‘White’ ethnic-group list would read as follows:
A – White
– Northern Irish
– Irish [Republic]
– Gypsy or Irish Traveller
– Any other White background, write in
This would make ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, etc. ‘objective’ designators of ethnicity / race in the same way as ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani’, as they would be at the same level as those terms in the hierarchy, as comparison with the Asian / Asian British ethnic-group section makes clear:
C – Asian / Asian British
– Any other Asian background, write in
But instead of ‘English’ etc. being at the same level as ‘Indian’ etc., we have a category that effectively means ‘British’, as I’ve said: ‘English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British’. This ‘British’ term is a sub-category in section A of equivalent status to ‘Indian’ in section C; while ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are effectively sub-categories of ‘British’. They’re analogous, in fact, to regions of India and Pakistan such as Kashmir, Punjab or Gujarat, some of which claim a nation status that is not recognised politically.
This inconsistency and inequality is put to the service of an insidious sleight of hand that relates to a problem in the system: ‘British’ is used at once as a nationality, a designator of race (as in the implied ‘White – British’ category) and a would-be unifying national identity for the whole English population, both white and non-white. The way this is worked out is as follows:
- The status of ‘British’ as a racial category (i.e. white-British) is mediated and validated by its sub-categories: ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Northern Irish’ are framed as exclusively ‘white’ identities; and as they are all effectively sub-categories of ‘British’, they make it possible to conceive of a white-British racial group
- The identification of the ‘white-British’ population with ‘British’ as their national identity is mediated by articulating their ‘objective’ ethnic-group and ‘subjective’ national identities in the same terms, which are those of nationality: if we accept that we are objectively of the ‘British race’, then we might adopt ‘British’ as our national identity; whereas ‘British’, in a truly objective sense, only really designates our political nationality
- But the implicit white-British category, despite being lower in the hierarchy than the top-level ethnic-group term ‘White’, also functions in the same way as the top-level categories C (Asian / British Asian) and D (Black / African / Caribbean / Black British): just as the multiple racial sub-categories English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish are resolved to a single ‘white-British’ race / ethnic group, so the racial sub-categories Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi etc. and Black / African / Caribbean etc. are resolved to overarching ‘Asian-British’ and ‘Black-British’ racial / ethnic groups
- Finally, by applying ‘British’ to these supposedly objective, non-white
racial categories (which are in reality based on nationalities and regional identities), Asian, Black and indeed ‘British-mixed-race’ people are encouraged to also adopt ‘British’ as their national identity.
In this way, ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic group’ are tight, mutually reinforcing categories in the census. As discussed above, selecting ‘English’ as one’s national identity encourages one to accept an ‘objective’ racial identity as white-British; and as both forms of identity are articulated in terms of British nationality, one might be inclined to favour the politico-racially objective term ‘British’ as the designator of one’s national identity over the more subjective ‘English’. Or alternatively, as an Asian person of Indian heritage, you can embrace that particular national identity as an integral part of your ethnic-group identity; and, in so doing, you also buy into a racial identity as ‘Asian’. But as that racial identity is also designated as ‘British Asian’, you are also invited to adopt ‘British’ as your national identity as a British citizen: again, this is Britishness founded on a politico-racial ‘objectivity’ that trumps the historic national identity of India or the alternative adoptive national identity of Englishness.
Hence, the census insidiously frames the national and ethnic identities of both white-British people and non-white-British people living in England in the mutually reinforcing ‘objective’ terms of nationality and race. And, in so doing, it deprives both whites and non-whites of the opportunity to affirm a different sort of Englishness: one based on ethnicity in the sense of cultural background rather than race. For a white English person wanting to affirm their Englishness as their culture, the census throws it back at them as a merely subjective national identity and as a sub-category of an exclusively white-British racial identity. In so doing, the census also denies non-white English people the chance to declare their adherence to English culture and identity: you can be only ‘British Asian’ or ‘Black British’, the census says, not ‘English-Pakistani’ (what a powerful pairing that could be!) or ‘Black English’.
In doing this, the census fundamentally betrays the true power of geographical designations of identity. Yes, India is a political state; and yes, ‘Indian’ is a convenient label to attach to a diverse mix of races and peoples living in that state. But more than that, India is a state of mind: a wonderfully rich, complex and historic culture. To be Indian is far more than to be merely the member of a supposedly homogeneous, objective Asian ‘race’ that can then be assimilated to a category in a British census and an all-embracing British national identity. Similarly, to be English is far more than merely the nostalgic whim of a white-British citizen holding on to a historic ethnic and national identity that has long since been superseded by that of Britain. England is an ancient nation and a complex civilisation, and not merely a sub-category of British nationality or the preserve of an anonymous white-British race. And, in particular, it’s an identity open to all who embrace it.
You can be English and Indian, English and Black, and even English and Scottish in the true, cultural sense of the terms. But not for the 2011 English census, for which there is no such thing as an objective, distinctive, English civic, or indeed ethnic, identity. For the census, only British nationality and ethnicity counts. But for us English as we ponder how to fill in the census, we’re left with no alternative than to think outside the British tick box.