Ethnicity in Britain and the U.S.

I had an appointment at a clinic recently, and since it was my first time there, the receptionist asked my ethnicity. Maybe they always ask. Maybe they were taking a survey for a few sample days. I have no idea, but I do understand why an organization might want to gather that information, and it seems like a simple question, except it isn’t. Even in the U.S., where I fit the categories better, it’s not a simple question.

Before I go on, I should warn you: I haven’t managed to be funny about this, but I think the topic’s worth some thought. If you want to bail out, this is as good a time as any. I’ll stick an irrelevant photo in and you can slip away. No one will notice.

Irrelevant photo: It looks like last week’s semi-relevant photo, but the text is different. I only do this to see if you’re paying attention.

So why isn’t it a simple question? Let’s go back a few decades to when a friend who taught junior high school told me about his students having to fill out high school applications. They were asked—I don’t think it was their ethnicity back then, I think it was still called race, and it was a choose-one exercise. The kids couldn’t be a mix of white and black or Latino and Asian, or three of the four mixed together. Whichever you chose, you excluded the others. (The U.S. census now allows for mixed heritage, and I assume other forms in the country have followed their example.)

The kids were furious. The ones who were mixed didn’t want to deny any part of their heritage. The kids who weren’t were furious on their friends’ behalf.

It’s a system I grew up taking for granted. When I was a kid, as far as I knew forms had always worked that way. I didn’t stop to ask if it made sense. For one thing, I fit the categories well enough: If the choices were Black, White, Asian, Other, I picked White. If one of the categories was Jewish, I picked Jewish.

I never thought I should pick Other if Jewish wasn’t offered as a category. The world around me said I was white, so who was I to say different? When the form got more specific about my category of white, I was dutifully specific. I was like a cat: I poured myself into whatever shape was given. If the shape was a shoebox, I became rectangular and filled the shoebox. If it was a casserole dish, I became round.

You do know about the scientist who won an Ig Noble Prize for demonstrating that a cat is both a liquid and a solid, right? That’s the kind of cat I was.

Fast forward a few decades, well past the time when my friend was teaching junior high. I made a call to the wonderful information line the Hennepin County Library used to run, checking on something that had come up in a manuscript I was editing. You could ask anything and a librarian would do his or her damnedest to find an answer.

At the end of the call, the librarian explained that they were doing a survey to find out who their callers were and would I mind answering a few quick questions?

I’d have answered anything. I loved that service.

What was my ethnicity? (That wasn’t the first question, but eventually we go around to it.)

I’d lived in Minnesota for more than thirty years by then. I no longer thought that Jewish fit without question or notice into white. The Midwest had given me a strong sense of my otherness.

“Provisionally white,” I said.

I hadn’t expected to say that—I never had before—but my brain outruns its filters sometimes.

The librarian stammered a bit, then pulled himself together to ask what I meant.

“I’m Jewish,” I told him. “My membership’s liable to be revoked at any time.”

He laughed, fortunately. I don’t know what he wrote down and I didn’t ask.

I wasn’t just being difficult. Both history and recent events tell me not to take anything for granted.

Now let’s move the question to Britain, where the problem’s magnified. I found a list of British ethnicities online.  It’s close enough to what the Office of National Statistics uses that we can treat it as more or less typical. The choices are:

White British (choose English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British); Irish; Gypsy or Irish Traveler; Other

Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Groups (you get three choices, all with a white element, and if those don’t fit you get Other)

Asian/Asian British (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladheshi, Chinese, Other)

Black/African/Caribbean/Black British (the boxes that follow more or less repeat the choices in the heading, then add Other)

Other Ethnic Group (with a box for Arab after which you can be an Other Other)

Where do I fit in this? White British? Legally, I am British—I’m a citizen, and I’m still provisionally white—but what does white British mean when you talk about ethnicity, not citizenship? British isn’t my native culture, and ethnicity is about culture, although people in color-coded societies tend to think it’s about skin color. So no, British probably isn’t what I should check.

(As an aside, have you ever seen the phrase “ethnic hair” running around loose? Guess whose hair comes up when you google it. It’s hair whose cultural background leads it to be very, very curly. Hair typical of the dominant group, whether you count that numerically, politically, or economically, is just hair. Hair from the, or a, non-dominant group is ethnic.

(The point here is that even when you change the language so people say “ethnicity” instead of “race,” the underlying beliefs come through and capture the new word. I’m all for changing the language when it needs changing–it does make a difference–but let’s not kid ourselves about how deep that alonge can go.)

In case I need to prove how much I don’t understand British culture, I’m both fascinated and baffled to find that within the white British group, they list the four nations that make up the United Kingdom but also offer the option of writing just plain old British, as in still British but not Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English.

What are you saying when you pick that? That you’ve moved around a lot? That you’re of mixed heritage and don’t want to deny any part of yourself? That the country’s four component nations mean less to you than the country itself?

To be fair, I’ve written about this before and a few people wrote in to say they considered themselves British, not English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish. And I appreciate their comments, but I can’t claim to understand them fully. It’s much easier to understand a Cornish friend who says he’s not English.

But back to the form: If you’re black, you can choose Black British, but if you consider yourself Black Welsh, for example, you have to write that in yourself and you’ll end up in some tiny subgroup that doesn’t get counted because it’s not on the form and too few people joined it. The silent assumption seems to be that Welshness (or Englishness, or etc.) is white.

Is it? I don’t know. I suspect it’s not that simple, but hey, I’m a foreigner here. The gift I bring is that I can ask uncomfortable questions, not that I can answer them.

But back to me: What’s my ethnicity in Britain? American? Is American an ethnicity?

If you’re inside the United States, it’s the default setting. It probably is an ethnicity but it’s invisible–at least to its members.

If you’re outside, though, surely it becomes one. Lord Google’s quick definition of ethnicity is “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” (In Norwegian—and how the translation option got set to Norwegian I don’t know; I may have had something to do with it—ethnicity is etnisitet.)

Is Norwegian an ethnicity? If you’re outside Norway, yes.  If you’re inside? well, again, it’s invisible.

I grew up in an age that accepted many of the absurdities of racism without challenge. I accepted white as an unchanging category and had no idea I was doing that. Then somewhere along the line I read that it was an American creation, something that developed in response to slavery.

In Europe, I read, people who in the U.S. would be considered white didn’t think of themselves as whites. They thought of themselves as British, or German, or Polish. Nation, language, and culture trumped skin color as the defining factor.  And it did seem true that immigrant groups who in the U.S. were considered white initially felt little in common with other ethnic groups who were also considered white. They felt themselves to be part of their old categories—Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, whatever.

This unsettled what I’d thought were the world’s fixed categories and left me thinking that you become a group in response to some other group—or in the case of the U.S., in order to exclude another group.

So is American an ethnicity in Britain? Instinct says no, mostly because there aren’t enough to us to form a group. And because I’m not in the habit of thinking of us that way.

Jewish, then? Well, yes, that does seem like an ethnicity and when it comes up it makes me very distinct but it stands out much less in my everyday life than my Americanness.

So what did I tell the nice person behind the desk?

“I haven’t known how to answer that since I moved here,” I said. “I’m American. I’m Jewish. I never know what to fill in.”

“We’ll make something out of that,” she said.

I have no idea what she decided I was.


A personal note, since said I opened by saying I was at a clinic and since a while back I mentioned, without explaining it, that I was going through a rough patch: This fall, I discovered that I had breast cancer. I was incredibly lucky. The tumor itself was tiny but it was associated with a cyst big enough for me to have found it. I’ve had surgery and can now dance off into the rest of my life without needing radiation or any other further treatment. The NHS—Britain’s National Health Service—has been incredible. And (Americans, take note) the treatment was free.

Apologies if I went all mysterious on you about it. It’s not something—obviously, since I’m mentioning it now—that I feel particularly private about. But this isn’t a support group (and how do you feel about that?), and this isn’t a me-and-my-life blog. While everything was still up for grabs, it didn’t feel right to get into it online.

And finally, a quick thought related to the post’s topic, not to breast cancer: A friend commented recently that I go on a lot about being a Jewish atheist, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

In part, it may be because being an immigrant has left me thinking quite a bit about identity (see above, because I don’t want to start that mess all over again). It may also be partly because the British don’t find atheism shocking. Americans–and yes, I’m generalizing–do, and until I moved to Britain I wasn’t in the habit of talking about it casually. It was too charged. Mentioning it meant I either risked shocking someone (I’m willing to do that when I have no choice, but I don’t generally enjoy it) or getting into more of a conversation about it than I wanted to.

I may come back to that at some point. I may even manage to be funny about it, as I haven’t managed to be here, but I can’t promise.

Stay tuned.

141 thoughts on “Ethnicity in Britain and the U.S.

  1. I’m a pain in the ass when it comes to these forms. When they ask race, I put human. When they ask religion, I put Tai Chi (being a good Jewish Atheist, like you) and when they ask sex if there is room, I will put occasionally. I like how a lot of forms are now putting gender… I’ve learned that I am Cis Female? And that half of what they ask, if you are going in for bronchitis or what not, is none of their damned business. Oy, Ellen, I am so glad you are okay. A bei gezunt. <3

    Liked by 7 people

    • I did a second read here . You are right about how the language used has prevonvied connotations. I was raised in America. My parents are both Muslims. What I learned is there are many who think Arabs are Muslim when it’s more of a culture . I am not a devout Muslim . I’ve never set foot in a mosque but I was raised to always be a gracious host & my parents never forced faith on us. In fact we were sent to learn about all religions . I hope you join the fan page . I put a link in the post to allow you to request to be added . It’s my reading list . I have so many subscribers to connect with & this group allows me to connect regularly. I will host another linkup next month . I hope you will return & invite others. Your piece is going to get a third read from me. I think you inspired a theme for OTV.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Really glad for you on the health front and good to know that the rapidly disintegrating NHS (reasons: many and varied, mostly deliberate) treated you well despite your Jewish American atheism and your intercultural mayhem tendencies.
    Ethnicity, religion, nationality, tribe, colour, class, club. Like the scientific animal naming convention isn’t it? You have to be labelled as something, divided into your type group for easy generalising about you it seems. Just ‘human’ isn’t often on the forms.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I live my life somewhere between exasperated and understanding about the forms. If you gather the data, you have a running chance (if you happen to be interested and want to do something about it, which isn’t a given) of finding out which communities you’re not reaching. Or, for that matter, which diseases are prevalent in which communities, or which ones that are prevalent in the groups you serve so you need to watch out for them. On the other hand, yeah, human, and shouldn’t that be enough for us all?

      It’s amazing, given the pressure the NHS is (yes, deliberately) under that any part of it functions so well. But really, they were fantastic.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Taking things in reverse order, as it were, I’m (obviously) glad you’re OK; stay that way.

    The ethnicity question has always bothered me. To some extent it depends who’s asking the question, why they want to know and what happens to (or how safe is) the data. If you want to know someone’s ethnicity for health reasons, because different racial groups are more prone to different medical conditions, that seems pretty much fine to me. If you want to know what % of a workforce belongs to one group or another for quota purposes (and you’ve highlighted that putting neat labels on people isn’t always possible) as part of a tender for completely unrelated services, then my response is “mind your own **** business”. I think in most circumstances the question is essentially racist, because ethnicity shouldn’t matter. Some will say I’m an idealist. But I remember learning about something the Nazis did when occupying Holland, which was to register everyone; as part of this, they had to list their parents and their religion, and their grandparents and their religion…I think we should encourage a nation of happy hybrids. Ethnicity isn’t always the same as culture, though. I am genuinely puzzled by good folk in North America who declare themselves as ‘Scottish’, or ‘Irish’ – or whatever; that may be their roots, and they’re right to be proud of them, but they’re American, or Canadian, aren’t they?

    Liked by 3 people

    • First, thanks.

      Next, I can think of some good reasons for collecting data other than the medical ones you site. If you want to find out what groups you’re not reaching, you have to figure out who you are reaching. (Assuming you have enough people that you don’t already know.) That’s true of schools, workplaces, clinics, and–well, pretty much anyplace. Without numbers, it’s easy to sit back comfortably and think it’s all fine. It also allows people form under-represented groups to challenge you about. Even assuming the the exclusion’s accidental–and that happens easily.

      I’m going to have to pick the rest of this up later. You raise interesting questions, but I’ve gotta run.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve been traveling for a year or so, but I believe in the US all questions about race, gender, and religion on forms have been optional for some time. Often I simply skip them or check “other” for everything. Sometimes I follow your cat analogy and just check the boxes that were poured into me at my youth — white, Catholic — but sometimes I’ll go for “no religion” or “other.” Sometimes I try to be a smart-ass about the question’s relevance. I do agree with you that there can be relevant reasons to collect such data, but no one should be forced to accept that “relevance” (i.e., no one should be forced to answer). So I guess you’ve exposed the anarchist in me — all approaches to answer (or not answer) are acceptable, and my approach varies per daily whim — but I’m never offended that they ask, only if they force me to answer :)

        Liked by 3 people

        • Btw, just for the purposes of data collection, my experience with atheism in the US is different. Having lived mostly in cities or college towns, I’d say over the last several decades, on any given day, probably 60-80% of my friends were atheists, although some of the Catholics and Jews among them retained a cultural identity with the group. Maybe I just had bad friends, but if I don’t make it through the pearly gates, I’ll take comfort in Mark Twain’s words: “Go to Heaven for the climate but Hell for the company.”

          Liked by 2 people

          • I love the Twain quote. And the cultural identity of some Catholic friends has struck me as being in many ways parallel to a Jewish cultural identity: You don’t get to set it aside just because you leave the religion.

            Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, part 2: If everything were equal–and more to the point, people from all groups had an equal chance in the world–then asking about people’s ethnicity would be absurd. But we’re born into a long, long legacy of racism, in many forms, from slavery to colonialism, and that inheritance affects our lives in endless ways–our chance of a good education, our jobs, our health, our chances of getting arrested and how we’re treated if we are. So although I’d agree that it should be nobody business and that the categories are absurd, I also understand why the question can be important. Because the legacy of historical damage doesn’t undo itself.

      And with that out of the way, the American tendency to claim not just their Americanness but also their background. Interestingly enough, a neighbor just raised the same question on Facebook. The people I know who are most likely to do that are from groups that (a) have passed down their culture strongly so that their descendants feel their not just homogenized Americans but a particular strain of Americans, or (b) that have a history of at a minimum not being accepted into the mainstream and more often being strongly discriminated against. Exclusion is one of the most powerful ways to create a well-defined groups, so it’s no wonder that, in my experience, the people most likely to consider themselves hyphenated Americans come from groups with a history of exclusion. They’re Jewish, Irish, black, Mexican, Chinese, etc., etc., etc. On the other hand, I’ve known white Americans of no defined ethnic group who talk about themselves as Heinz 57s. Do you have Heinze 57 sauce here? Anyway, lots of ethnic backgrounds (generally northern European) but nothing that stands out.

      The U.S. may be a single country, but we have many strands of culture running through. So yes, we’re American, but many of us feel connected to the cultures that make us something other than homogenized Americans. It’s part of the country’s cultural richness, I think, and one of the things I love about it.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Was it Martin Luther King who said he looked forward to a time when people were judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character? Anyway, I always tick the ‘prefer not to say’ box. Perhaps that’s not an option in the USA.

    Liked by 3 people

    • So am I, thanks.

      I didn’t think of this as I was writing the post, but the Scottish independence referendum really brought the difficulty of all this home when they decided to allow resident citizens to vote. You could be as Scottish as you wanted, but if you lived in Sheffield you weren’t going to vote.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So much in this blog. Very interesting. Its a knotty problem – categorizing people by ethnicity/religion. I have known Afro-Celts (Black Welsh people) and had the discussion with muslim kids who say that that they identify with their parents’ country of birth but also feel Welsh. I cant remember if there’s a box for Iranian-Welsh, or Sino-Welsh. I am increasingly suspicious of what the authorities do with this information (especially with school children – there is evidence that the government wants schools to hand over the information so they can track down “illegals”). So I have got to the point where I don’t always tick any of the stupid boxes. So sorry to hear about your breast cancer – the NHS is a wonderful thing and we all need to fight hard to keep it going….I could fall into a long political rant about the utter stupidity of British politics today but I’ll stop here.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. You raise a very good issue, perhaps series of issues. I was in a Toastmasters club here in Connecticut when a black woman gave a speech in which she complained about being referred to and having to fill in forms as “African American” – She said: “I am black but my roots, as far as I know, are not to Africa.”

    I think we have messed-up this issue ever since we started trying to find words that work and somehow don’t offend. Of course, since governments are at the tail-end of the curve, by the time they react, they are bound to be wrong. They are also bound to be confusing because they collect data for a specific purpose and slant the questions to serve that purpose. If we want to report on the number of whites served, vs. blacks, vs. something else, well, we probably don’t need to list all the somethings – we’re going to report them as ‘other’ – they design the form for ease of processing without concern for the feelings of the poor slob completing the form.

    I should stop.

    I am happy that your treatment has been successful (profoundly jealous that is was free) and wish you good health in the future. BTW, I liked the mug in the irrelevant image.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I love the mug.

      The language for our categories is such a minefield, and we tend to focus on that, but really it’s the categories, and the forms of discrimination structured into our lives, economies, and cultures that are the problem. As long as people belong to groups that are discriminated against, feared, or whatevered, the language will be a problem. She said optimistically.

      Liked by 2 people

          • I liked Dan’s reference to that woman, because I have also encountered several people who do not want to be referenced as African-American, because their origins are not African. (Well no more than any current anthropological studies would suggest we all are.)

            I do not have nice white girl hair. I have ethic, perhaps Italian, perhaps just vaguely Mediterranean hair. It sure isn’t Native American. I don’t need labels until I do.

            Liked by 3 people

            • Oh, the problems of naming. Some people objected to “black” for equally logical reasons–they were brown. And yet our society insists that we have a category that includes that range of people, and conditions and beliefs reinforce its existence.

              Liked by 2 people

            • My sister (age 70) refers to herself as Black (as I do) and not African-American. The problem with “African-American” is that it is universally applied to all Blacks, including Black immigrants who are from, and of, a specific country. My sister and I (like so many others) can point to The Continent as our roots until we have a DNA test done, but even then, I still don’t know my African family name. (I was going to say much more, but then I’d end up writing a blog post.)

              Liked by 2 people

              • If you do write a blog post, send me a link and I’ll post it here.

                The phrase “African American” gets particularly complicated when it combines African immigrants and American blacks. Left to my own devices, I tend to say “black,” mostly because it’s the phrase I’m used to, but with any given person I try to follow whatever their preference is. And I don’t lose sleep over it.What matters most, I think, is underlying respect.

                Liked by 2 people

  7. I have this problem as well in a sense. I was born in London, which makes me English, my Dad is Maltese, however when he was born Malta was under British rule which would make me British. My mum is half Scottish and Half Irish (southern Ireland) so do I go for British which covers at least 3/4 or English or European, which covers all of it.

    My OH has it easy, his family have been born and bred in England since 1066, although he was born in Germany, on a British base though

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Complicated, that’s for sure. As someone who is Franco-American—my ancestors are from Canada and before that France—those forms never get it right. Also, so glad your breast cancer was small and easy to treat. I, too, have had breast cancer. Eight years ago. One of the best things I ever heard was my doctor, at the five year mark, saying these beautiful words:”You are officially considered to be cured.” Oh, yes!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s fantastic. What a great feeling.

      I never thought about how easy it would be, if there were a box for Franco-American, to conflate French Canadian with French when the two are very different. The more you look, the more complicated it all gets.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very glad that you and the NHS have overcome the problem. Keep well.
    Being a Scot…wherever I live, as that is the culture which formed me….I am obstinate generally and about forms in particular. I like to have the purpose explained to me, which the poor sap handing it out is usually unable to do as their superiors believe that arcane knowledge of that sort is above their pay grade.
    Of course I see the point about health issues with genetic links…and about checking that the users of your service accurately represent the catchment group…though why we should do this by ethnicity alone without including factors like income and disability is beyond me.
    Not that seeing the point means co operation.
    I can remember some power mad nurse telling me that unless I gave my religion on the form she was presenting to me my operation would be cancelled. I asked her to send for the doctor and asked him whether he was intending to kill me, which would be the only purpose of asking my religion – in order to assure the correct procedures for burial. We decided on N/A.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. One of my favorite things about historical posts is that one always seems to come away with some useful if obscure fact which can be applied to moderate life — I mean, who would have thought of casserole dishes as being round? Now, that I know, I’ll mix the casseroles up in round bowls, too! Things are going to go so much better at my place, thanks to you…

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Glad to know that health issues are looking up. Stay well. Probably better not to start a sociology major going down the road of ethnic statistics and identity. I feel research papers and formal writing trying to settle back into my brain over discussions of this topic. Loved it, but still cannot let go of how the majority of these questions are framed, and then used. I too have long questioned that compulsion to “check a box” and present myself in an accepted way when I am so much more than an ill-defined category on paper. Social conditioning at it’s best…based on whose standards?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I never questioned the categories until I was asked to draw up an intake form for an organization once. Because every form I’d ever seen asked for marital status, I included it. Someone questioned why I had and, really, I had no answer. It was enlightening.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Ellen,

    Glad to hear that your op worked out ok. And that the NHS did the right thing on time, despite Jeremy Hunt’s ongoing attempts to prevent the NHS from doing anything half-decently.

    Black welsh:
    >The silent assumption seems to be that Welshness (or Englishness, or etc.) is white.
    Cardiff (capital of Wales) being a port city has its share of non-white-British ethnicities: Black Welsh is certainly a possibility, Shirley Bassey being the most well-known person in that category. Though the mixture-issue arises here, since her father was Nigerian, and her mother was English.
    And then there are the Cardiff citizens who are of Yemeni descent – I wonder what they put in the ethnicity box of the UK census form? Wikipedia says; “There are no reliable estimates of the present Yemeni-origin population of Cardiff.”. Presumably that’s because there’s no “Yemeni” box on the ethnicity bit of the census form.

    Whiteness in ethnicity:
    I rather like the recently reported research on this. Here’s an extract from the Guardian newspaper 7 Feb 2018 (other news sources are available):
    “The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed.
    The fossil, known as Cheddar Man, was unearthed more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. Intense speculation has built up around Cheddar Man’s origins and appearance because he lived shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age. People of white British ancestry alive today are descendants of this population.

    It was initially assumed that Cheddar Man had pale skin and fair hair, but his DNA paints a different picture, strongly suggesting he had blue eyes, a very dark brown to black complexion and dark curly hair.”

    So it appears that White-British people’s ancestors were actually Black-blue-eyed-people and the white skin evolved later.

    Further on in the article is the telling quote:
    “Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’

    Which just goes to show how historically limited ethnic categories can be.

    The full article is at:

    Liked by 3 people

    • You got to that article ahead of me, curse you. I’ll write a post on it anyway. So there. It is fascinating. And–maybe it’s my age–I’m beginning to think 10,000 years isn’t all that long ago.

      You make a very good point about having no estimate of the number of people of Yemeni origin because they don’t ask. And I can’t help wondering if they tabulate what people write in if they fill out the box that follows Other.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m glad the NHS has done you proud, and you are well again.
    I was thinking of Cheddar man as I read your post. And also cheese. Especially stuffed in chicken breasts, with mushrooms and garlic, but that’s another issue. I once spent some months doing the ‘’ thing, and discovered everyone in my family back to the 1600’s came from Yorkshire, I grew up there too so I always put ‘Other’ in the ethnicity question, as Yorkshire is never a choice.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love that.

      I once got an email (from a U.K. ancestry site) swearing it could trace my ancestors. So I put my grandmother’s name a birthplace in and hit Send. I never heard back. Yorkshire, I think, they could’ve handled. Rosava, Ukraine, they weren’t ready to handle.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Great post. Ethnicity is something I’ve never had to ponder for myself—I’m about as white as they come, but as a once upon a time teacher I watched and helped kids wrestle with the categories. I’ve also worked in research, testing children in order to help with developing reading curriculum, and we always had to complete a brief survey as to each child’s ethnicity (BTW, I cannot SAY the word “ethnicity” nor the word “reciprocity” for some reason. Must be a failing in my genetic makeup.) And it was really hard. We’d ask the children who would often shrug and we’d ask the parents who’d go rambling down many lanes until finally giving something that we could check off of a list. It’s just not simple. And I hate that they have to box us off in this manner.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So do I, but (so I don’t repeat myself at length) see my response to Daedalus Lex. (Sorry–I’ve gotten bored with myself and dont’ want to start a long answer over.)

      When I was in grade school, a teacher had us ask our parents where our ancestors came from, then did a map, which really brought home to us that, with the exception of one woman who had some Native American ancestors, our ancestors all came from somewhere else–some willingly and some kidnapped and sold, but all from elsewhere. It’s one of the few lessons from grade school that I remember.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. First of all, I am glad you made it through your medical wobble OK. I am sure your wicked sense of humour came in handy when weathering that storm.

    I have always felt very ambivalent about those types of check box forms. On the one hand, I like to imagine that the data is being used to ensure or promote or be some sort of check on inclusiveness. On the other hand, the very fact people are being squashed into boxes and labelled in such a pragmatic way somewhat undermines that very same spirit of inclusivity. I tend to interrogate the agenda of the questioner also: why might they wish to know this information and what might they intend to do with it? I suspect my cynicism is hard-wired because my parents were always opposed to such forms when I was school age – when the categories were very narrow and did not allow for mixed backgrounds. They used to scrawl something akin to “refuse to answer” across the forms. I do note that categories are much wider and recognise the need for mixed heritage options or even the horribly named “other” box but the forms still make me uncomfortable.

    As a parent, I recently had a wee battle my oldest son’s High School over a very similar issue. Despite the school professing policies of inclusivity, they had students participate in some stupid valentines questionnaire that had been supplied by an outside organisation. The idea was that the answers would be used to pair up boys and girls. All good fun, right? Heck no. Aside from the fact that my son (who has ASD in addition to just being an awkward 14 year old) felt uncomfortable about the whole thing, he came home incandescent that the questionnaire only offered the binary genders as options on the tick box. My son identifies as cis male but is aware that fellow students might be trans, gender fluid, or just not prepared to box themselves in to a gender in such a polarised, black and white way. Further, he was aggravated that the whole exercise was so heteronormative given the whole premise was that boys would be paired with girls. So I tackled the school on it and there was much buck passing and a whole lot of “just innocent fun” and really my dialogue with them is ongoing about it. My point – which is now very waffly – is that sometimes the most innocuous types of these tick box forms can be grossly insensitive in terms of identity politics.

    I could go on to discuss the way the word “ethnicity” makes me bristle because of the way it posits anyone non-white/European as “other” but I think my reply is already quite long enough.

    Liked by 2 people

    • First off, your son’s amazing. And after that, what a stupid, horrible exercise. For all the reasons you mentioned, plus that not every boy wants to be paired up with a girl and vice versa–never mind that not many kids want to be paired up with some random other kid in an exercise with romantic overtones, even if the other kid happens to be of a gender that appeals to them. That really isn’t enough.

      What idiots! (The school, that is. Obviously.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Idiots indeed. And I think part of why they are so tied up in knots dealing with me over this is that they know they were idiots but do not wish to admit they were idiots. They either did not check what the student body were circulating as a “bit of harmless fun” or else they thoughtlessly rubber stamped it without thinking about how it conflicted with their professed inclusivity policies.

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Those problems are everywhere – here in New Zealand it’s almost you have to choose between Maori and Pakeha (although now I note that other ethnicities such as Chinese etc are allowed). But most of us who have been here for generations are of pretty mixed blood, and should not be forced to choose one of those… By the way, have you read ‘Walking the Bible’ by Bruce Feiler?

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Maybe I am naive, but why would anybody be asked for ethnicity/race at all? At a clinic, school or anywhere? Is “citizen” or “not citizen” not enough, if it is for health insurance reasons for example? Why all these new boxes for mixed people added up to the old boxes? Why not get rid of the boxes altogether. What purpose do these questions have?

    Instead of being angry that one’s own box is not mentioned, wouldn’t it be better to boycott the box system?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sometimes, I think, organizations ask out of habit, but there are some reasons I think are legitimate. See the conversation (above, I think) with A Bit about Britain and Daedalus Lex. Apologies for not repeating it, but it’s long and I’m getting old–I repeat myself enough as it is.

      With the waves of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping so many countries, I’d be leery of having a citizen/not citizen box. Immigrants–both with documents and undocumented–already feel so vulnerable, something like that could put people off seeking medical care. I was just reading an article in the New Yorker about many schools collaborating in the deportation of undocumented students.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Thanks for the health update–whew! Very stimulating dialogue, and OK to not have to strive for humor (or humour in Britain) every time, though you do it so well! I wouldn’t deny I’m American though once in a while I wish I could. I somehow strongly identify with my varied immigrant forebears enough that Irish;Scottish; English; German;Norwegian-American feels right though gets me no credit in those countries. I agree 10,000 years isn’t so long ago as humans in various forms have been all around the world for millions of years and there is so much we don’t know. My (and my Dad’s) Y-Haplogroup is apparently most common in the Republic of Georgia, where they may have invented pastoralism (herding goats, sheep, whatever) but are not an Indo-European speaking group–now, anyway. Who knows what was true 6,000 years ago…?

    Liked by 2 people

  19. This one was needed to be post without your humor. Excellent points and discussions, none of which I can hit the gavel and give an answer. Your questions are far more important than any answers. Thank you, Ellen.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Excellent post. True that the meaning of ethnicity changes depending on where are the in the world – and depending on where we are in the world, majority and minority communities differ. In Australia, sometimes when you fill out one of those forms you’ll commonly see Australian, British, Indian, New Zealand, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and so on. Here it’s commonly defined as one’s cultural background. Then again, one’s cultural background isn’t always straightforward. As you touched upon, some of us are mixed-race or we define our cultural background as where we have spend most of our lives.

    Good to hear you are on the mend from breast cancer last fall. Times like these you have to take a step back.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your mention of cultural background not being straightforward reminds me of another area where categories become confusing: When a child of one visible ethnicity is raised by people of a different one. Visually they belong to one but culturally to another.

      Thanks for your words about having to step back. They’re exactly right.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. So interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever, in the many decades in my own country, been asked about my ethnicity–it’s just not something we ask or care about. I HAVE been asked for my postal code a lot and I’m never sure why. Also, I’m happy that you’re healthy!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Such a complicated question. One is tempted to respond with “what race/ethnicity do YOU think I am?” Because: when it really counts–when the Parisian police are rounding up the Jews to take them to the Vel d’Hiv, or the Hutus are coming, machetes in hand, to look for Tutsis, or whatever–when it really counts, it’s what the OTHER guy thinks your ethnicity is that matters.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Back in the 80’s a black friend referred to me as a WASP, which was a group, at that time, under fire for being the “establishment” when I corrected him and said I was an Irish Catholic, German, French & Scottish. He was said, “There are different kinds of white?” So it seems a surprise that people might think those in the US would NOT identify with their heritage much in the same way that those in Britan might identify with being of Welsh, Cornish or Scottish descent.

    I never felt as if I were “White” but instead thought that was an idea to lump people together. Even then (my early 20’s) I identified first with Irish Catholic because at that time, most Catholics had to raise their children Catholic, and my Mother was half German, half Irish (both sides Catholic) and we lived in the same area both families originally settled in the US, French & Scottish came from my Dad, who converted and grew up in a different area, altogether.

    My Mother, who was born a few years prior to WW2 remembers a huge backlash against my Grandfather, who was of German descent, even though his family had been in the US 80 years prior. There was talk of gathering the “Germans” up (including my Grandfather) and putting them in camps, which didn’t seem so far off as there was actually a German POW camp in a small town about 12 miles away. So of course, the German heritage was played down. Maybe I played it back up inadvertently when I chose the blog name, but I wanted to be Frugal something during the Great Recession and couldn’t find anything to go with it and chose “Hausfrau” on a whim when I saw it was available.

    I think the identification on forms is a scary thing, and in the US it is probably of little value, medically or culturally, because so many of us are mixed. And scariest of all is we DO see it being used to sort, punish and identify some groups.

    Liked by 3 people

    • During World War I, there was a huge wave of anti-German sentiment–and action–which led to some German-Americans changing their last names. I seem to remember reading that schools took German songs out of the songbooks they used–that sort of hysteria.

      So yes, there are endless gradations and subgroups and discriminations within the category White. But, as Zipfslaw pointed out somewhere in the comments, his question isn’t What group do you think you belong to? but What group do other people think you belong to. Because that’s how the world around you will treat you. We create these groups and then we think they have some innate existence.

      Liked by 2 people

    • You know, I think you may not think of yourself as White if you are very much in the majority wherever you are and among those with whom you associate. Africans have said something similar about not thinking of themselves as Black in their countries. But, I bet that lack of awareness was not there when Africa was occupied (colonized).

      Liked by 3 people

  24. Ahh, nevermind everything else – colour, ethnicity, religion – what you are is lucky and that’s the only thing that counts.

    That said, it frustrates me when you say that in the US mentioning being an atheist can shock. What in the sweet hell?? I want to say many things now that I better not. Just this: some of us have been programmed differently and don’t buy certain things (such as confessing our sins, thus giving others power over us, feeling so guilty all of the time, and lending prayers instead of help).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I find it fascinating that you’re shocked to hear that Americans can be shocked by hearing someone’s an atheist. (Can you find your way through that sentence? Sorry. Too many shocked’s and too much hearing.) I guess whatever we grow up with, however strange it may be, we take for granted, at least to some extent.

      You’re right: I have been incredibly lucky. And after my surgery, I had a lovely stretch of time when I swear my entire body knew it. I’ve never felt so alive to the pleasure of being alive. Sadly, it didn’t last. Now I’m my normal old self.

      Not that I’m complaining (much), mind you. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

      Liked by 2 people

  25. Ellen, sorry, I’m still bumbling about trying to comment. I just have to leave a sentence before I get kicked off line. I’d wanted to tell you how impressed I am by the tone of this post. It works to illuminate the humor/lighter tone of the blog in general. I can’t explain it well right now because I want to post this before my computer gives me the boot.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. I think all Western cultures have historically been obsessed with putting people into neat little boxes, and of course the racial aspects of that should not be ignored. Thanks for reminding us to always remain vigilant and not simply accept and follow without questioning the dominant paradigm. Celebrating your full recovery!

    Liked by 2 people

  27. I’ve had surgery and can now dance off into the rest of my life without needing radiation or any other further treatment. The NHS—Britain’s National Health Service—has been incredible. And (Americans, take note) the treatment was free.

    So happy that you discovered your cancer early enough, and I do love the above quote. I’ll use that for reference and without details, with your permission, of course. I often argue the value of single payer. Obviously, I’m a progressive and fully support Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They both have their fingers squarely on the root cause of our government’s dysfunction and, often, insanity–talking to you, Trump!

    I’ll mention, as well, that I too am an atheist. Do you think the animosity toward atheists in the U.S. could possibly be because the taxpayer has not been taxed to support any church?

    (The Establishment Clause has been eroding for several decades now under the persistence of self-serving politicians pandering to their base–talking to you, conservatives!)

    Is the UK no longer taxing the citizens to support the Anglican Church? Here, as you know, it is a constant fight to keep true to the Establishment Clause (the wall between church and state) as fundamentalist (in and out of government) fight to fill our school children’s open minds with their collective, subjective ignorance. And while they insist that the government must leave them alone, they strive to use the government as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon the rest of the nation to bow to their religious beliefs. Grrr!

    Okay, you pushed my button. Rant over! :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good question about UK taxes and the established church, and I don’t know the answer. It might make an interesting post. Thanks for raising it. In the meantime, my impression is that familiarity leads to boredom. School kids are subjected to dreary religious pieties and simply loose patience with it all. I know any number of people who aren’t committedly non-religious, they’re just quietly non-religious: They’ve had it.

      You’re more than welcome to quote–well, whatever it was I said, although I can’t remember quite what it was now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The quote was the one I quoted in my reply to you. Many conservatives say that healthcare in the UK is inferior because of the waiting periods. I keep telling them that if I want a nonemergency appointment here in the US, I have to wait sometimes two or three months (which was the case in my last colonoscopy).

        As well, every time I had an emergency, I was immediately brought in. I imagine that is the way in the UK as well.

        Concerning your hypothesis on a less religious country, I think you very well may be correct. The atheist friends I had in college (4, I think) where all from Catholic schools.

        I’d love to read a report from you concerning how the Anglican Church is funded and your opinion on that practice–which I think I already know.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Waiting times in the NHS have been growing due to deliberate government underfunding, which some people think (and they may well be right) is an attempt to run it down so it can be privatized entirely. At this point, privatization is creeping in, but it’s not total. But–well, the only comparison I can give you is this: Emergency room waiting times here are supposed to be four hours, max. Hospitals often run over (see underfunding), but that’s the goal. When my father had meningitis at 90–this was in New York–he was waiting for something like 17 hours. So waiting times? A problem in both places.

          Liked by 1 person

  28. Very happy to hear that you’re back to being healthy. The ethnicity issue reminds me that I’ve wondered for years about the legitimacy of Caucasian designation. I don’t look anything at all like a person from the Caucasus region, nor do I have any related identity. I would like to retreat to Cheeseland where I am happy in my identification as human. The rest of it seems to cause as much angst as comfort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If they’ve given up on these silly definitions in Cheeseland, maybe we could all join you there. Is there room?

      Given that there’s no real boundary between Europe and Asia (I’ve wondered why they’re considered separate), the idea that anyone could draw a line between their peoples defies logic. But then, given the human tendency to roam and mix, so does the idea of race entirely.

      Liked by 1 person

  29. I always put American. All my ancestors have been here since before 1800, some since before 1650. What else am I supposed to put? Beats me. Most of my known ancestors are from Britain. 350 years ago. I don’t feel British. What do British ethnic people do. I eat Mexician food a lot. More often than I eat roast beef or kidney pie. What is kidney pie for pete’s sake. Sometimes I drink English breakfast tea. More often I drink coffee or coco-cola. That is not Brutish. I used to wear London Fog coats.
    Does that count. I don’t sound very British to me. I am going to keep saying American . Maybe I will start a trend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting how quickly the idea of ethnicity falls apart once we all grab hold of it and try to figure out where we fit in it. Or don’t fit. As a kind of big-picture idea, it sounds workable. It’s just the practicalities that make it awkward. I can remember people entering “human” in the box that asked for race, and maybe that was an early hint that the idea was breaking down. What do you suppose will come after ethnicity as a way to categorize people?

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s a good question. I am sure I don’t know. Maybe by the way they dance. We had a group called the Shakers years ago. Or their food habits. Coffee drinker. We are divided between Coke and Pepsi drinkers . It is a real divide. Feelings can run high. Or candy types. I was always a Butterfinger boy.
        Could be anything, but it will be something different. It always is.


        • Class divisions are very much out in the open in Britain. Not that ethnicity isn’t. The older I get, the more I think that humans really aren’t a very nice species. I mean, I like us. I have an irrational attachment to my species, and we’re capable of some wondrous things, and some genuine kindnesses. But there’s all that other stuff.

          And since I don’t drink either Coke or Pepsi, I wonder what’ll become of me.

          Liked by 1 person

  30. People here talk about American Exceptionalism. Obama got a lot of criticism because he would not say he believed in it. I had never heard we were exceptional and had to look it up. My mind wandered a lot in what few history classes I took. After looking it up I did not believe it either. We have plenty of class division here. In the little town I grew up in, everyone knew where the class lines were and who fit where. There was some movement but not a lot. It is even worse now. There was never and still is not any official classes here. But we still have class divisions.
    Since I retired have have been reading a lot of history. You are right, we can be pretty nasty and cruel. When push comes to shove or when ambition lifts its head.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d never argue that the U.S. doesn’t have class divisions, it’s just that 98% of the country seems to claim it belongs to the middle class. As for American exceptionalism, I’m with you. Gravity works the same way. Poverty works the same way. Lately, lie seem to work the same way. Rant coming on. I’ll stop now.


Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.