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.
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.