Is there any such thing as British ethnicity?

Ethncity is officially "self-defined". Whether Cornish, Welsh, or Arab, you make a statement when you tick a box.

Which box do you tick on forms that ask for your ethnicity? I go for “Mixed [white/Asian]”. Because this is an option on most forms, I’d never really questioned it, or thought about how it would feel if I didn’t fit into any of the categories. My mother, however, speaks of how much she hated classifying her children as “other” before “white/Asian” made it on there.

Certainly, the word “other” has powerful negative associations. Perhaps that is why the list of options on the census form – which many other forms emulate – prompts such strong feelings. Interestingly, ethnicity data for the UK entirely relies on people’s self-definition. The Office for National Statistics explains:

Is a person's ethnic group self-defined? Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom. So, in ethnic group questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information as we would, say, for age or gender. And this means that we should rather ask people which group they see themselves as belonging to.

Having never had cause to question my own identity in this way, I’d always assumed that ethnicity was tied to race, while nationality denoted one's country of birth. But the term “ethnicity” is actually more slippery than this. The dictionary definition is “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.” This gives leeway for a whole set of identities to come under the bracket of “ethnicity”.

The debate that preceded last year’s census sheds some light on this. The National Association of British Arabs was active in campaigning for a new tick-box category of “Arab” to be introduced on the form. An article by their chairman set out their arguments:

The lack of recognition of Arabs as a separate ethnic group, and hence their exclusion, has serious consequences for the planning of services and monitoring of such problems as racial discrimination.

In areas where there are large clusters of Arabs such as central London, health authorities and educational bodies have taken such steps as translations of health guidance material in Arabic and the provision of translators in hospitals to cater for this.  However without more accurate data, such services will remain haphazard.

The campaign was ultimately successful, and “Arab” was included on the 2011 list, along with “Gypsy/traveller”, an ethnic group to which many of the arguments above apply.

No-one would dispute that Arabs – united across countries by a common language and culture – are a distinct ethnic group. But this simple notion of ethnicity is problematised by another campaign: for recognition of the “Cornish” as an ethnic group. MPs rejected a bid to include it as a tick-box option on the 2011 census. In response, Cornwall’s local government launched a campaign to encourage people to choose the “other” option, and write in “Cornish”. My first thought on reading this was that “Cornish”, surely, is a regional identity, rather than an ethnic one, but that stems from my assumption that ethnicity is tied to race. Certainly, Cornish separatists would disagree. The bid for “Cornish” ethnicity was based around the region’s distinct identity and language (though few speak it as a first language), and had it been successful, would have accorded Cornish identity a similar status to Welsh or Scottish.

Coming back to the dictionary definition above, this could well be considered valid. The common parlance of “ethnic prints” and “ethnic jewellery” associates the word with foreign cultures – indeed, “otherness” – but this is a non-starter: what makes a samosa more “ethnic” than a cream tea, if you think about the word meaning?

The far-right British National Party defines itself as the party of the “ethnic British”, as set against “ethnic minorities” who are supposedly taking over. But the fact that hundreds of thousands choose to describe their own ethnicity as Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish shows that “ethnic British” is a nebulous concept. Given that “ethnic” can refer to “regional” or “linguistic” groupings, who is to say that someone who is black but born and brought up in Britain cannot be ethnically British and ethnically Nigerian (for example) at the same time?

The box that you tick on a form might, on the surface, appear to be meaningless bureaucracy. But it goes right to the heart of national and ethnic identity, a burning issue for many people. Inclusion on the census form indicates whether the state accepts your self-definition; personal though it is, by definition, associating yourself with a particular group also makes an outward statement. Forced to make a choice, most people will go with the most literal option – eg. their race or country of origin. This makes sense: the nuances of self-definition and ethnicity are too wide-ranging to fit into a tick in a box.
 

The 2011 census. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

One Day Without Us reveals the spectre of Britain without immigration

Imagine a country without its NHS workers, its artists and even its consumers. That's why immigrants are striking today. 

What’s the best way of making yourself heard in politics? Protesting in the street, or contacting the media? Writing to politicians? A badge?

One option, of course, is to walk out - and give people a chance to recognise what they’d be missing if you weren’t there. In the labour movement, that’s long been an option – a last-case option, but an option nevertheless – when your contribution isn't being recognised.

A strike is a tit-for-tat negotiation and a warning shot. “I’ll work properly when you employ me properly”, it says, but simultaneously: “Here’s what you’d lose if I stopped”. Done right, the worker’s absence can shift the power balance in their favour.

Normally, people strike according to their role, in pursuit of certain conditions – the tube strikes, or last year’s teacher's strike.

Yet there is also a long and rich history of walk-outs whose terms are broader and boundaries hazier. One of the most famous is surely the 1975 Women's Strike, in Iceland, during which 90 per cent of the country's women refused to participate in either paid or unpaid work.

In 2016, the formula was repeated in Poland, where women went on strike to protest against a draconian change being proposed to the country's already-strict abortion laws. (It worked.)

Immigrant strikes, too, have a history. In 2006, for instance, a coalition of Los Angeles Catholic groups, unions and immigration reform groups proposed a boycott in opposition to a bill which, among other things, called for new border security fences to be built between America and Mexico. (Ahem.)

The action grew to become a national event, and on May 1, the “Great American Boycott” took place, with immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere leaving work, skipping school and refusing to buy or sell goods.

Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and Brexit looming, some have decided it’s time for another strike. Enter “One Day Without Us”.

Today, immigrants here in Britain will strike not for pay conditions or holiday allowances, but for basic recognition and respect. Across the country, businesses will close and immigrants will leave work, many of them to take place in alternative actions like rallies or letter-writing campaigns.

The name of the protest pulls no punches. This, it says, is what it would be like if we all went away. (Subtext: “like some of you want”.)

Because – and let’s be honest here – it’d be bad. In hospital this summer, I was treated by migrants. After 24 hours in NHS, I took a count, and found that only about one in five of the staff who had treated me were identifiably English. Around 4.6 per cent of NHS staff nationally are from the EU, including 9 per cent of doctors. Immigrants clean buildings, make our food, and provide a whole host of other vital services.

One Day Without Us, then, could do Britain a huge favour - it provides us with a quick preview function before anyone ups and leaves for good, taking the heart of our health service, or our food supplies, with them.

In recognition of this, some businesses are actively giving their workers the day off. One 36-year-old owner of a support services company, for instance, is giving her staff a paid holiday.

“Not all my colleagues are taking up the offer not to come in”, she explained. “Some, both British and foreign-born, would prefer to work. That’s fine, I wanted to give colleagues the freedom to choose.

 “It will cause some inconvenience and I’ve had to explain to clients why we aren’t offering all our services for one day, but I feel doing this is the only way to show how much this country relies on migrants. I may be a businesswoman, but I’m a human being first, and it hurts my heart to see how foreign-born colleagues are being treated by some people in the current political climate."

The woman, whose staff is 65 per cent foreign born, has asked her company not to be identified. She’s heard her staff being abused for speaking Polish.

Of course, not everyone is able to walk out of work. I write this from Chicago, Illinois, where last week activists participated in an American predecessor to One Day Without Us called “Day Without Immigrants”. Type “Day Without Immigrants" into Google followed by the word "Chicago" and you will find reports of restaurants closing down and citizens marching together through the city.

But search for just "Day Without Immigrants", and the top stories are all about participants being fired.

One Day Without Us, then, encourages any form of engagement. From human chains to sessions during which participants can write to their MP, these events allow immigrants, and supporters, to make themselves known across the country.

Businesses and museums, too, are involved. The Tate, for instance, is offering free tours showing visitors artworks created or influenced by migrants, showing Londoners which of the paintings that they’ve seen a dozen times only exist because of immigration.

Because paintings, like people, come from everywhere, whether or not you remember. Britain is a mongrel country, and so its art and culture are as mongrel as its workforce: a persistent thread through the country’s history.

We risk a lot forgetting this. At its best, assimilation provides a way of integrating without forgetting one’s own unique identity. In a world where immigrants risk threats or violence, however, invisibility can be the best option. For some, it is better not to be recognized as an immigrant than be abused as one.

Those of us who don’t risk threats have a duty to recognise this. I dislike the glibness of “we are all migrants” – maybe, technically, but we’re not all getting slurs shouted at us in the high street, are we? Still, I also don’t like anyone forgetting the fact that their existence, in all probably, is contingent on someone once being given clemency in a place that was their own. The movement of people is woven into the fabric of society.

Of course, it is impossible to say how successful One Day Without Us will be, or how many people’s lives will be directly affected. But I hope that, even as a gesture, it works: that people think of what would be missing from their lives without immigration.

We ignore it at our peril.

You can view all the One Day Without Us events on the organisers’ website, or contribute to a fund to support businesses which are closing for the day here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland