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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.