July 29, 2004
Racism... or not?

Here's something I wonder about: I recently moved into a flat in the London Borough of Camden. As the modern, "user focused" borough they are, they recently distributed a survey to me and my neighbours asking for our input regarding some car and motorbike parking changes they are making in the immediate vincinity of where we live. So far so good.

Impressing even further, the survey was accompanied by a sheet stating "This information may be important to you" and offering the survey (on request) in Braille, large print or on tape, or (on request) for the user to be called up by an interpreter of any language explaining the information. The announcement was repeated in Farsi, Urdu, Bengali, Somali, Yoruba, Chinese, Albanian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkisk and Arabic in addition to English. Wow, I thought! London certainly takes its role seriously as the European melting pot!

Then came the form which rather disturbed me: Camden form reference TE/CPZ/01/04-JA, entitled "Monitoring Form: Service Users" states in the header:

The Council operates a policy of diversity and equal opportunity in the provision of services and employment. The Council strongly prohibits unlawful or unfair discrimination on the grounds of disability, gender, marital status, age, sexuality, race, colour, religion and national or ethnic origin. It is to assist the monitoring of this policy and for that purpose only that we are asking you to provide details of your gender, age, disability and ethnic origin in this form. All the monitoring information collected is treated in absolute confidence in line with the 1998 Data Protection Act
(Their emphasis in bold, not mine) If they prohibit discrimination based on this information - would they not be better off not knowing it? Well, the most disturbing part is in the form's right column:
What is your ethnic group: Please tick

[Explanatory text provided in the form] Our ethnic background describes how we think of ourselves. Ethnic background is not the same as nationality or country of birth. The groups listed below reflect the largest ethnic groups in Camden. You are asked to choose the ethnic group that is closest to how you see yourself and write in a more specific group if you wish.

[] White British
[] White Irish
Any other White background - please specify:

[] White and Black Caribbean
[] White and Black African
[] White and Asian
Any other Mixed background - please specify:

Asian or Asian British:
[] Indian
[] Pakistani
[] Bangladeshi
Any other Asian background - please specify:

Black or Black British:
[] Caribbean
[] Somali
Any other African background - please specify:
Any other Black background - please specify:

Chinese or other ethnic group
[] Chinese
Any other group - please specify:

(Again their emphasises in bold and their capitalization, not mine)

Am I the only one surprised of the level of detail in their ethnic group categorization? ... or the inclusion of skin colour?

As far as I remember, political correctness in the US was a hot potato last time I blogged about it; UK seems to have much less inhibitions.

But it all brings me back to my question above: I can see how (maybe slightly na´vely?) they want to make statistics to prove they're not discriminating; but isn't not knowing this better? Isn't not knowing whether I'm a slightly sunburned Scandinavian or a Caribbean the best way to take my provided opinion (on the distributed survey) at face value and overlook things as trivial as my ethnicity?

I'm asking a lot of questions and providing few answers this time around; I guess I just needed to vent and sollicit others' opinions; so please do leave a comment below! Thanks!

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The people in the State of California voted last year on a racial privacy law... http://www.conservativenews.org/Politics/archive/200112/POL20011231a.html

The law would have prohibited the state government from collecting or tabulating racial information. It was voted down, in part due to scare tactics by special intrests that claimed medial research would be hindered if the goverment couldn't tabulate disease rates by race.

Posted by: Adam Kalsey on July 29, 2004 04:18 AM

Slightly off-topic rant:
"The announcement was repeated in Farsi, Urdu, Bengali, Somali, Yoruba, Chinese, Albanian, French, Portuguese, Spanish ..."
Not in German? So the Spanish can have the message translated into their native tongue but the Germans will have to learn English? And what about Norwegian?
How do you think of yourself? White British? ;-)

Posted by: Heiko Hebig on July 29, 2004 08:11 AM

Camden has always been like this. Camden Council is a sort of university for political correctness. There used to be a big library on Euston Road which was a temple of political correctness.

I have long suspect that Camden feels it has to out-PC even the most extreme PC policies. It is almost an affront for anyone to be more PC than they are.

Posted by: andrew on July 29, 2004 12:25 PM

Heiko: one must presume they have statistics on the number of Germans and Norwegians speaking English already (probably a higher percentage than some of the other ethnic groups).

That being said, the message was written in such a way that I believe that if you call them and ask for a German interpreter to ring you back, they probably will.

What ethnic group am I? That's yet another reason I was puzzled by the questionnaire: I'm a Slightly Pink European/International. I'm not a big fan of sorting people in categories, especially not based on skin colour...

Posted by: Anders on July 29, 2004 01:34 PM

I'm in Southwark and they do the same ting - I don't think they presume that Gemans/Norwegians/whatever can speak English, I think they know which populations are represented the most in the borough. I agree with you inasmuch as I don't think my 'ethnic group' is anybody's business and furthermore being born in South Korea and adopted to Denmark at the age of 6 months, whilst having lived in London for 7 years does pose a problem to me: white (clearly not), white-asian (not really), asian (well...) or something completely different. However, some Brits, e.g. some of the English as very determined to not just be categorised as Brits but as English, the same way as Welsh are WELSH and Scottish SCOTTISH. I work for a company that on a regular basis sends out ethnic monitoring forms and people are very specific with regards to their ethnicity. And then we collect the forms, say 'ooh, that's interesting' and put them away to collect dust in the basement. I think that the line of thinking is that not talking about your ethnic background is the same as concealing it, and by acknowledging the diversity you are celebrating it. Or something like that.

Posted by: Charlotte on July 29, 2004 01:53 PM
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