Monday, 21 March 2011

Where are your children from? (Tick all that apply)

We've just filled in our census.

I know that technically we're not supposed to do it until Sunday, but there was an internet option, and that version didn't seem to care when we did it, so we've done it.

And we've struggled with the bits about how many rooms we've got (if there are builders in them and they only have half a wall and a bit of steel do they count?) and what our job titles are (am I a consultant or a lawyer? Or both?) and grumbled at the fact that caring for small children doesn't count as caring, and avoided any discussion about religion by not commenting on each other's answers to that question.

But then they ask about nationality.

And ethnicity.

And those are easy.  Right?  Because I'm white and British.  My passport says so. Which makes me, most times I'm asked, "White British". And I quite like that because it's a great catch-all for the fact that while I was born and brought up in England, my heritage is part English, and part Scottish and a bit Jewish and a bit French and a bit German and a bit, probably, if you go back far enough, Gothic or Pictish or Danish.   And when I tick that "British" box, for me it covers all those and more; a one word answer for the fantastic melting pot that the last two thousand or so years of immigration has made this country.  And "White"? Well, I am. Specially this time of year...

But that's not, or at least not here in Scotland (and I don't know if the English and Welsh census is different) what the census wants to know.  Instead I get:

14. What do you feel is your national identity?

Northern Irish


15.  What is your ethnic group*?

A. White:

Other British
Other white ethnic group

And for question 14, I can tick all that apply, but for question 15, I get one shot only.

And in a way, that's fine for me.  Because I can, and do, feel both English and British so on the nationality question I can tick both.  Out of the list of "ethnicities" I guess I'm "Other British".

But what about the girls?  What about the baby I'm carrying?  Because three out of the four of them have to be on this census too. They're all under four.  They have no understanding of any of these concepts.  How on earth can we say what nationality they "feel"?

We asked L:

Where are you from? London or here?
Here.  And London.
So that's clear.  Not.  And where that question is nebulous, and personal, the next one deals, apparently, in facts.  What is their ethnic group?  Well?  They're white, that much is obvious.  But what about the rest? Their mother is a hotchpotch of European immigration and their father is half-Scottish and half-English and, despite a recognisably Scottish name, if anyone traced his ancestry, is probably just as much a muddle of different things as I am.  They were all born in England and now live in Scotland where we expect them to remain. Their passports just say "British".  At the moment they all talk like me, but the Scottish lilt is creeping in.

So what are they?  They're not Scottish, but then nor are they notScottish  and the census effectively asks them (or us on their behalf) to choose.  Bearing in mind that in years to come, the genealogical investigations of my grandchildren's grandchildren will rely on this census, this feels like it matters.  In addition, what B and I pick makes a statement to the governments, both in Edinburgh and Westminster, about more than just our children. It makes, or at least it feels like it makes,  a statement, and this is presumably why they ask the question, about our attitudes to the Union as a whole.

So we've bent the rules, for the children and for B.  We've ticked, if not quite "all of the above" on nationality, half the available options: Scottish and English and British, and on ethnicity we've gone for option B:

B: Mixed or multiple ethnic groups (please write in)
So we wrote: Mixed British (Scottish/English).  
And while we realise that "mixed" is really asking about skin colour, and that none of them is, by any normal criteria, "mixed race", that seems the only way of saying, as clearly as we can, that they (and we) are a muddle. And we're proud of it.

*Incidentally wikipedia defines "ethnicity" as:
a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy., " general it is a highly biologically self-perpetuating group sharing an interest in a homeland connected with a specific geographical area, a common language and traditions, including food preferences, and a common religious faith".
How much you think all of that can and should be applied to the English, the Welsh, the Scottish or any other group I suppose is going to be personal.  I'm definitely not convinced by the "highly biologically self-perpetuating" bit though.  Or the "food preferences".  If the latter is true, I'm not sure my children share an ethnicity....


  1. Oh no! We got ours yesterday and I haven't even looked at it. I'm so White British I don't know what I am! I was born in Wales, moved to England when I was 8 and now live in Scotland. I'm sure T feels Scottish when he says Nooooo. But when he says "I wanna bis-kit", he's most definitely English. His dad is a mixture of UK/US living so I think we're all a bit screwed for this census! Great post :) x

  2. Oh I can't face it yet. Talking about Nationality always causes strained discussions in our multi-national household. Can I just put Jedi down for everything except colour. My legs are quite a mash of red and blue these days. I'm not sure I could describe them as white at all.

  3. What? You don't fit tidily into the boxes? Shame on you.

  4. Gosh, it all sounds very complicated. Phew! Thank goodness I'm just all Scottish, with probably a fair amount of Irish in my background, and English kids who are possibly turning German. As for colour, I think I go beyond the normal 'White British'. I need a special option for 'so-white-your-legs-glow-in-the-dark'?

  5. If I look at my children's school, I don't think many people fit neat boxes these days. Which I'm hoping will make living together easier in years to come. It seems to me that over here the people who do still fit one box neatly are the most fearful, and the least willing to explore other boxes.
    (We're a questionnaire nightmare as well, with the kids being bilingual etc.)

  6. During the last census, we filled our form in early and then my son arrived 2 weeks before the due date so wasn't counted. Ooops!

    I think of myself as English, Welsh and British - does that help with the confusion?!


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