The semantics of ethnographies.

Often when completing forms there is a section in it asking about one’s ‘ethnicity’ clearly aiming to ensure political correctness, but actually a complete mess. Are you Irish, Black, Afro-Caribbean, White, Jewish, Muslim, Bangladeshi are among the categories I recall having seen.  A complete hotchpotch mixture of racial, colour, Nationalities and other, often very indistinct, distinctions. Not surprising in many ways, as newspapers and other media frequently confuse such things. Anti-Semitism is used to refer to anti-Jewish sentiments, whereas Semitic really refers to a language group, that includes a range of different cultures and religions. Black is used to cover peoples with any African ancestry – whereas in fact they may be what used to be called half-caste or mulatto, and then there were quadroons and octoroons and even hexadecaroons. Some of these may well be considered politically incorrect, but they were actually useful if, and only if, it was necessary to identify the racial history of a person. But I do ask, is it helpful to class a person in this way? In South Africa a person with any native African blood was described as Cape Coloured. And I grew up in an era when it was ‘normal’ to see on adverts for flats in London to state  ‘No Irish or Blacks’.  Luckily this type of discrimination is now outlawed, but I do question the usefulness of gathering data on the forms I describe at the beginning in such a random manner. Country of origin is surely the only one that should matter. After all you could be a Russian Jew, Egyptian Coptic Christian, or a Macedonian Muslim. But first and foremost, it is important that government forms learn to use the language correctly and ensure that when they are asking about ethnicity, that is the data they are gathering. Being Black is not an ethnic group, any more than being white. Those are purely skin colours; not even a racial distinctions. The underlying question is “why is this data being collected?” Often there are good reasons. One I can think of is the need for translation and interpretation. In which case it is best to ask: What is your mother tongue, and what other languages do you speak.

I would be very interested to hear of other examples of this sort of confused thinking of race, ethnicity, religion and skin colour.

And just when I was thinking of posting this, I picked up an old copy of the journal ‘Social Anthropology (2011)’ , a special issue on The Uses and Misuses of ‘Indigeneity’ and ‘autochthony’.  But that’s another story which I will follow up one day, as this is actually very relevant indeed to World Land Trust work.


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