Join a library, apply for a job or submit a play for a competition. More often than not, you will have to fill one in. Apparently, their purpose is to guarantee an equal distribution of opportunities among ethnic backgrounds. Does it really work? I am fully aware that this policy is aimed at eradicating racism and comes with genuinely honourable intentions. However, when you are in the vulnerable position of a petitioner, it is easy to think, “Does that mean, then, that the focus is on people’s ethnicity more than on their talent or suitability for a position? Will I tick the right box or the wrong one?”
I refuse to fill in ethnic monitoring forms at application stage, as a matter of principle. I do not consider them relevant. I am applying for a job or submitting a play – not volunteering for a study in anthropology. For statistics’ sake, I would be happy to supply information about my ethnicity after my application has been processed, and I informed of the outcome. Not before. I feel that would be a far more considerate and sensitive approach on the part of employers.
Another objection I have to ethnic monitoring forms, is the inaccurate language they use. White British or White Other? The last time I saw that question, it was printed on a form issued by a highly reputable Arts organisation. I drew a line across the form and wrote, “British is a nationality, not an ethnic group. Are you trying to ask whether I am originally Anglo-Saxon, Norse or Celtic?” Other forms make a difference between White British, White Irish and White Other. What happened to the other Celtic tribes which populated the British Isles?
Why not adopt a worldwide policy that would allow us to apply for jobs and submit our work with a CV bearing only initials, instead of a full name? Then, you would know – at least up to the interview stage – that it is strictly your qualifications and experience that have led you to the interview, since the other party knows nothing of your nationality or even sex. At that point, the company could keep track of the percentage of various ethnicities that make it to the final cut, and draw the relevant conclusions about itself.
Surely, it is focusing on our differences too much that leads to intolerance, suspicion and ignorance? Why do we not just forget about ethnicities, and focus on and appreciate people as individuals?
The term background is a pet hate of mine. It is given too much importance. There is a good reason why the word back is contained in it. Our background is behind us. It is there to propel us forward, not for us and other people to dwell on it. Nobody ever advanced by walking backwards. Another concept I feel we are encouraged to focus on too much, is that of our roots. Roots are very well for trees. We are humans, shaped with legs intended for us to walk ahead.
It is my experience of the British – or should I say English – mentality, that much importance is attached to our nationality and ethnic origin, sometimes to a point, in my view, of impolite and almost judgemental prying. It is my curse, as someone brought up speaking four languages, to have a hint of an accent in all of them. I was lunching at the home of a Cambridge Fellow and his wife. I was discussing opera with one of the guests, also an academic. I begged to differ with him on a point of music. His immediate response was, “You weren’t born in this country, were you?” I was taken aback by the abrupt change of subject, and asked what had so suddenly triggered his question, since it was clearly so irrelevant to our existing conversation. “It’s just interesting,” he said. “Well, it’s not all that interesting to me,” I replied, forcing a smile. Far from taking the hint, he insisted, until I had to ask if it was my “foreign” accent that was clearly making him doubt my opinion in music. To give him credit, he apologised.
An old copy of Debrett’s I had as a teenager advised against asking strangers at parties “So what do you do?” since the last thing a person may want to do at the end of a hard day, is discuss his or her work. It may sound fascinating to some that I am a half-English, half Middle Eastern polyglot but for me – having grown up with it – it is as commonplace as discussing my height, weight or eye colour. My heart sinks when I hear the question “where do you come from?” My family background is such a mixture, and because I cannot give a simple, concise answer and remain truthful, I give outrageous replies, such as coming from a long line of East Anglian pixies or having ancestors from the side of the Moon which is invisible to modern technology. I hope, against hope, that it will deter further questions, and that, if the other person craves a “fascinating” story, that he or she might pick up a novel. Far from it. They just do not take the hint. They push, persist, insist. Having said that, I do not object giving a three-hour talk on my full background to someone I have grown to know a little better over time. However, being interrogated within the first few minutes, makes me feel like an exotic animal in a zoo.
A while back, I found myself at a drinks reception, where a gentleman asked me the dreaded question. “I’m English,” I replied.
“Pure English?” he insisted.
“Is anyone pure English?” I retorted, somewhat irked.
“I am,” he said. “100%.”
It was too tempting to resist. “Really?” I said, pussycat smile in place. “100% pure English? There can’t be many of you about.”
I checked my nails were sharp enough. “How far back?”
He smiled, contentedness spreading over his face. “William the Conqueror.”
I unsheathed a couple of claws, in preparation. “Oh, how fascinating! Are you of Norman descent?”
“That’s right,” he said, ever so proud.
The scratch was as effortless as a paper cut. “So you have French and Scandinavian blood!”
His face froze.
“Excuse me,” I said, moving away from him.
© Scribe Doll
In the ‘Other’ space – if there is one – for completing details of one’s ethnicity, I’m often tempted to write ‘Pink’, having left the ‘White’ box blank. Or even ‘Flushed’ ( after an escalator climb ). Or ‘Pale’ ( Mondays ).
Ha! I wonder if you’ll ever actually give into your temptation. Thank you for commenting.
Ah yes. Never ask a person what they do. I learned this when vacationing at an exclusive club. It was strange to me that everyone seemed to be a photographer. And then I realized, they don’t do anything and probably never have. And it was me who was uncomfortable. So, no, I never ask anymore. Living in the UK, I’ve learned how to talk about the weather.
I know what you mean. It’s an odd feeling for working people to meet people whose money works for them, as opposed to their working for their money. Totally alien but also rare (at least in my social and professional circles).
Thank you for commenting.
I’m sure you know this one, but: “So, where are you from?” “Birmingham.” “Yes, but I mean before that?” “Birmingham. I was born there.” “Yes, but before that?”
I love it! Thank you!