Ticking The 'Other' Box: The Problem With Categorising Ethnicity

Photo via @banseka
In the UK, ethnicity is split into five major categories: 'white', 'black', 'Asian', 'mixed' (usually referring to white + black or Asian) and 'other'. In many aspects of our life, we are asked to self-define which category we fit into — on job applications, on medical applications, at school. The most significant instance is when we participate in the national census, a head count of people in the country, conducted every 10 years by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics. The last survey was taken in March 2011. According to that census, the total population of England and Wales is over 56 million.
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Population of England and Wales by ethnicity, 2011
Breaking that figure down, around 48 million people identify as white, 4.2 million as Asian, 1.9 million as black, 1.2 million as mixed and 560,000 people as other (though this does not take into account the 3.9 million people who ticked 'other' under the white, black, mixed and Asian categories). It comes as no surprise that those who identify as white make up the largest proportion of the population at 86%, but what is intriguing is that from 2001 to 2011, those identifying as 'other' under any of the major categories increased by 2 million in total. What this possibly shows is that the current categories are becoming outdated. How do people who fall under 'other' feel about being forced to identify themselves in this way?
Emily Fouad*, a 28-year-old editor, identifies as mixed British and Middle Eastern, an option not available on the form. "My mum is half Egyptian, half Turkish and my dad is half Iranian, half British," she says. Fouad would prefer to have a wider range of mixed options that are more indicative of the UK population. "You either have Arab (with no mixed option) or British mixed Asian or Caribbean/African."
Fouad is proud of her ethnicity but the lack of representation makes her feel somewhat isolated. "In a subconscious way it does perpetuate the feeling I’ve always had in the UK that I’m not quite British enough," she explains. Fouad moved to the UK aged 12, having grown up in Singapore. Prior to the move, she hadn’t thought much about her ethnicity, as her school encompassed a diverse range of races. But in the UK, her class was predominantly white. "I was always conscious of not being white and experienced racism continuously." That feeling followed her into adult life. "For official documents to also class you as other cements that perception."
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Banseka Kayembe agrees. Her father is Congolese and her mother is Punjabi, Indian. "I think it boils down to the fact that many people think being mixed race is this very specific thing of you're white and you're something else," she explains. Kayembe references a scene in Love Island last year, where two white contestants — Ellie and Georgia — described their dating preference as mixed-race men. Despite it being a broad term, the two specifically meant men who are half white and half black. This misinterpretation of what it means to be mixed race results in Kayembe often being misidentified as solely black. By only having a white and black/Asian option, the census panders to existing misconceptions of mixed-race people.
Liza Gundowry
For Liza Gundowry, the issue goes one step further. Gundowry is of Mauritian heritage, a country which is a melting pot of ethnicities: around two-thirds are Indo-Mauritian (of Indian descent), a quarter are Creole (of African descent or mixed race) and then there are smaller populations of Sino-Mauritian, Franco-Mauritian and Chinese. Gundowry identifies as Creole, having both Indian and African roots, but UK ethnicity forms don’t represent this. She would prefer to be recognised as 'black mixed' on these forms. "It is not even a lot to ask, it’s still inconspicuous," she says, noting that her Latino friends find themselves ticking 'other' too. But ethnic ambiguity is an issue Gundowry feels trickles into every aspect of a person’s life. She is often seen as appropriating both sides of her culture. "When I've said I want an Indian wedding, a friend was like, 'Why would you want that?' Or if I get braids, that might not sit well with some black girls," she adds. "What am I supposed to do then if I don't fit into any [one category]?"
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Many organisations are trying to raise awareness of this question. On Instagram, Mixed Race Faces focuses on broadening the understanding of what it means to be mixed race by giving individuals a platform to talk about their heritage. For some, this can be the first time they find someone who identifies exactly as they do. "This was the first time I met someone who was similar to me apart from my siblings — his mum was Pakistani and his dad was Jamaican," Kayembe says.
The Other Box is a platform with a broader initiative: to train the spotlight on people from underrepresented backgrounds in the creative industry. "The Other Box specifically came out of frustration for people – whether it be ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc – having to constantly define themselves into singular boxes, neglecting the multidimensional aspects of who they are," says cofounder Leyya Sattar. "The consequences of this bureaucracy limit the way we then think about identity when forcing people to tick 'other' when filling in forms and documents."
Of course, it will always be difficult to successfully identify every ethnicity, but the issue also lies with the term used. "There's something about the word 'other' that is disheartening," Kayembe says. "If they could have another term, something a bit more respectful, I think that could make such a difference." She suggests a question alongside the possibilities, such as: "If you don't fit any of these choices, please tell us what your racial heritage is." To Kayembe, this would be a friendlier approach. "It shows they are actually interested in knowing what your racial heritage is." For her, like many 'others', it’s about feeling that your ethnic background is valid and that you are valued in the country you call home.
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