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Ethnic questions on official forms: who needs ’em?

[14 Jan 2014] Several obituaries of Nelson Mandela remarked that he wanted a non-racial society in which everyone was well treated wherever they came from and whatever their skin colour or genetic background. It led Libby Purves, sage columnist of the Times, to tell how she and other family members completed their immigration forms on entry to apartheid-stricken South Africa in 1962 when her dad was appointed to a Foreign Office post there:

‘To our delight, when we had to fill out immigration forms on the ship my father – who had already gone out there by plane – told my mother we could treat the “race” question with contempt or leave it blank, and he would face down any subsequent official problems. So I put “egg and spoon”, my mother put “Ladies’ breast stroke 300 yards” and he, we were told bafflingly, wrote “Protestant”.’

France, in its penal code and constitution, famously forbids the collection of ethnic-origin statistics for French citizens, on the basis that it would create division not fairness or harmony. In the UK, though, officials are obsessed with collecting and trying to interpret racial-origin details, with most forms including a page of tick-boxes about it.

Here at Plain Language Commission, we sometimes receive tender documents for official contracts that require us to state the racial make-up of our staff and directors. Rejecting the temptation to reply ‘egg and spoon’ or ‘none of your damn business’, we sometimes phone up the issuing body to ask under what power they require the information they seek. Cue a lot of umming and aahing, and eventually a statement that filling in that bit of the form is, er, optional really, even though it doesn’t say so on the form.

There remains the suspicion, though, that not completing the section in the approved kow-towing manner will mean our tender being binned by one of the thousands of diversity zealots who occupy well-paid sinecures. [cont]

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