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English play a very peculiar race game

An English professional association to which I belong recently sent me an equal opportunities monitoring form to fill in. It was the most confused form I have ever seen. It asked respondents to describe their ethnic background. While defining this as "not the same as nationality or country of birth", the categories included some that were wholly to do with nationality, such as Pakistani or Bangladeshi, or which, like black British, conflated nationality with race and skin colour. It was with absolutely no hesitation that I ticked the box "I do not wish an ethnic background to be recorded".

It was not, however, just the intellectual sloppiness that I objected to, but the peculiarly English obsession with classifying people by their "race" and skin colour. It is an obsession that, over the years, has played its part in weakening our sense of civic and national unity. I have never known what race Ibelong to. As someone whose postgraduate research was partly about some of the ludicrous British attitudes towards race in the 19th century, I have never understood how any serious person could make use of the term.

We know about our nationality, our culture, our religion, our sense of identity with various parts of the world, but these are irreducible to crude racial categories. Others may still ignorantly define us in racial terms, but that does not mean that we need to play the same game.

Working in Switzerland and living in France, I have become aware how peculiar British customs are in this respect. The idea of a racial or ethnic survey in Switzerland would be unthinkable. What matters is nationality.

The same is true at my school. If I circulated a questionnaire like the one I received there would be huge protests. We have 119 nationalities and 84 mother tongues and we report the numbers of students and staff under these headings in our annual report, certainly not by their race or skin colour.

Members of our school community are conscious of their nationality, language, religion and culture, of being inhabitants of Geneva, and of being members of an international community.

Isn't this how it ought to be? If in Britain we had concentrated our efforts on developing a sense of the primacy of civic identity in a multicultural society, rather than encouraging people to feel that they belonged to spurious and patronising constructs such as "the black or Asian community", we might not be suffering the levels of alienation from British society that seem to be at the root of some of the distressing events of recent weeks.

One of the authors who I am recommending to my staff and students is the Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, a brilliant novelist. We have just established exchange arrangements with the International College in Beirut, another Anglo-French bilingual school, and Maalouf is helping me to learn more about a country to which we are keen to be linked. As an Arabic-speaking Lebanese Christian who is now a French citizen and writes in French but who has deep continuing ties with the Middle East, Maalouf has written eloquently about the importance of moving beyond the simplistic labelling of identities. In his essay Les Identites Meurtri res (Murderous Identities) Maalouf challenges both the growing cultural uniformity arising from globalisation and the retreat into tribal values that is often the unthinking response to these developments.

It should be compulsory reading for all sixth-formers in multicultural societies such as ours. What is required, he argues, is a new humanism that maintains a subtle balance between our need to feel a sense of belonging to particular places, cultures and traditions and the necessity for a universalism which, when required, can move beyond this. Quite what this means in a country reeling from the knowledge that some of its young people hate it so much that they are prepared to kill their fellow citizens indiscriminately is a matter for further deep reflection. What is clear, however, is that it is not compatible with crude questionnaires about race and skin colour or with the underlying downplaying of civic unity that such exercises unwittingly reflect.

Nicholas Tate is director general of the International School of Geneva

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