What are they on about?

5th January 2001 at 00:00
David Newnham has a spooky medical

I didn't think people still asked such questions. I was, I confess, a little taken aback. What if I chose not to answer? Would men in lab coats begin measuring my head with callipers? Perhaps they would demand to see my grandmother's papers. Perhaps they would demand to see my grandmother.

I was, I suppose, overreacting. This questionnaire - it was part of a medical screening, after all. "Father's race?" Perhaps the question had to do with one of those diseases like sickle cell anaemia that picks on certain groups.

Well, so long as that was the explanation. Father's race? ErI My father was born in Sussex, and so, I seem to recall, was his father. That made him British - English, even. But clearly his nationality was not the issue. Well, he was white, or a sort of pinky beige, to be precise. But they weren't enquiring about the colour of his skin either. They were asking about his race.

What terms does one use to describe a person's race? What labels are valid, acceptable or fashionable? Thanks to the racists among us (or the racialists, as my father would have called hem, the longer version giving him more time to express his loathing for their kind) this whole area is awash with dubious terminology.

How one describes a person's race - indeed, whether one describes it at all - seems to depend on who is asking the question and why they want to know.

A Nazi would no doubt have described my father as Aryan, while a New York policemen would have had him down as Caucasian. But I am neither a Nazi nor a cop.

Encyclopaedia Britannica gives me a choice of nine groupings: European, Asiatic, African, Indian, American Indian, Australian, Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian. But given that this US publication seems strangely confused about its own title, I'm not sure if it can be trusted either.

"Okay," I say to the doctor when he comes to peruse my incomplete questionnaire. "What should I have put?" "There's a trend at the moment for 'European'," he says. "But 'white' is the answer we're looking for."

White, pure and simple? White, I protest, is no more a race than black.

But the doctor just shrugs his shoulders. He is, after all, only obeying orders.


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