When, if all goes as planned, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) starts to count Ireland’s population again in April next year, respondents will have a few more boxes to choose from when they’re asked to identify their ethnicities.

Trying to capture ethnic diversity in Ireland through the census started in 2006. The question – “What is your ethnic or cultural background?” – and tick boxes stayed the same in the next couple of censuses, with four broad categories split into eight options.

Under “White”, people could choose “Irish”, “Irish Traveller”, or “any other White background”.

Under “Black or Black Irish”, they could opt for “African” or “any other Black background”.

Under “Asian or Asian Irish”, people could opt for “Chinese” or “any other Asian background”.

Finally, there was also an “Other, including mixed background” option, for anyone who didn’t feel the fit into the others and wanted to write themselves in.

Next time around, a few new options may capture a little more detail on how Ireland’s population identifies, and serve up data that can better track possible discrimination and the impact of policies to tackle it.

The logic, though, behind the categories – why some groups are now broken out and named, and why others are still mashed together, and why some refer to colour and others to ethnic background – isn’t always clear.

Seeking Changes

In late 2017, the CSO ran a public consultation on changes to the ethnicity question. The new question has a new frame – and more choices.

It’s reworded to cut out any reference to cultural background. Now the question is simply: “What is your ethnic group/background?”

When answering, for the first time, people who identify as Roma have a box to tick. Those who fall under Asian, can now choose from a box that lumps in: “Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi.”

Meanwhile, those who choose “other, including mixed group/background” can opt now for “Arabic” – which wasn’t there before – but there’s no Middle-Eastern box for those who identify as such but are not Arabs.

In this new menu of options for those answering the ethnicity question, some are indeed ethnicities (“Irish Traveller”), while others are nationalities (“Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi”, “Chinese”), and others are neither ethnicities nor nationalities (Black/White, “African”, “Asian”).

For those who don’t fit in any of the boxes, there’s still “Other” to tick – and a write-in option for people to self-define themselves.

It’s unclear why some of these now warrant their own boxes, while others are still absorbed under big categories.

A spokesperson for the CSO didn’t say why they chose to put Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all together, but said that the framing of questions and response options is subject to constraints.

“Including disparate user demands, limited questionnaire space and the nature of the census as a self-completed questionnaire,” they said. Questions have to meet EU regulations, which adds further to space constraints, they said.

Also, questions must match with the data demand reflected in the submissions made to the CSO about the census content, they said.

The CSO said there were limits to how much could be changed, says Teresa Buczkowska, integration team coordinator at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, which had a representative on a census advisory group that fed into the consultation.

Ethnicity and Skin Colour

While some things about how the CSO’s ethnicity question and answers have changed, others have not.

Sociologist Lucy Michael says the CSO has been conflating skin colour and ethnicity for years. And the new form continues to do that.

The census question asks about the respondent’s ethnic background, and then lets them choose Black or White. But those terms refer to ranges of skin colours, not to ethnicities.

“It’s really important to say that ethnicity is not about the colour of the skin, but we see the labels of Black and White being used a lot,” says Michael.

“When we’re defining ethnicity we’re referring to recognised groups that share a culture, a language, same history, and that can change over time,” she says.

Ireland, Michael says, has borrowed the racial-ordering model for the ethnicity question from the United Kingdom, instead of formulating an original one.

Michael says most countries that confuse skin colour with ethnicity in their national censuses have inherited the approach from a fraught past.

“They’re all countries that had very significant racial segregation in the past, for example, South Africa, the UK, Brazil and United States,” she says.

“That Ireland has chosen to follow that form of racial ordering is very interesting,” she says. “It says who we think we are like.”

Some European countries, Michael says, don’t follow the racial classification model.

In Germany, for example, the national census focuses on migration background, as opposed to skin colour.

What to Choose?

Last Saturday morning, Cíntia Cardoso and Ana Ramalho were checking out haircut prices printed on a barber’s window on Parnell Street in the north inner-city.

Cardoso, born in Brazil, says she will always pick “Black” on a census, no matter where she is, without thinking twice.

Ramalho, born in Portugal, says: “For me personally, as a European White person, White, of course, would be the most suitable.”

She then pauses and turns to Cardoso: “Do you agree?”

“Yea, I agree. I think she has White privilege, so she’s White,” says Cardoso.

The racial language of the census can be contagious, spreading from the census forms to people’s psyches and replacing ethnicity with the socially constructed notion of race, says Michael, the sociologist.

“For many people, if you ask them what their ethnic group is, they’re probably going to use the census categories,” she says.

Laura Peretti. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

Further east on Parnell Street, Laura Peretti sits behind the reception desk at JS Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, making smalltalk with a colleague.

She barely remembers filling out the census form in 2016. “I must have done it,” she says, laughing.

But she’d pick “Other White” as long as she lives in Ireland, she says. In Italy, though, she identifies as Italian only, she says.

“Because this is not my country, so that definitely changes for me. I mean I’m still Italian even though I’m living in Ireland, but like, it’s the Irish census,” says Peretti, who has lived here for 10 years.

It doesn’t bother her that there is no “Italian” option on the form for the ethnicity question, because it’s Ireland and Irish authorities call the shots, she says: “It’s their business.”

She raises her eyebrows after realising that some groups are lumped in as one in the new ethnicity question, but quickly shrugs. “I’m sure there is a reason,” she says.

Why Count?

Further down the street, Arjun Reddy feels differently. He says he’s offended that there’s an ethnicity question at all on the census. Answering that makes him feel othered and fearful of discrimination, he says.

The CSO should drop it, he said on Saturday from behind the counter in a small cellphone repair shop.

He says they don’t ask that question in India, and he prefers it that way.

“They don’t discriminate like that, like you do here, asking people if you are Black or White,” says Reddy. He paces behind the counter and throws his hands up in the air.

The government in Ireland already has access to data on everyone’s ethnicity, says Reddy. “Because you need a visa to enter the country, they have all your information. What’s the point of asking what’s your ethnicity?”

Reddy says whoever travels in or out of the country, even if they don’t need a visa, the government has their information on file, and they can look it up if they’re interested.

For Reddy, ethnicity is something that can be glanced from someone’s passport or visa application.

Not all see attempts to capture ethnicity in the census as negative. Some of those in favour say it’s necessary to help progress anti-racism.

Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre campaigned for years to get an ethnicity question put on the census before it finally was in 2006, says Lynsey Kavanagh, its Traveller health policy and research officer.

“For policy-making, but also to highlight discrimination and racism and then to develop policies and strategies to address them,” she says.

Before that, Travellers weren’t really counted, she says. “Travellers were only included by proxy of an accommodation question.”

Enumerators visiting sites kind of took a visual census of how many Travellers were living there, she says. “We were saying, look, this is completely against any human rights or principles.”

Government departments say they use the ethnicity data gathered in the census to steer policy or to identify and battle discrimination.

Census data counting Travellers can help inform policy on Traveller housing, said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.

“They can be useful in terms of understanding the potential requirements for accommodation for the Travelling Community,” they said.

They can cross-check census figures with councils’ own annual estimates and targets in Traveller Accommodation Programmes, they said. “To check for any significant discrepancies.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said it considers census data when drawing up its policies to battle discrimination and promote equality for service users and staff.

The Department of Social Protection uses census data regularly “as part of our policy analysis and evaluation work”, said a spokesperson.

The Department of Justice spokesperson said that census data helps inform policies around youth justice strategy and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Those policies, they said, “include objectives to ensure that relevant services and interventions engage effectively and appropriately with minority communities”.

Michael, the sociologist, says if the government is trying to understand the scope of discrimination and racism through the ethnicity question, then one’s skin colour can be relevant.

“If that’s what the state is trying to find out, it’s not relevant if you’re trying to find out about people’s behaviour because their cultural group is much more important than their skin colour,” she says.

For employment data, she says, migration background is also a better indicator than skin colour.

With the most recent round of consultation, Pavee Point was concerned the census might lose the ethnicity question altogether, says Kavanagh.

“We were saying, look, it needs to be continued to be in the national census, but equally, it needs to be updated in relation to the population,” she says.

Convincing the CSO to add the “Roma” option to the ethnicity question for the 2022 census was a hard-earned win, she says. “We were saying that Roma needs to be explicitly included in the national census.”

Including Roma is a huge step, says a spokesperson for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), another member of the census advisory group.

It will allow for more insight into the community, they said. “Not just in terms of population, but deeper insights around housing, education, employment, disability and other areas.”

The IHREC spokesperson says the ethnicity question should be regularly reviewed and reformed. “And needs to also keep evolving as necessary.”

Counting “Others”

Between 2011 and 2016, there was a 3.6 percent increase in the country’s population, show census figures.

Meanwhile, there was a dramatic percentage increase in people who ticked the broad “Other” boxes on the census forms – whether “Other White” (up 8.2%), “Other Black” (up 6.4%), “Other Asian” (up 18.6%) or simply, “Other” (up 73.4%).

Kavanagh says that although the ethnicity question and its categories should continually improve and evolve, it’s logistically impossible to capture the entire population by introducing a large list of categories.

“As ethnicity is complex and no matter how many pre-coded categories are offered it won’t ever represent how all people identify,” she says.

That’s why, Kavanagh says, the open-ended box should be there to capture people’s identity in their own words.

That’s also in line with the United Nations’ recommendations for censuses, she says.

Before getting the Roma option, Pavee Point used to encourage those identifying as such to use the write-in box, says Kavanagh.

Michael the sociologist, isn’t in favour of the “Other” option. “There are four million people taking part in the census. It’s a very large group to give an open question to. So all you would get is a large number of ‘others’ and that isn’t helpful,” she says.

Kavanagh says she’s conscious of that. If lots of people choose “other” that should be taken into account in future censuses, she says.

But what about this next year? Will the answers from people who choose the “Other” option and write in their preferred identities be shown in the new census results?

Buczkowska, the integration coordinator at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says she’s keen to know the answer to that.

She identifies as Polish-Irish, she says, and would prefer to write that in, than to pick “Any other White background”.

A spokesperson for the CSO said it had not made a final decision on whether write-ins will be fully relayed in the results.

But “the categories produced will represent a balance between providing detailed statistical information for users and ensuring respondent confidentiality is maintained”, they said.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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