Race counting and the Irish census

The Irish census of population is upon us again, asking us to divulge information about home ownership,  room numbers, employment, transport to work,  age, birth place, gender, children,  and so on.

But what are census statistics about? According to the French theorist Michel Foucault, the collection and analysis of statistics, also known as ‘science of state’ and ‘political arithmetics’, reflect a growing governmental interest in the population, its health and illness, life and death, poverty and wealth. Statistics grant state knowledge about the population, and far from enabling the state to improve its services, statistical knowledge allows the state to differentiate between various population types – men and women, young and old, healthy and ill, rich and poor, native and immigrant, settled and Traveller, and thus exercise greater control depending on which type of population you belong to.

Perhaps the most contentious census questions is the ‘ethnic question’, the impetus for which came from Traveller organisations hopeful that enumerating Travellers and locating them in different regions would improve their access to accommodation, health, education and other services. However, in asking us to identify our ‘ethnic or cultural background’, the so-called ‘ethnic question’ is actually a race question.

In asking us to say whether we are ‘white Irish’, ‘white Traveller’, or of ‘any other white background’; ‘black or black Irish African’ or of ‘any other black background’; Asian or Asian Irish Chinese’, or of ‘any other Asian background’, or ‘other, including mixed background’ (where we are requested to write a specific description) – the census is not asking about ethnicity or culture but about race, and I defy anyone to tell me what knowing if you are ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’, ‘mixed’ or ‘other’ can contribute to providing state services.

Indeed, the 2011 ‘ethnic question’ results make little or no sense. Just a sixth of the total 4.6 million population – 766,770 – answered it.  As expected, the majority said they  were ‘white’, yet surprisingly, only 233,403 said they were ‘white Irish’ while as many as 380,251 said they were of ‘any other white background’ and just 2,835 said they were ‘white Travellers’ – even though the 2011 census returned Travellers as numbering 29,573, just 0.6% of the total population. Apart from what this tells us about Travellers’ reluctance to list themselves as ‘white’, I wonder if it also tells us that white supremacy prevents ‘white Irish’ people from listing themselves as such. After all, privilege is often race-blind.

The other racial categories denote similar paradoxes. Of nearly 42,000 people describing themselves as ‘black’ or ‘black Irish’ only a small minority said they were ‘black other’ rather than ‘African’, and one wonders whether the category ‘black’ includes people from the Indian subcontinent – after all race, as the late Stuart Hall argues, is a ‘floating signifier’ and given to different self and other ascription. A similar contradiction is the number of ‘Asians’ – while the HSE estimates the number of Chinese people in Ireland at 60,000, census 2011 returned merely 15,000 describing themselves as ‘Asian Chinese’ with some 55,000 describing themselves as ‘Asian other’. Lastly, some 30,000 described themselves as ‘other’ or ‘mixed’.

In all, the ‘ethnic question’ is both pointless and offensive, as, unlike the religion question (also useless in listing just a handful of religions, leaving much space for people to describe themselves as ‘other’ or of ‘no religion’), it gives no information about people’s cultures or customs but rather categorises them in racial terms. I, for one, refuse to be race counted, and will not fill in either of these two useless and offensive census questions.