The trial run of the 2021 national Census asks the Census-filler to consider the “National Identity” of each member of the household, even offering some suggestions, such as “British”, “English”, “Welsh”, “Scottish”, “Irish”, or “Other”.
I filled it in for myself as “Other – unresolved”. The ‘unresolved’ was at first just a reference to the present political situation, with the threatened demise of the UK as an entity, but on further reflection this response suited me at a deeper level. I wanted to hint at the possibility that we all might come to consider our identity, or rather identities, not as something dictated to us by the nightmare of history, but something orientated towards the future.
I began that section of the questionnaire with a simple rejection of the alternatives on offer. It is hardly timely to call one’s national identity “British” at a time when the Prime Minister is actively trying to render a “British” national identity a historical curiosity, pursuing policies which make the break-up of that always artificial and provisional ‘nation’ likely. Anyway the word ‘British’ still conjures up the crimes of Empire…not just the massacres, and the wars, the slavery, the settler-colonialism and genocides, but the very invention of race; and these crimes are not all in the past, they still are being carried out by the afterlife of Empire – by the City of London as a hub with its tax-evasion spokes, by the mining conglomerates with their bases in London, and by all the other multinational networks of domination and extraction, even if they now have to shelter behind US military violence as much as behind the UK’s own military force.
In any case decades of mobilising against thugs and bullies with their Union Jacks and their crosses of St George have been enough to sour my willingness to claim to be either British, or English. I disavow any association with those categories. I strongly oppose all Nationalisms as political creeds, so why do I have to espouse a ‘national identity’ at all? I might until recently reluctantly admit to being European, but even that as something to be proud of, to cherish as an avowed identity, seems out of reach now, tainted as it is by deliberately stoked-up mass xenophobia and by the bodies of thousands of drowned refugees.
I had similar difficulty with other parts of the questionnaire. Was I white, black, or mixed? I put down “Other – vitiligo” – referring to the skin disease which makes me multicoloured in patches large and small all over my face and body – a mixture of very white and slightly brown. This was an evasion, I know – my actual skin colouring wasn’t the issue: I just did not want to own up to the shameful category of being ‘White’… a member of the group that invented race in order to be able to ascribe it to the dominated and abused Other: a group chosen, not by God, but by the successful deployment of violence. I oppose racism, though I will own up to displaying it sometimes despite my efforts. But I also oppose race altogether, as an abomination, a false categorisation of people that arises from the impulse of imperialism to steal land, and to enclose it, to be worked then by the slaves or the wage-slaves that have been driven out of it.
The Census questionnaire did not give any guidance on the terms ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’ , it asked about both without clarifying the meaning of either word as they wanted to use them, as if they were not contested or problematic terms. Anatomy, assumed chromosomes and, I admit, a long-standing sense of what I am, prompted me to confess to Sex – “male”, but I really did not feel that I could sign up to belonging to the male gender, with its assumption and regular exercise of patriarchal power, which is just as much the product of violence as “British” or “White” is the product of Empire. I put myself down as gender “Other — unresolved” for a second time.
The section on sexuality was voluntary, but having warmed to the category I had invented, rather than leaving it blank, I again wrote “Other – unresolved”. This conveys a hint of an uncertain, exciting, and multi-layered future to which I might aspire. Having a sexual orientation, at least to some extent or at some stages of life, does, after all, precede sexual experience. Sexuality is inherently related to dreams and fantasies, and so it is to some extent inherently future-orientated.
The whole exercise confronted me with the fact that I am the holder of unspeakable identities that I cannot easily disavow, and which I know other people who know me must ascribe to me – white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, well-off, British. They are all categories tainted with violence, categories defined by ongoing exclusion and domination. Should I be made to confess to such belonging? Yes, perhaps I should, and let the felt shame lead to silence, so that other voices can be heard, all the voices that have been silenced by violence and exclusion; I hope I do go along with that injunction a lot of the time … that my silences in meetings and social groups can thus have an honourable justification, not just be ascribable to social disabilities. However, I cannot resist the impulse to dissociate myself from all those categories and to declare myself as something other, something not with a basis in the past, but in the aspired-to future – such as a believer in material equality, an internationalist, a communist, someone for gender equality and fluidity, an extinction rebel, and so on… and thus entitled to speak. This is why the Census seemed like a challenge.
My evasive and even misleading answers will be taken as sabotaging the efforts of the Office for National Statistics to provide researchers with accurate data about the population that is needed for the government to take actions to protect disadvantaged groups. This argument sounds rather hollow, though, when we have a government that is actively promoting social inequality and disadvantage, a government that wants to encourage people to espouse a certain “national identity” that will recruit them to the ranks of xenophobia and discrimination. We have a State that will be more likely to use figures about the proportion of people who are not “White” or not “British” to prove that ‘we’ are being over-run with “swarms” of foreigners. We have had such a government for a decade or longer, and very obviously since 2014 when Theresa May crafted the ‘hostile environment’ strategy.
The problem is deeper than that, however: the Census questions urging citizens to categorise themselves into sets, albeit with the escape set of “other”, are themselves products and expressions of a particular ideology, generally accepting of patriarchy, empire, and grossly unequal ownership of property, and their resulting hierarchies, fundamentally accepting of the very inequalities which it ostensibly aims to measure so as to reduce or modify them. This acceptance goes along with the fundamental liberal Enlightenment acceptance of the right to own Property – and I mean by Property more than the property – land, food, shelter, smart phone or whatever that is essential for ones’ own use. This unrestricted right to Own – the outcome of 1789, along with other liberties – means above all the right to exclude, the right to dominate. It means that society has to be structured as a regime of violence, even if that violence is not being acted out all the time. Walls and borders, contracts and trade agreements are all means of hanging on the benefits of overt violence, which has to be there in the background and indeed has to be seen and used from time to time in case people start to forget what is the real basis of society, or indeed of the global order as a whole. This system of structures includes the structures in our minds that we might call our identity. The Census assumes and in its modest way reinforces this ideology – it asks, “where do you place yourself in this structure?”- this structure of domination – as if it is timeless and immutable and cannot be demolished. As if the urgent task before us was not to knock it down, which would mean moving out of all our sets, including moving forward out of the sets of the oppressed which people now can understandably be proud to be in.
If you object to “race” as a disgusting fiction born out of the violence of imperialism, can you classify yourself racially? If you stand against all forms of nationalism, should you be forced to own up to having a “national identity’? If you detest patriarchy, do you have to confess to being male? To all these questions I say, “no”. For those like me without a dominated set to belong to, selecting “Other”, as the set to which they belong could be seen as a gesture of solidarity with the excluded and the exploited Other whose existence alone gives meaning to all the sets of dominator identities and categories on offer. This “Other” is a self-identification available to all those who do not belong to all the really Othered categories, but who are “always with the Oppressed, never with the Oppressor.” That means being always with the Other.
When enough of us have embraced being “Other” we will have moved forward, perhaps, to a better society in which the future existence of our planet may once again seem possible.