The Census as a gatekeeper to political history

By Zaki Nahaboo · 15 April 2011

As millions will have filled in the indomitable lilac census questionnaire in the UK we should ask ourselves what “tomorrow” are we helping to “shape”? The primary use of the Census is stated as assisting various levels of government to provide key services. It will also undoubtedly be a goldmine for other quantitative researchers. But the Census does far more than this. The Census compels individuals to identify themselves in certain (de)political ways.

The census raises fundamental questions about how to classify citizens and how citizens classify themselves through readymade political communities and geographical terrains, labels of which bear the imprint of a colonial age. When it comes to the ethnicity question, a polite way of saying race in this instance, we are faced with a usual range of possible responses. It’s a well-worn debate as to whether it’s too vague, exclusive, etc. But the question still remains as to how to better “reflect” the diversity of the population which can break from prejudicial constructs but also ones supposed history (setting aside the practicalities of how print limits identity). Joseph Harker reflected upon how the category of Black functioned to strip one of history. He advocated ticking African, drawing comparison with the positive historical identification with geography as opposed to chromatics. While African may highlight a shared ethnicity, why not say Nigerian, Cameroonian, Ghanaian etc? Clearly this will have less relevance for those whose ancestry precedes equally artificial constructs, but Harker’s critique of Black and his omission of national identities (like choices those of Asian descent can make) raise important questions as to how to border the world through questionnaires.

Some descedents from Asia have the privilege (or dilemma) of defining themselves through nation-state constructs whereas those whose ancestry can be traced to Africa have choices of “African” and “Caribbean”. Like the colonial administrators and politicians who carved up Africa and the Middle East for the purposes of demarcating colonial jurisdiction, the contemporary state engages in border practices of a different sort; the enclosed walls of identity. The identity boxes are made to sit peacefully on page 8, but it functions as borders to who can have a political history. Those who claim Asian/Asian British can have a political history through “Indian”, “Pakistani” etc. Those who claim Black/African/Caribbean/Black British have choices of “African” and “Caribbean”. I’m not denying the political history which comes with these latter terms or Harker’s usage of the term, but the dominant Eurocentric forms of recognizing political history occurs through national citizenship and the naming of a state, this becomes effaced through “African”. Africans and Caribbeans do not have a properly modern history, they can only have a history of continental homeland and diaspora. True, the terms Pakistani and Indian can equally belie violent and melancholic histories, but what the census exemplifies is recognition of ethnic identity fused with a political community for certain defined groups and not others. This carving up of the world and creation of groups with and without certain forms of political history further reflect practices of ranking groups which were prevalent during colonialism, with Africans consigned closer to nature and away from politics. Clearly the Census is not a machination of an imperialist project, but there is something to be said of it as bearing traces of a past which it can only but disavow.

About the author

  • Zaki Nahaboo

    PhD Student
    Zaki Nahaboo
    The Open University
    I am currently a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at The Open University. My research interests are in postcolonial theory, citizenship, cultural studies, political theories of... Read more

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