"Government can't handle people. it can only handle labels"

Kate Hoolu

That (above) is more wise words from Thundersqueak

This is a piece about how hard it is to accurately label anyone, the nature of prejudice and assumption- and will hopefully provoke some comment below. It also links in with my pieces on how to define abnormality, and how to screw up street surveys, both of which are (at time of writing) forthcoming on this site.


Certain cultural characteristics and stereotypes influence people in their day-to-day behaviour towards groups other than their own, and the list of often pejoratively-named ‘other groups’ seems to be growing day by day- refugees, asylum seekers, chinks, wops, yuppies, Millwall fans, students, queers, Satanists, etc.

There is a shifting balance of the ethnic group of the general population of the UK and the general age and the proportion of women to men: so it is widely assumed in different circles that current attitudes might either indicate potential problems, or useful adjustments already made, for the future. Which one is the more correct?

However for every "common sense" belief there should first be some research to examine its' relative truth. There has been lots of accepted common sense, which on later study proves spurious.

The issue of prejudice is a sensitive one. Since much of the prejudice comes from a very rapid visual appraisal of someone, - do they look ‘gay’, do they look ‘mad’, do they look ‘like a student’ ? etc- it seems we put a lot of meaning on what our eyes can do, and may be asking too much of them in a short glance- it’s very subjective. This is especially so when trying to judge the ethnic group. There are many varying shades of ‘white’, which may or may indicate a "mixed race" person. It would be virtually impossible to visually distinguish between Black Africans and Black Caribbeans. Similarly it would be hard to decide which ethnic group to assign to someone from (perhaps) Burma, who may consider themselves Asian, yet may be labelled Indo-Chinese by
appearance (possibly a major insult).

And age…… oh dear! Even without theatrical-quality makeup, people can appear subjectively far older or younger than their age (witness the numerous court cases of underage sex when the blokes have, at least a few times, genuinely believed their 14-year old partner was 18 or 19)… and even speculation on gender can be difficult. Sex, gender and sexuality are all complex and inter-related… not everyone is heterosexual, there are women who have sex with women, men who have sex with men, and women who have sex with either, and some who are celibate. And that’s before we get onto gender-reassignment… there is prejudice against all genders, and all sexualites- although there are no really pejorative terms for bisexuals, which is a bit odd….. and even marital status can lead to some kind of prejudice- try being a divorced Egyptian woman, or a Catholic single parent for example…

When asking participants to define their ethnic group in surveys people often select the "other" box, or write "British" or "Black British:" Although a specific designation of Nationality rather than ethnic group, "Britishness" is worthy of discussion: Depending on how far back in history one looks “British-ness" changes greatly; the hypothetically pure and unchanging National gene-pool upon which racists and bigots set so much store has had great input from the Romans, the Nordic races and the French to name but three, and they in turn have been genetically mixed….

I was involved in some survey work a few years back to do with social attitudes in various situations, and one question was to identify a gender split as to whether women would be less happy than men about using male taxi drivers (and./or these drivers being of a different race to them) late at night, given a spate of assaults on women by unlicensed drivers posing as taxis- it seems a commonsense question, and a predictable answer, right? Well, it wasn’t so cut-and-dried, but that’s another story. However one male respondent specified "sober" as the preferred ethnic group of his taxi driver. A good point (albeit quite amusing) while failing to answer the question, it does raise the issue that other aspects of the situation that we postulated are very important too, as a taxi driver of one's preferred type would be of little reassurance if they were too hammered to drive safely.

From the data we collected it could be seen that (perhaps surprisingly) the respondents were more selective about their taxi driver or potential employer than their personal doctor, which was not something that was predicted, and this did not correlate with the race, gender etc of the sample group- it wasn’t a case of white men picking white men, etc.

Many of our Asian respondents specified Asian AND Muslim as their ethnic group, while none of the white people said white and Christian…. perhaps they do not identify with their religion so much?

One white respondent indicated they had experienced racial discrimination. Fortunately for the purposes of the survey the person concerned then voluntarily explained further. They had experienced discrimination twice: firstly having spent much of their childhood overseas they returned to school in the UK with a very dark tan where the (white) pupils discriminated against them as if they were of another ethnic group (i.e. coloured skin). Secondly when working overseas in competition with indigenous races and being judged on skin colour rather than abilities. Perhaps we should all try to find work for a year as Expatriates- it might lead to a lot more tolerance in the world…. On the subject of positive discrimination, which has been given out as some kind of magic cure for minorities’ problems… in law it should be remembered that the Judicial system is meant to act as if all defendants are equally innocent until proven guilty. Justice is defined as fairness and impartiality, and so ‘positive discrimination’, however helpful to some- is arguably illegal.

So where are your labels, and how do you react to them? Would you read my articles and react to them any differently if I were Black? White? Lesbian? Straight? A man? An Alien? The name gives you a clue to my gender, and the biog on the site gives my age, but my race, colour, religion, sexuality etc are all hidden from you- such is the wonder of the internet!

KH