Yesterday I registered our daughter, using a government form that was meant to take 12 minutes to complete, but that left me and my wife confused and baffled. But perhaps that’s the hormones kicking in.

Most of it was fairly simple; names, addresses. A few things had odd names, like the "Informant" section. Although that’s just where you identify the person bringing the form to the counter, it is more suggestive of a wartime collaborator or a police snitch. It’s not as if we’ve never bumped into an English usage that seemed archaic before, but explanatory notes wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Possibly it didn’t come with any because the person who designed the form spends all day, everyday using similar forms, and never imagined a person who didn’t. Bureaucracy is not synonymous with empathy, after all.

More difficult to answer were the religion and race sections. What do you put if you’ve been raised Church of England (otherwise known as religious inoculation), studied a bit of Buddhism, not been in a church in at least five years and basically wobble around the spectrum from atheist to agnostic, struggling to decide between a fully Kantian code of ethics and something more utilitarian? Unaligned? Baffled? My wife, being made of sterner stuff (or lacking the benefits of two philosophy degrees) found this easier to answer, scrawling N/A across that section.

And then we got to "race".

In the United Kingdom, I remember this sort of thing being easier. Whether it’s political correctness [gone mad!!!!] or concern for racial profiling, the grand English tradition of Minding Your Own Damn Business or just the confusion that will inevitably follow when everyone, admit it or not, is eventually the descendent of immigrants rather than some biochemical blueprint mass-produced in an industrial park in the Thames Valley, you don’t have to include your race on official forms, unless you feel like it. I didn’t get the impression they’d like it if we put N/A for our daughter’s race.

Now, on the one hand this is a strange thing to be concerned about. Look at a picture of me or my wife, and you can say the predominant colour is "white". (Not pink, like our child; I’ve spent so long lurking indoors that my skin is pallid, like a molerat with anemia.) And it’s not like people point at white males like me and say "for, it must be hard for him to live without any special privileges afforded by his gender and skin colour".

But allowing yourself to be put into a box is akin to acquiescing with every other time that’s done to somebody. And there’s been a long history of bad things being done on the basis of race, whatever anyone wants to decide race is.

(It’s not so long since "white" excluded Swedes, or Irish people, or Spaniards, so it’s not as if there’s some clearly defined, immutable concept here. Are Jewish people white, or Jewish? Maybe that’s easier if you think all Jewish people have ringlets, yarmulkes and say "oy vey" continuously.)

That’s before you try to figure out what you’ll call people where the parents had different races: is "other" such an affirmation of identity? It’s not to deny that there are differences in appearance, in susceptibility to particular diseases, even in some physical abilities among people from different places, but that shouldn’t imply something fundamental about who you are, any more than it should be meaningful whether you were born in one place or another. Would everyone be happy if I’d put "marathon, but focussing on 10ks this year?"

It is difficult to fit that into a space on a form that’s an inch and a half wide and a centimetre high, of course. And it’s also difficult to talk about privilege and the unimportance of where you’re born when the hospital has literally presented you with a silver spoon for your baby.

So, not sure if the choices today were Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other*, as we’ve seen on other forms, I toddled down to the desk, to see the example pinned to the wall had "American" written in the race box, which is beautifully bonkers and shows much simpler than I could how race is whatever you want to think it is and it’s senseless to try to define people like that.

Or the example was descended from Aztecs (improbable, given what the Spanish did), or Mr Example looked like a cowboy, or somebody doesn’t understand history, or somebody does understand history and is doing their best to explain to all those lynch mobs in the Deep South that they were all just Americans killing Americans, or … or I don’t know what.

I’m not from America (I guess I could have put "North American" for my wife, and left them to guess if that meant Canadian First Nationer, Mexican or something else) so I asked the guy at the counter, and he just looked a bit annoyed and finally told me to put "Caucasian".

I think my confused liberal viewpoint may have had the last laugh though. Some part of the form broke the system, and it had to have a long, long ten minute sit-down and think before it could process my child. We have a tradition of being awkward already established.

* That’s right, all 1.3 billion or so in China are fundamentally the same, and different to the equally homogenous 1.3 billion in India. Apparently.


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