Unlike census questionnaires in the US, New Zealand and Canada, the Australian census does not include questions about “race” or “ethnicity” and instead asks about “ancestry”.
That may be about to change, with new Immigration, Citizenship, Overseas Services and Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles saying he wants a new approach to “ethnicity” data at the next census in 2026.
Without this data, Giles said, Australia faces a “fundamental barrier to understanding the issues facing multicultural Australians”.
But is it ethical to effectively classify a population based on race?
A large body of research on Malaysia, for example – including anthropologist Joel Kahn and historian Sandra Manickam – shows systems aimed at classifying populations in a way that does not reflect naturally existing categories, but rather creates them.
Over time, these categories harden, so such systems act as “race-making devices,” as political scientist Debra Thompson has put it.
How does Australia currently handle the issue?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which runs the Australian Census, classifies answers on “ancestry” using a tool called the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups. It is essentially a spreadsheet of categories in which the answers of the ancestors are collected.
This spreadsheet includes 278 “cultural and ethnic groups” such as “Malay”. There are also 28 “narrow groups” such as “Maritime Southeast Asians” and nine “broad groups” such as “Southeast Asians”.
Used in conjunction with the person’s birthplace, the language spoken at home, religion and the birthplace of a parent, ABS uses this particular spreadsheet to make its best guess about the ethnicity of Australians.
There is some room for specifics. This includes two self-identified and unranked answers, allowing people to show that although they were born in Malaysia, for example, they may be members of a minority group, such as, “Southern Asian,” or “Chinese Asian,” as the spreadsheet describes them.
It also allows people to identify themselves as members of groups spread across national borders, such as Kurds or Bengalis.
Since the answers are not ranked or weighted, the question does not tie the respondents into a single box. This prompts them to decide which of the two sources of identity are most prominent to them, rather than involving every single “diverse” ancestor they can think of.
In other words, as the process described above shows, Australians are already classified by state on the basis of ethnicity and race, albeit without direct public approval.
So what’s the problem?
So, what problem is this change trying to solve? Many, it seems.
One is that important national data sets, for example, the National Notified Disease Database, do not ask people for their ethnicity or race.
Nor does this database employ other proxy indicators such as the language spoken at home or elsewhere, or the country of birth.
As sociologist Andrew Jacobovich has argued, this omission leaves researchers unable to confirm their assumption that recent migrants from South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East are more likely to contract COVID at work than other Australians. is more likely.
So why not extend the existing ABS methodology, which it updates from time to time, to all government agencies and beyond?
Perhaps it is because Australians are less “legible” to state and multicultural advocates than we used to be.
times have changed
Australia’s multicultural system was formed in the 1970s and 80s. Inherent within this was the notion that migrant minority groups would be few, discrete and distinct. Each would have a clear set of “representatives” or advocacy associations and leaders for the government to consult.
Yet the volume and composition of migration flows have increased and diversified. The number of identified groups – ethnic, religious, cultural – has increased.
Nested identity layers, and overlaps and intersections between categories, have also been multiplied. Hybrid identities are common.
Australians are increasingly negotiating and negotiating cultural differences without official intervention, aid or representation.
If a new generation of multicultural leaders can’t figure out why many of us aren’t white – because we are born in Australia or speak English at home, but our grandparents are Asian, for example – then how can they Claim on our behalf? How do they create constituencies from us and compete for our loyalty?
If we haven’t recently arrived and don’t need “settlement services” or visa assistance, are there other services or forms of support we may need?
Can new identity groups be created? For example “Asian Australians” – a loose category now under construction that may eventually hold second and third generation East Asian “looking” migrants from Australia?
(Australians have trouble interpreting South Asians as “Asians”).
However, redesigning our approach to ethnicity data collection will open important and complex questions such as:
- What is an ethnic group?
- What is a culture?
- In which “race” should we group them?
- Where are the boundaries between these concepts, and what identity labels do they each have?
- Where are the boundaries between one identity label and another? Should religious or political minorities such as “Sikhs” or “Hong Kong” be able to claim “ethnicity” status, or only religious or no status at all?
- Should “Ahmedians” be grouped with “Muslims”?
- Which groups are European? Who are Asians? Which are the white ones?
- What are the advantages or disadvantages of answering these questions? Who will judge?
There is no definite or universal answer to such questions as all the categories involved are fluid, dynamic, controversial and fundamentally political.
These are not questions of data science or demography, but of politics, ethics and context.
Universal schemes aimed at classifying populations by “race” or “ethnicity” can reinforce racial thinking and perpetuate racial practices.
They can force us into the game of competition for better positions within the racial hierarchy, rather than create broad solidarity that transcends race.
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