Unlike census questionnaires in the US, New Zealand and Canada, the Australian Census does not include questions about “race” or “ethnicity”, but rather asks about “descent”.
That may be about to change, with the new Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migration Services and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles, saying he wants a new approach to “ethnicity” data in the next 2026 census have.
Without these data, Giles said, Australia faces a “fundamental obstacle to understanding the issues facing multicultural Australians.”
But is it ethical to classify the population according to what is effectively race?
A large body of research on Malaysia, for example – including by anthropologist Joel Kahn and historian Sandra Manickam – shows systems aimed at classifying populations in this way do not naturally reflect existing categories, but rather create them.
Over time, these categories harden, so such systems function as “race-making tools,” as political scientist Debra Thompson put it.
How is Australia currently dealing with this issue?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which manages the Australian Census, classifies responses on “descent” using a tool called the Australian Standard Classification of Cultural and Ethnic Groups. It is essentially a spreadsheet of categories in which ancestral answers are put together.
This spreadsheet consists of 278 “cultural and ethnic groups”, such as “Malays”. There are also 28 “narrow groups,” such as “Maritime Southeast Asian” and nine “broad groups,” such as “Southeast Asian.”
Used in conjunction with the person’s birthplace, language spoken at home, religion and parents ‘birthplace, the ABS uses this special spreadsheet to make its best guess about Australians’ ethnicity.
There is room for nuance. It includes two self-identified and unranked answers, which allow people to show that even though they were born in Malaysia, for example, they may be a member of a minority group that is, for example, “South Asian” or “Chinese Asian”. as the spreadsheet calls them.
It also enables people to identify themselves as members of groups spread across national borders, such as Kurds or Bengalis.
Because the answers are not arranged or weighed, the question does not push respondents in a single box. This encourages them to decide which two sources of identity are most important to them, instead of including every single “diverse” ancestor they can possibly think of.
In other words, as the process described above shows, Australians are already categorized by the state according to ethnicity and race, even without direct public recognition.
So what is the problem?
So, what problem is this change trying to solve? Several, it seems.
One is that important national datasets, including for example the National Notifiable Diseases database, do not ask people their ethnicity or race.
This database also does not use other proxy indicators such as language (s) spoken at home or elsewhere, or country of birth.
As sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz has argued, this omission does not allow researchers to confirm their impression that recent migrants from South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, were more susceptible to contracting COVID at work than other Australians. not.
So why not roll out the ABS’s existing methodology, which it already updates from time to time, across all government agencies and beyond?
Maybe it’s because Australians are less “readable” to the state and multicultural advocates than we were before.
Times have changed
Australia’s multicultural system was created in the 1970s and 80s. Implicit in this was the assumption that migrant minority groups would be few, discreet and separate. Each will have a clear set of “representative” or advocacy associations and leaders for the government to consult with.
Yet the volume and composition of migration flows increased and diversified. The number of identity groups – ethnic, religious, cultural – has increased.
Layers of nested identities, and overlaps and intersections between categories, also multiplied. Hybrid identities are common.
Australians are increasingly interacting and negotiating cultural differences without official intervention, assistance or representation.
If a new generation of multicultural leaders cannot figure out how many of us are not white – because we may have been born in Australia or speak English at home, but our grandparents are Asian, for example – how do they claim on our behalf? How do they create constituencies out of us and compete for our loyalties?
If we did not show up recently and do not need “settlement services” or visa assistance, are there other services or forms of advocacy we may need?
Are there new identity groups that can be built? For example “Asian Australian” – a loose category now under construction that could eventually hold Australia’s second and third generation East Asian migrants?
(Australians struggle to understand South Asians as “Asians”).
However, the redesign of our approach to ethnicity data collection will open up critical and complex questions such as:
- what is an ethnic group?
- what is a culture?
- in what “races” should we group them?
- where are the boundaries between these concepts, and what identity labels belong in each of them?
- where are the boundaries between one identity label and another? Should religious or political minorities like “Sikhs” or “Hong Kongers” be able to claim “ethnicity” status, or simply religious or no status?
- should “Ahmadis” be grouped with “Muslims?”
- which groups are European? What is Asian? What is white?
- what advantages or disadvantages will result from the answers to these questions? Who will judge?
Such questions have no fixed or universal answers because all the categories involved are fluid, dynamic, controversial and fundamentally political.
These are not questions about data science or demography, but about politics, ethics and context.
Universal schemes aimed at classifying populations according to “race” or “ethnicity” can reinforce racial thinking and perpetuate racist practices.
They can force us to compete in a game for better positions within a racial hierarchy, rather than creating broader solidarity that goes beyond race.
Read more: While rich countries are experiencing a post-COVID boom, the poor are getting poorer. Here’s how Australia can help