The census form continues to intrigue me.

There’s a question on ‘ethnic or cultural background’, for instance, which asks whether the respondent is ‘White’, ‘Black or Black Irish’, ‘Asian or Asian Irish’ or ‘Other’. Strangely enough, the largest ethnic minority in Ireland goes without mention. There’s no box for ‘British’.

Apart from anything else, what do the census categories mean? The sub-categories help somewhat. If you’re ‘Black or Black Irish’, then the census helpfully asks of you’re African or other. ‘Asians and Asian Irish’ may be either Chinese or any other other Asian background. If you’re ‘White’, your choices are Irish, Irish Traveller, or ‘Any Other White background’.

But what exactly is ‘White’? Or more precisely, where is the dividing line between black and white? If I walk from the North Pole to the Equator, skin tones will change, but where’s the point at which white becomes black? For that matter, when does a European become an Asia? Is Turkey part of Europe or Asia? Are the Cypriots black, since much of the country is closer to the Equator than parts of Africa?

What’s the point of the question anyway? Ethnicity is defined as having ‘common national or cultural traditions’. Is it really fair to shoehorn Scandinavian Lutherans and Mediterannean Catholics in one box? The same goes for North African Muslims and West African animists or Christians. And what about Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, all crammed together into the Asian box along with Indonesian Muslims and Filipino Catholics? And that’s without considering the people who don’t fit neatly into any of the boxes, from Micronesians to just about anyone from South or Central America. What exactly is the question trying to measure?

The choices on the census form offer a remarkably old-fashioned group of ethnic identities. The old Europe/Africa/Asia division of humankind dates back to Europe in the time of Columbus. For the Classical civilisations, skin colour wasn’t an issue. The Romans were more concerned with citizenship of the Empire. Ethiopians were regarded as a highly civilised people who were the first to invent the concept of law. The Romans reserved their disdain for the fair-haired Celts, who were seen as inferior warriors and drunken barbarians, the original dumb blondes.

Modern racism based on skin colour seems to date to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, when Islam and Africa began a descent from a highly accomplished people in European eyes to an inferior race. At the same time, Columbus discovered America, and with it began a revolution in labour – the industrialisation of African slavery.

At first, the bible was used to justify slavery. Africans were marked by the Curse of Ham. At the end of the nineteenth century, the notion of ‘race’ was biologized by racists and eugenicists, misusing evolutionary science to create social Darwinism as earlier racism had attempted to co-opt religion, a cultural application of ‘survival of the fittest’ – a phrase Darwin never used. It was coined by Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher and political scientist.

The foundation of modern ‘scientific’ racism was Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) was a one-time diplomat who held that humanity is divided into three races, white, yellow and black, the three categories in the current Irish census.

The problem with such neat categories is what happens at the margins. As others tried to deal with exceptions to Gobineau’s simplifed model of humanity, the number of categories grew from the original three to over sixty, according to one estimate.

Modern genetic studies have pretty much demolished the old ideas of race. In fact, it turns out that human beings are a remarkably homogenous species, something demographers believe is due to the near extinction of our ancestors about 70,000 years ago. Some unknown catastrophe, possibly a ‘volcanic winter’ which lowered temperatures, almost wiped us out, leaving only 15,000 survivors. The volcanic winter lasted only six years, but the millenium that followed saw one of the coldest ice ages on record, bringing with it widespread famine.

In 1998, the American Anthropological Association issued a ‘Statement on Race’ in which the explained that ‘human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (eg DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.’

‘In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.’

‘Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas. And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others.’

According to the CSO, the question on ethnic and cultural background was “developed in consultation with the Equality Authority, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism and Pavee Point along with relevant departments.”

Its a shame that following such an extensive consultation process, the national statistics agency wound up choosing an outdated and unscientific Victorian classification system. Surely a more logical approach would have been simply to ask respondents to state their nationality?