Blinded by the light
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Online application forms. Such a chore, especially for big institutions such as a United Nations agency. There’s one that every contractor employed even for the briefest time has to fill in and it feels like its 20 pages long and takes a good 30 minutes of your life to complete even if you have all the dates you went to each school and were employed at each place.

Usually I fill in the part where they ask a bunch of questions that have nothing to do with your skills or experience but things like your race and gender. The justification for asking the questions is for the organisation to be able to monitor and evaluate how it’s doing on diversity.

There is usually a sentence that goes something like: “XXX is committed to equal opportunities for all, irrespective of race, colour, ethnic or national origin, religion, gender, marital status, sexuality, disability or age. Building an accurate picture of the make-up of our workforce is essential in encouraging equality and diversity.”

Data privacy is an increasingly important issue so organisations are usually careful to explain in detail what the information will be used for. I am a bit pedantic about these things so I actually read them to check that at least a little care has been taken with the language and the assurances. Sure enough a form I filled in this week promised that “responses will be aggregated with other information and will only be used for equality, diversity and inclusion monitoring, reporting and compliance purposes. Your responses will not be made available to any decision-maker in the recruitment process and will not be used to consider your suitability for the role. By responding to these questions, you are consenting to our processing of your information for these purposes. If you would rather not provide this information, you can select the “Prefer not to say” response, and we will not hold this against you.”

The language is so bureaucratic, isn’t it? This time, reading another sentence like this, I pause for thought. Not only did the form ask for gender, age, civil status, ethnicity, disability or health condition, sexual orientation, religion or belief, but also “caring responsibilities,” in some detail. I was supposed to tick a box next to specific if I was a primary or secondary carer of a child, a disabled child, a disabled adult or older person.

These are all interesting questions to have answered by people in power, I guess. Employers, governments, pollsters can use the data to tick their own boxes and see how they’re doing, but what about the form-filler? That is, the human being behind the statistics?

I lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for five years or so and these questions make a difference. Political parties are race based. There are different offers for different races in education and employment. Even filling in a form to join a gym requires an answer. A marketing executive told me it helps to have such data as evidence for creating and marketing products effectively, which is hard to argue against. Nevertheless, my answer to the race question invariably was “human” or “amazing.”

It helped bypass a tricky issue about how Filipinos fill in this box anyway. In Malaysia and Singapore I’m given the option “Malay” or “Chinese” or “Indian”. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t white but had always thought of myself as Indo-Malay, after all that’s what it says in Philippine history books, doesn’t it? But people everywhere in south east Asia have observed “But you look Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/ Japanese...?” I am sure I have some Chinese mixed up in there but I have no idea what that makes me. So I look at the options on forms and get increasingly perplexed. If I tick “Malay” on a form in Malaysia, I’m pretty sure they mean a Malaysian Malay that is Muslim, and that’s not me. But I’m not either of the other main options either. So I guess that’s “Other”, right? That doesn’t feel right either, because that’s also where people who look completely different from me would tick, it’s far too broad.

As a student at Cambridge University, I made friends with other students who were called “Afro-Caribbean” back then, but would probably now be called “Black British”. Anyway, I wanted to join the Black Caucus of the National Organisation of Labour Students of which they were members. I was told that I didn’t qualify by the “British Asian” leader of the group. Another layer of perplexion. I could not understand why his version of Asian was black, but mine wasn’t.

Things are very different nowadays, I often see plays on television and at the theatre, with gender or colour blind casting. The BBC are doing a dramatisation of “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens, the main character played by Dev Patel.

This week in British news the headlines have been overtaken by the furor over Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from the royal lifestyle. It’s been something of a crystallisation point in the national conversation about race, with some pundits saying the decision came about partly because of racist reactions to a mixed-race woman becoming a part of the royal family, while others deny any racist element.

Back to the present and the real reason I felt reluctant to answer these questions is that in this particular case, I don’t think it should matter and I simply didn’t trust the bureaucratic process was authentically interested in diversity or equality.

Yes, of course I want to promote diversity but I don’t want to be hired just because I tick a box and fulfil some kind of quota. (There was a point a few years ago when I wanted to start a blog named “The Token Asian”.) I want to be considered for my talents and abilities, all that other stuff could wait in my view. “Prefer Not To Say” is a lame reply that could conceivably cost me an interview, but I genuinely believe that people are far more than these convenient identifiers and the accompanying assumptions about them.

Scientific research has found that everyone has the same collection of genes, there are no fixed traits associated with specific geographic locations. In other words, there is no scientific basis for race, it’s a made-up label.

There is so much more that unites us than divides us in our common humanity. This, I think, is the light that blinds us to so-called race, but illuminates an alternative more thoughtful way forward.

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