Taxonomy 2008

(Some Attempts at Racial Discrimination)

“People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support rather than for illumination.”
Mark Twain.

“What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index to his desires— desires of which he himself is often unconscious.”
Bertrand Russell.

In summer of 2008 I was artist in residence at BCA Gallery in Bedford, England. Although Bedford is quite a small town, proportionately and visually it’s one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse. It is also home to the European head office of Binney—Smith, best known for their Crayola range of crayons for children. Many people drew— or tried to draw— themselves and other people using these products when they were very young. The Binney—Smith factory was for many decades a major employer in the town, although it recently stopped manufacturing and eventually closed permanently, leaving only a small office.

Racial Discriminator’ is a digital video installation with a large screen and a camera. The camera examines the person watching the screen and tries to decide what colour their face is, and how that colour fits into the “ethnically sensitive palette” currently available in crayon, pencil and paint products from companies such as Crayola. This project was not sponsored or supported in any way by Binney—Smith; in fact, all of my attempts at contact and requests for interviews with Crayola representatives were ignored.

These colour ranges are partly a response to criticisms of the long-standing assumption that “skin” or “flesh tone” was naturally and automatically the pinkish-white colour of an entirely hypothetical average northern European. Several of Crayola’s other colour names have been changed over the years in deference to political correctness and in the hope of avoiding racial overtones or misunderstandings. Indian Red, for example, was frequently and erroneously construed as being intended as the colour of Native American people, although “Indian” actually refers to the subcontinent where the pigment was traditionally sourced. The actual colour is still sold and hasn’t changed in any way, except that it’s now called Chestnut.

When the Racial Discriminator has made its assessment, it reveals its own colour and simultaneously announces the colour of the watcher. It therefore mirrors the process that all human beings go through in one way or another for a large part of their lives, the delineation of who is “us” and who is “other”, often based on nothing more than a momentary visual assessment. Like all systems of ethnic classification, ‘Racial Discriminator’ cannot cope with outliers or with ambiguity because by necessity it has a very limited repertoire of options; in this case about twenty of the most humanesque colours from the Crayola range. There is also a deliberate cultivation of uncertainty in the viewer: do the numbers and colour names represent me or the Racial Discriminator, and on what basis are these things being decided? Both ‘Racial Discriminator’ and its companion film ‘Taxonomy’ (see below) are a combination of animated digital images and frame-by-frame wax crayon drawings.

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Taxonomy (Some Attempts at Racial Discrimination) is a six minute long documentary, or quasi-documentary, in the style of a 1970s educational programme, the kind I was frequently exposed to as a child. The film examines various attempts to categorise people in terms of their biologically determined skin colour, including the British police’s Identity Code (IC) system and the UK government’s current 16+1 system of sixteen ethnic groups plus one unknown or “other”. This latter system will be familiar to anyone in the UK who has applied for a job in the past few years, and especially to anyone who’s had anything to do with the UK’s various arts councils. Probably because of a long colonial history predating even the existence of the United Kingdom, the British authorities have an enduring, neurotic and largely fruitless fixation on measuring and classifying people according to their “racial” [sic] traits. This obsession shows no sign of abating any time soon, and nor does our individual willingness to consign ourselves to mutually opposing ghettos of our own making. The film also deals with the naming of ethnic groups and skin tones, including the issues of colour, description and political sensitivity / correctness mentioned above in regard to ‘Racial Discriminator’.

The film then moves on to ironically propose a number of other arbitrary and increasingly abstracted pseudoscientific methods of dividing human populations based on largely or entirely objective opinions. Describing people as “inner (terrestrial)” / “outer (gaseous)”, or as “Microsoft” / “Apple” seems hardly less illogical, socially divisive and practically unhelpful than the 16+1 system’s extremely problematic conflation of nationality with ethnicity, which then further elides both of these traits into skin colour. 16+1, for example, usually offers “white” people the choice of being “British”, “Irish” or “Other White”. Some UK organisations add English, Welsh and/or Scottish as choices. These are literal nationalities of birth and / or national identities that are learned or consciously adopted, but whether they constitute ethnic groups is debatable. Cultural differences between the nations of the UK are roughly analogous to the cultural differences between, for example, Liverpudlians and people who live in Norfolk; neither of these populations would be considered separate ethnicities by anything but the most absurdly broad and inclusive definition of the word. In the 21st century only the a blindly dogmatic nationalist would argue that Welsh, English or Scottish are skin colours or “races”; nor would most people be identifiable as coming from any of the aforementioned groupings unless they were heard speaking, making such classifications of extremely dubious worth to employers, law enforcement agencies or policy makers.

A person born in Edinburgh, whose grandparents came from Jamaica and from Hong Kong, could potentially use any one of at least half of the options offered under the 16+1 system, or all of them, or most of them, or none. Another person’s description of that individual would undoubtedly be different again, and at least as subjective and subject to change depending upon the context, who is asking and the terms of reference. 16+1’s final suggestion is “Chinese” before the scheme breaks down and tacitly admits defeat by resorting to “Other Ethnic Group”.

Ironically, these films were dropped without a reasonable explanation ever being provided and were never actually shown in Bedford. All I know is that somebody at the gallery had an attack of overzealous, politically correct anxiety about the mere mention of racial issues, even in a measured, positive and logically-argued context; merely talking about a problem apparently makes the speaker themselves problematic. This is precisely the kind of attitude that the work was trying to explore. So much for art as a vehicle for discussing difficult ideas.

Bad Science Update/QED, September 2009: It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to reveal that the egregious inability of the British authorities and policy makers to grasp basic facts or moral issues surrounding ethnicity, biology and nationality has found particularly odious expression in a pilot project to test the DNA and tissue of immigrants and asylum seekers in order to justify sending more of them straight back to where they were supposedly born— or rather, to where one or more of their ancestors may have been born, according to some hasty pseudoscientific assessment of their DNA. Essentially they’re checking that a person’s avowed “race” matches their genetics in a way that the authorities deem plausible and suitable for processing within a reductive system that has virtually no scientific or rational justification (see ‘Racial Discriminator’, above). By the UK Border Agency’s crazy reasoning, most white British people seeking residency in their own country and taking this test would theoretically be liable to deportation to somewhere in the vicinity of Normandy, Aquitaine or Scandinavia. Actually, I’d be quite happy if I was deported to Scandinavia, but that’s not the real issue…

The reaction of real scientists to this project includes “horrifying”, “naïve” and “flawed”, words which nicely match my own assessment of surveillance and race categorisation in the UK, both of which invariably come cloaked in bogus, crypto-racist and cynical political correctness. Meanwhile at every level from the government downwards, through public service institutions down to individual people who work in social services, the arts, teaching, etc. there’s still a shameful lack of genuine moral and humane correctness that treats everyone fairly because it’s the right thing to do and encourages thinking before you judge and speak because you yourself don’t like to be treated unfairly.