Equality commissioner slams civil service for racial stereotyping

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am


The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) says a government questionnaire on race for civil servants should be changed because one of the questions makes blanket assumptions about how a person's skin colour denotes their nationality.

In one section of the Civil Service questionnaire, which was due to be returned more than a week ago, people are asked to tick a box showing the ethnic group they belong to.

It states 'if you are white (eg English, French, German)' to tick one box or 'if you are black (eg South African, Jamaican)' to tick another.

The question seems to suggest that all English, French and Germans are white and all South Africans and Jamaicans are black, which is clearly not the case.

EOC chairman Lam Woon-kwong admitted it would be 'quite impossible' for the average lay person to clearly differentiate the concepts of race, ethnicity, and nationality while answering this section of the questionnaire, and they possibly 'might feel sensitive to or even offended by it'.

'It is therefore preferable for these questions to be explained to the respondents face to face,' he said, 'and if that is not possible due to the numbers or logistics, then at least the footnote [referring to the ethnicity section] should be made more prominent and seek to explain the concept of 'ethnic group' in a more user-friendly way, so as to avoid possible misunderstandings.'

A footnote for the section says that the question on ethnicity is the same as that adopted in the 'Thematic Report: Ethnic Minorities' of the 2006 Population By-census, where 'the ethnicity of a person is determined by self-identification; normally on a social and cultural basis'.

But whatever authority was responsible for putting the basis of the questionnaire together, it still does not help solve the problem.

'Whether these classifications used by the Census and Statistics Department are based on any commonly used international practice or not, we have not got the time to check,' Lam said.

'But the EOC's previous experience in contributing to the drafting of the Race Discrimination Ordinance is that racial classification is not straightforward. Lay concepts on terms such as 'race', 'ethnicity', and 'nationality' are often intermingled and confused with one another in their daily use.'