“What colour is your parachute?”

Last week I’ve attended a medical appointment and together with a medical questionnaire I’ve got an ethnicity form. Before, I would have just filled it without a second look. This time I stared a bit more at it and I found it quite interesting from two points of view:

  • First, as a form is particularly badly thought.
  • Secondly, in the light of Brexit creating all sort of divisions across UK, it made me pay attention at the way this forms “sees” the world.

Form data model

First, as I said, the form is badly designed. It captures I believe “residence” (England, Scotland, Wales) and ethnicity as in race (??) and skin colour and sometimes country of birth… All these dimensions are commingled though so they are inconsistently captured in one attribute only. Also, each country of residence (notice that NI is missing completely) has a different way of seeing ethnicity.

The “whites” of Britain

If you are resident in England, it matters only if you are British or Irish or any “other” white, without a need to know what sort of “white”. In Wales they spell it out for you. Are you Welsh, English, Scottish, NI? Good. Anyway everybody is captured in the same group: British.

If however you fill this questionnaire in Scotland, nobody wants to know if you are English or Welsh. It wants to identify the Scottish, the Irish and… the Polish. I wonder if your parents are Polish but you were born in Scotland how do you feel about your ethnicity as captured on such a form?

The “non-whites” of Britain

For the mixed/multiple ethnic groups, in England and Wales there is a “need” to capture people who identify themselves as a mixture between whites (in general) and Black Caribbean, Black African or Asian. In Scotland, this needs disappears. If you are mixed race, please describe how. I wonder if mixtures between whites count, like Scottish and Polish given that country of birth is commingled with “race” in the questionnaire..

The Asians also have a different treatment. In Scotland it somehow matters if you are a Bangladeshi Scottish or a Bangladeshi British. Wait a minute. Isn’t Scotland the country of residence? Didn’t we account for this once? Also isn’t Scotland in Britain? I would have though that a Bangladeshi Scottish IS a Bangladeshi British.

As for Black or Black British, all the countries want to capture the differentiation between Caribbean, African, any other black background and somehow any other Asian who is black. I wonder are there many Asian blacks? Do they have a specific ethnicity or country in mind when they ask this question?


If you have any idea how such data can be used in a medical context, let me know. I am genuinely curious.