Ethnic Origin

I am fairly dark-skinned, often I am mistaken for someone who might be from Southern Europe.

When I was living in Italy, I had real difficulties trying to persuade people I was English as I didn’t ‘look’ English. I don’t really think about it too much – especially living in London as so many people are so many mixtures of so many things around here.

But recently I was at hospital for myself and I was asked my ethnic origin. I go with ‘White British’ but the nurse confronted me

‘No, I mean originally?’

‘Um, I might be quite dark because I’m Jewish?’ I offered as an explanation

‘No, that’s your religion, what is your ethnicity?’

‘Well, if it explains how I look, can’t it count as an ethnicity?’ – she didn’t really get that and persisted.

‘’No, that’s religion, what’s your ethnicity?’

I didn’t really want to argue the point any more. She didn’t seem in the mood for the ‘religion vs ethnicity debate’.

‘White British’.

‘Where are your parents from, I mean?’

‘Er.. England and Scotland’

‘’OK, where were their parents from?’

I wasn’t annoyed so  much as confused at this point.


‘It isn’t anything to be embarrassed about’.

‘I’m not embarrassed about anything’.

‘Well, I’ll just put you down as White Other’.


I don’t really mind if I’m ‘other’ or ‘British’ to be honest – and moments like that, I’m happier with ‘other’ but I think I have been too used to our own experiences of ensuring that people define their own ethnicity.

I was surprised to be challenged so heartily although it isn’t life changing, I just found it bemusing.It also allowed me some thought about the ways that we categorise people whether formally or informally as a part of our own thought processes and internal judgements we are making. I suppose the nurse was externalising what she was thinking but I also considered my own reaction to being questioned or to have the feeling that someone didn’t believe quite what I was saying to them or devaluing my own perceptions about myself.

8 thoughts on “Ethnic Origin

  1. Wow. That would have really pissed me off, to be honest. Slightly different, but a nurse once refused to accept that my then-partner had no religion during an admission interview, and insisted on putting him down as Cof E. I was fuming then, too. Your nurse sounds disturbingly ignorant.

  2. Hang on…. You are a British citizen, I presume? Therefore why has she put White Other???
    Silly Nurse – sounds like some of my collegues….

  3. I really hate having to constantly fill in ethnicity questionnaires for just about anything that you apply for today and particularly when it comes to medical treatment. I am not dark skinned, in fact I am rather pale, but when I am in Greece (Corfu usually) people automatically assume that I am Greek. On one occasion when I was in Corfu I was at a friends house for the celebrations for her husband’s name day. My friend is English and her husband is Greek. There were quite a few people present including friend’s mother-in-law who sat beside me chatting to me in Greek and then seemed somewhat surprised when friend said that I was English and didn’t speak Greek. Mother-in-law immediately asked if my friend was sure about that because I definitely looked Greek.

  4. Oh for pity’s sake. I think this nurse needs a bit of retraining on these issues.

    I have light brown hair (well I did until I went grey) and blue eyes. Should I be White Scandinavian then (my very distant heritage)? Or maybe white Aryan.

  5. That’s just so wrong. We are always told that ethnicity is self-defined, I could tell them I was a Black African and if that is how I define then that is what goes on the form…

  6. The only thing I can say is “Wow!” Of course working with nurses all day, I can say that many of them can be a bit hard-headed and stubborn! But, wow!

  7. It was really bizarre and caught me off guard because I was just so surprised by it to be honest! And it by no means reflects my experiences of nurses that I have worked with and been treated by, i hasten to add! I think that we are so used to self-definition being the absolute corner-stone that I was just gobsmacked!

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