liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (Default)
[personal profile] liv
Lots of different things recently have led me to ponder the situation of being a member of a minority group while also being white. This is mostly just stuff swirling incoherently round my head, but I want to write some of this down and I don't think waiting until I have a polished theory is going to work.

I've been applying for jobs and therefore filling in equal opportunity monitoring forms. Like many white people with liberal leanings, I used to be opposed to the whole idea of monitoring: obviously we all know that race is just a made up excuse for powerful people to be horrible to less powerful people, so what's the point of collecting statistics that make people declare themselves to belong to a category that isn't even meaningful? Then I learned that basically no person of colour objects to them, and thought about it some more and realized that you actually do need to collect statistics in order to detect and deal with discrimination, you need to count how many people do believe in race even if you don't. But I still keep getting enraged by the the categories chosen; they come from the 2001 census (and really, the argument for including race on the census at all is a lot weaker than for putting it on equal ops forms), and they're a horrible mishmash of skin colour with geographical origin, and completely fail to cover the major UK minority groups properly. Also "Black Irish" means something entirely different from "Black British", but hopefully people know how to interpret things in context.

So as usual I tick "white other". (Thuggish Poet wrote a satirical piece about the fact that Jews always tick that category, but I don't have a copy I can quote here.) But anyway, that makes me think about two aspects of being in a white minority; one is that in online race discussions, white people always get defensive about being white, they say, I'm not white, I'm part German and part Scottish, or I'm not white, I'm a mutt, or even, I'm not white, I'm disabled / gay / Pagan / special snowflake. This is partly to do with white being the default so people don't think of it as a racial or ethnic identity, and partly to do with wanting to be on the side of the oppressed, not the side of the privileged. (The latter of course is to do with one of the worst features of online debates, that it becomes all about "sides".) But there's another aspect: the fact that some white people actually do have a recent or even current history of racial discrimination.

Clearly, it's a very bad thing if PoC are trying to talk about incidents of racism, and a bunch of white people shout them down and talk about vaguely relevant things like the fact that white people get stared at when on holiday in Japan, or the way a black person called them a mean name once or whatever. But the way the dialogue goes at the moment, there is no good way to talk about the experience of being Irish or Slavic or, well, Jewish. [ profile] ajollypyruvate linked to this essay about being caught in the middle, which is partly about being mixed race, with a background that isn't really covered by the usual definition of "mixed", but also partly about the fact that there's no framework for her to talk about her father's experiences coming from a Slovak background.

I have sympathy for the "but I'm not white" people, and I know I've been there myself a few times. Ten years ago I was dating a non-Jewish guy, and he reported to me that he was cutting contact with someone he'd thought of as a friendly acquaintance, because this person turned out to be a scary racist. The ex-friend disapproved strongly of "interracial" relationships and had been vile towards another friend's ethnically Chinese girlfriend. And my boyfriend told me this guy would probably be ok with me, since I'm white, and I really reacted against that; if someone is being racist, I'm supposed to be among the people they hate, not among the people they think are racially acceptable. And more generally, I don't like being counted as one of the people with unconscious privilege, or part of the dominant / hegemonic culture. But obviously there are many ways that I do benefit from having pale skin, and many experiences that I never have because although I might be weird, people can't tell at a glance that I am.

And that's another thing: [ profile] wychwood asked me if I considered Jewishness to be an ethnic identity. My first reaction was that that isn't a valid question. Then just after we'd had a really interesting conversation about this sort of issue (thanks, [ profile] wychwood!), I was teaching my adult ed class, and we were discussing what makes a service meaningful. One person, a transplanted (stereo)typical New York Jew, talked about the sense of connection with other Jews, both present at synagogue and as part of the world-wide Jewish community following the same traditions. Another member of the class, who is a convert and very vocal about this background, tried to dismiss that as "just an ethnic thing", which people who didn't have that ethnic background couldn't connect to. I wasn't having that, I looked round at the class full of blonde Swedes (with a few equally blonde Germans and Finns and English people) and said, seriously, are you saying that our sense of community comes from an ethnic identity?

The truth is that the majority of Jews in western Europe and the US are in fact members of an ethnic group as well as a religious one, as most of us are from an Ashkenazi, central and Eastern European origin. Indeed, lots of Jews have hardly any religious connection at all, but are Jews purely because they share that ethnic background. Many Jews do experience racism based on appearance, as they are often darker and with visibly different features from the western European majority groups they live among. Note that plenty of Jews actually are people of colour and it's awkward if they get forgotten about when talking about racial dynamics. Also, plenty of Jews are fair, including me. They may be converts or descended from converts, and like nearly everyone in the world the majority of Jews are very unlikely to have only Jewish ancestors throughout history. (My friend Joanna looks, to my eyes, pretty "Jewish", but apparently people consider it appropriate to speculate, to her face, about the likelihood that some of her ancestors were raped to give her the genes which made her hair auburn rather than dark brown.)

Now, me, I have fairly "Jewish" (ie Ashkenazi) features, but I also have fair skin and light brown hair, so most people don't think I "look Jewish". I know about some fairly close relatives who aren't Jewish, but many of the Jewish ones on my mother's side are just as fair as I am. So generally I make an initial impression of being white. I do get slightly impatient with people who refuse to believe my own statements of my Jewish identity because I don't look like their stereotypical idea of what a Jewish appearance is supposed to be, but I have it a lot less bad than my Jewish friends who are actually blonde, and a whole lot less bad than the ones who are Indian Jews or Jews from an east Asian background via adoption or conversion.

I have been in situations, rarely, but it happens, where I feel uncomfortable with people knowing that I'm Jewish. In those situations I can choose to remove items of clothing that make my religion obvious, and keep quiet about topics that would identify me. I'm lucky both in that I can do that (and I'm not breaking what I consider an absolute religious principle by removing my head-covering, hiding my fringed ritual garment or revealing enough flesh to fit in with social norms), and in that I very rarely need to.

The thing is, "passing" is almost certainly preferable to being constantly visible whether you like it or not. But passing isn't without cost either. This certainly applies to people with invisible disabilities, or queer people, and I expect it applies to PoC who happen to have light skin. Also, there are lots of people who, appearance-wise, pass at a glance but not if observant people are looking for signs that they might belong to a despised group, even without having to lie about or conceal part of their life.

Behold, my amazing lack of conclusions!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 05:55 pm (UTC)
ajollypyruvate: (Justice!)
From: [personal profile] ajollypyruvate
I need to let my nephew and niece know about that essay. (They've been attacked both for having a white father for having a black mother, sometimes by the same person.)

Thank you for your own insight on this.

I can't, either.

From: [personal profile] ajollypyruvate - Date: 2009-02-09 08:29 am (UTC) - Expand

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 05:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
apparently people consider it appropriate to speculate, to her face, about the likelihood that some of her ancestors were raped to give her the genes which made her hair auburn rather than dark brown


Right, because the idea of consensual intermarriage never occurs? What a dreadful thing to say. Might or might not be true. but there's something very disturbing about people who would rather speculate about an unknown woman being raped.

Severely fucked-up.

I've been thinking a lot recently about how the signifiers of ethnic identity vary so strongly between different eras, and how presentist our ideas about race and ethnicity really are, so this was a really interesting post, ta.

I can't really deny my whiteness at all, considering how ridiculously pale I am. (I so wanted to be not-white when small, because I hated how easily I burned in the sun!) And the extent to which that's been thrown into relief in some of the places I've lived. But in my first marriage, the approach of my ex's family to my whiteness was really distinctly unpleasant, and I wonder if that's at all similar to what non-white partners in mixed relationships in predominantly white cultures experience when being 'exoticised'.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 09:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
apparently people consider it appropriate to speculate, to her face, about the likelihood that some of her ancestors were raped to give her the genes which made her hair auburn rather than dark brown

Right, because the idea of consensual intermarriage never occurs? What a dreadful thing to say. Might or might not be true. but there's something very disturbing about people who would rather speculate about an unknown woman being raped.

No, because for the majority of the last two thousand years of European history, Jews were ghettoised, and intermarriage would almost all of the time have been rejected by both Jews (on grounds of Jewish law) and Christians (on racial grounds); and pogroms involving rape did occur, repeatedly, down through the centuries; and the fact that Ashkenazi Jews look almost, but not quite, like East Europeans, and Moroccan Jews almost, but presumably not quite, like Moroccans, etc, etc, does need to be explained, and this is the most likely explanation.

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Date: 2009-02-07 06:09 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Oy, gevalt.

I don't generally participate in these discussions -- or generally don't self disclose -- because I don't have a problem accepting the white privilege I have; it's typically useful in such conversations to be a (hopefully clueful) white. That, and I can only offend everyone: those not of my race who would only hear my discussing my race as a repudiation of white privilege, and those of my race who insist it isn't a race it's a religion.

The facts of the matter are these:

Hitler did not kill six million of my people because they believed the wrong thing, or he didn't like their God. He didn't give anyone the option of converting to escape the gas chamber.

And while his specific racial determinant standard was different of our people's own, it is still the case that we define membership in our people first by blood: matrilineal descent.

I am not a Jew: I have nothing to do -- have never had anything to do with -- the Jewish faith, the Torah or the Talmud. I am bat haskalah, the fifth generation in a family whose relationship with Judaism was shaped by the Enlightenment in the 19th century.

I am Ashkenazi. It is the ethnicity stamped on my skin and hair: it was race enough for Germans to murder us, Americans to call us colored and forbid us entry, and for the English Sepharadi to refuse to hire us except for meanial labor.

The Ashkenazi are a transnational endogamous people having a religion and a language in common. Indeed we do have an ethnic culture. My ancestors' native tongue is Yiddish. They had Hebrew, too, of course. It seems obvious, to me at least, who was raised outside the religion, just where the line is between the religion and the ethnicity: the Hebrew part is the religion, the Yiddish part is the ethnicity. I wouldn't know for the Hebrew part of things; it's the Yiddish part that is my heritage.

So, as I see it, "Jewish" is the name of the Hebrew part. And the name for the Yiddish part is "Ashkenazi".

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 06:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Interesting. I have occasionally been mistaken for an Irishwoman, and that by people who had no idea of my surname (which, as it happens, is recognisably Ulster in origin, but does not reflect my ethnicity in any way; I picked it because I wished to get rid of my ex-husband's surname and happened to like that one). There seem to be two reasons why I've been taken for Irish: one is that my favourite colour is Kelly green and I wear quite a lot of it, and the other is that for many years I attended a Catholic church. (That's another stereotype, incidentally: "all Catholics are Irish". No, they're not, but try explaining that to the average tabloid reader with no experience of Catholicism.)

You may recall that, several years ago, there was a disgraceful outbreak of violence started by English football fans at a match between the Republic of Ireland and England. At that time I was living on a block of horrible deck-access council flats; the fact that they were deck-access is significant, because if you are on one of these decks there are only so many ways you can go. I came out of my flat with the intention of going to visit a friend who lived about a quarter of a mile away, and it so happened that there was a gang of youths who apparently knew some of the hooligans involved in that incident and greatly admired what they had done.

They promptly offered me a death threat, thinking that I was Irish. All I need have done was spoken to show that they were mistaken; I have no trace of a brogue, and indeed have no reason for one. But I didn't want to do that. I thought, "If I speak, it's as good as saying, 'Don't attack me - I'm one of you!'" And whatever I wanted them to think I was, it was certainly not that. I didn't want to identify with them in any way.

So I remained silent, looked all four of them straight in the eye in turn, and walked straight through the middle of them. It was about the only thing I could have done. They couldn't work it out, and by the time they did, I was on the main road and therefore safe. It wasn't courage; it was nothing more than plain anger.

Maybe just for that minute or two, I was Irish after all.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 08:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
My grandparents were Jewish subjects of the Tsar. They replaced the religion with radical political beliefs (three Marxists, one anarchist.)

Like many Eastern Europeans -- Slavs, Balts, Germans, etc. -- some of my relatives had/have distinctly Asian features.

I grew up as part of a sizable Jewish minority in a (US) rural area. This was rather different from growing up Jewish in a city or suburb -- but apparently much like growing up Catholic in a predominantly Protestant area of Minnesota, or Protestant in a Catholic one.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 08:44 pm (UTC)
wychwood: Catholic socialist weirdo (gen - Catholic socialist weirdo)
From: [personal profile] wychwood
Thank you for this! It's really interesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 09:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was talking to a Chinese girl at Wandering Jews last night; I'd met her once before, at Naomi S's birthday party. It was very difficult for me to figure out how to tell if she was Jewish or not: if she wasn't Jewish, I had to modify my conversation with her (or at the absolute minimum, the vocabulary); OTOH if she was Jewish, the fact I might be doubting she was Jewish would be painfully embarrassing for both of us, even though statistically the most likely situation.

(Turned out she wasn't Jewish, and was the housemate of the evening's host, and wouldn't have understood where my embarrassment came from.)

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(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 09:57 pm (UTC)
electricant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] electricant
This is interesting, as I have been thinking about similar issues lately. I've been reading an Australian YA classic called Looking for Alibrandi which is all about a second generation Italian Australian girl living in Sydney, and about her interactions with upper class white Australians (among others) who consider her to be "an ethnic". It's a really interesting insight into Australian culture and the status of groups of people who I would consider to be white Europeans but who are often viewed as and treated as ethnic minorities over here (or have been in the recent past anyway).

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 10:13 pm (UTC)
ext_29671: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
The thing is race is socially constructed concept. It used to be quite common to refer to groups of people we now consider white as belonging to different races.

Now I'm kind of wondering what racial categories are common in the UK. They sound slightly different to the one's we have at home. I general tick "White, non-Hispanic"

(no subject)

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(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-07 10:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I didn't know that Jews tended to have darker skin. Dark coloring (dark hair, dark eyes) sure, but not darker skin. Although one of my sisters and my father did the blond hair in childhood that turned dark thing.

I think of Jews as white, but as a minority group that is sometimes (and quite often historically) discriminated against. I don't think of "white" as necessarily meaning undiscriminated against. Mainly, I guess I think of it as a different type of bigotry but just as bigoted. You can be discriminated against because of your coloration (say having dark skin) or your background (having Jewish ancestors regardless of your beliefs) or your personal orientation (being gay or bi) or your personal physical attributes (being blind, crippled, overweight, etc.) or for other reasons because people are really good at coming up with reasons to discriminate.

In my personal family history there has been much intermarriage, but the religious intermarriage was in my own generation. There was a controversial intermarriage I think two generations back or so when one of my Ashkenazi relatives wanted to marry someone who was Sephardic. However, it turned out that my Ashkenazi line was not pure Ashkenazi, but already a bit Sephardic, so it was deemed acceptable.

I am more Ashkenazi than Sephardic, but I never viewed one as superior to the other. However, I've always been glad for the mixture, because it meant my family felt free to pull from both traditions. I like latkes and I like donuts. And the Sephardic restrictions during Passover are a little different, which was convenient.

I guess, personally, I think of myself as having many different factors making up my ethnicity. I define myself as white/caucasian, which seems pretty clear to me given how pale I am. I'm not literally white and I'm not an albino, but people don't use the term to refer to that, so white seems a good fit. I consider myself to be mostly Russian, part Spanish/Cuban, part Polish, part Austrian-Hungarian, a tiny smidge Mongol (that was a rape a very long time ago), and a bit else thrown in for good measure. I also define myself as American, which I feel I am 100% as I was born here, raised here, and I've never been a citizen of anywhere else. I guess, I don't feel it adds up to 100% or that being Jewish makes me any less Russian - they are different components of what I am. Sure Russian Jewish ancestry is very different from Christian Jewish ancestry, but it's still Russian. And Russian Jewish ancestry is different from Spanish Jewish ancestry, but it's still Jewish.

But then, I feel free to float in and out of being treated as a majority or a minority. I'll get my white privilege and lose my able-bodied privilege or pass. And when it comes to class, things are just incredibly weird and complicated for me.

I think I find the whole thing confusing.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-08 01:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Interesting that you began your discussion with census/monitoring information-type categories. I used to have to keep monitoring stats of the kids in my classes, and nobody was ever able to tell me (although I asked) how I should categorise the kids in Jewish schools of Israeli descent. Everyone else, I coud fit to a tick-box; Israelis had none.

So, I'm still socio-ethnically curious - which box should I have ticked for Israeli, as opposed to Eastern European, Jews?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-10 10:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The basic problem with these categories is that some of them are nationality based and some of them are race based. It's dumb.

Makes it almost impossible for me to know how to answer.

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] - Date: 2009-02-10 12:54 pm (UTC) - Expand

Jewish as an ethnic group in the Soviet Union

Date: 2009-02-08 06:06 am (UTC)
ext_78: A picture of a plush animal. It looks a bit like a cross between a duck and a platypus. (Default)
From: [identity profile]
I had a co-worker from the Soviet Union who, as I recall it, told me that her Soviet passport (which was no longer valid after the breakup of the Soviet Union, yet no resulting country felt inclined to issue her a replacement, but that's another story) had a category for "ethnic group", and hers was "Jew". Which had nothing to do with religion (she wasn't Jewish-by-religion, for example).

But I don't know more about quite how "Jewish" was treated as an ethnic group in the Soviet Union (and, perhaps, in one or more of the CIS countries now?); perhaps you do?
From: [identity profile]
I had a Russian friend once who told me that when Stalin introduced ethnicity onto passports, the Jews asked for "Jewish" to be put on theirs, as, with the suppression of religion under Stalin, it was the only means they had left of identifying.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-08 06:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Interesting post.

Just to point out an anecdote: a few months ago, I was walking round at Rabbi Skool when a born-Jewish classmate made a distateful joke about me being Aryan because I am a convert. I was livid.
When a fellow, blond convert friend made the joke, I wasn't mad at all.

I struggle with this notion too. I come from a WASPy (though secular) upperclass background and completely comply with the "white" thing. Yet, I've never really felt white. Yes, I have blond hair, fair skin and green eyes but I've always identified with international culture and with Judaism for so very long that I just don't feel like I fit in the "white" category. It was extremely painful for me to be pointed out as "Aryan", implying that my valid conversion and my evident commitment to the G-d of Israel and the Torah of Israel and the People of Israel isn't real.
As if, just on account of my stupid skin and hair, I am part of a fifth colonne of potential anti-semites. Screw that.

It was painfully ironic for another reason too. My father, already an older man when I was born, was already an adult during the Second World War. The Nazis tried to force him to sign an "Aryan Declaration" as a doctor/civil servant/university employee. He refused: at great personal risk. He was also active in the Resistance and saved Jewish lives, as a righteous Gentile. I, for one, have NEVER identified as white and kal v'chomer, Aryan. And so I said I am not Aryan, nor was my father. We refused those categories.

My whiteness is a shape-shifting thing. I too had to fill out a racial profiling form for Rabbi Skool and found myself writing "White" and "Jewish" in both boxes. It was weird. Ethnically, I am not Jewish, but it is Jewish identity theory itself that points out that the convert is reborn in a Jewish body. Or as my rabbinical dean pointed out, "look, as soon as you emerged from that mikvah, your body IS Jewish."

As you notice, I've experienced my fair share of anti-convert sentiment in the Jewish community and have heard remarks such as "we don't want more converts, there are too many blondies in shul." This motivated to keep my hair blond (I used to dye it all sorts of shades) as a political statement. I refuse to internalize shame in the Jewish community on account of my fair appearance. Screw that.

The ironic thing is that to both Jews and anti-semites my northern European looks don't matter. Countless Jews, when encountering my observance or the authenticity of my Jewish identity, have asked me whether I come from an Orthodox Jewish home. My blond hair and green eyes certainly weren't a deterent to them assuming otherwise. Likewise, Neo-Nazis and racists have called me "ff-ing Kike, Heil Hitler, Go to the gaschambers" with total disregard for my "Aryan" looks. I wonder what Adolf Hitler would have made of "race traitors" like myself.

My race is a category I try to ignore. It's irrelevant to me. I am a Jew, and I am blond and I come from a privileged WASPy background which I refuse to villify and accept on its own terms because it's my heritage. My first allegiance is to my G-d and my fellow Jews, and to Humanity. Everything else is secondary.

Then there's the dynamic of being white in the USA, in Southern California as opposed to Northern Europe (where I am nothing special) but that's a discussion for another day.

Sorry for the rambling nature of these thoughts. Sure, society defines us and we cannot get away from that. But my self-identification matters more to me. No-one can take away what I feel in my heart of hearts and the principles I try to live by. And my principles leave darn little space for racialism.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-08 09:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I get very frustrated that leftie anti-racists sometimes have a bit of a habit of not acknowledging antisemitism. I think part of the reason for this is that "racism=prejudice + power" formulation can get boiled down to a crude idea that there are white people, who can't be victims of racism, and people of colour, who can't be racist. Jews don't fit into this framework because they'd have to either claim that Jews are never racist or that Jews are never victims of racism. I also think that it is difficult because non-Jews are often unaware of the degree of antisemitism Jews experience, I certainly wasn't before I converted, and when Jews try to share these experiences in discussions about racism they may be dismissed as trying to deny their white privilege. I suppose another problem is that Jewishness doesn't fit well into the category of race. There are Jews from a whole range of racial backgrounds and people can convert to Judaism. I once had an argument on a feminist community with someone who was determined that antisemitism wasn't racism in which one of her lines of argument was "If antisemitism is racism what about black Jews?"

(no subject)

Date: 2009-02-08 10:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think part of the reason for this is that "racism=prejudice + power" formulation can get boiled down to a crude idea that there are white people, who can't be victims of racism, and people of colour, who can't be racist.

One of many good reasons why that formulation is a useless, unattributed pile of crap. I don't know if you were reading [ profile] feminist at the time when a Roma person was talking about being white and a victim of racial prejudice? And was shouted down by mods? Oh, it was painful. But it did lead to The Great Apology.

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Date: 2009-02-09 10:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Then I learned that basically no person of colour objects to them..

i think the interesting part of your post is really the bit that comes after the census / monitoring categories. I think most people would agree they are an unsatisfactory way of representing the (especially living-in-the-UK) population. I don't feel able to call myself a "person of colour" most of the time because the contexts in which it's used (mainly online, for me) it's mainly to do with people who are at the least brown. People who look like me suffer a lot less abuse and discrimination because we're pale, (often paler in real terms than 'white' people). Anyway, this is a silly strand of thought - the categories are unsatisfactory, (i feel uncomfortable with my box because it's purely racial, and broad at that, whereas some of the others are to do with nationality or a more general ethnicity), but it does an important job. And i guess individual institutions don't feel able to make up categories until the next census comes out. And if you really don't like it, you don't have to fill it in...

ETA: I had a further thought about those categories, which is that for the purposes of monitoring for jobs etc they are ok. It doesn't really matter if they accurately represent people or not, it can be quite a blunt thing, and really it should, otherwise we get too many categories. If a more, er, discriminating kind of discrimination starts happenning that isn't picked up by the blunt groups then obviously that then becomes a problem.
For the census they really should be refined better, as the census is supposed to represent the population fairly accurately, and the odd discrepencies in how the categories are differentiated is kinda annoying.
Edited Date: 2009-02-12 11:25 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-07-06 09:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ignoring a lot of awfully interesting stuff that I don't have anything wise to add to, and making a small stats point...

...if we don't monitor race on the census, then we have no denominator for everything else. And then we have to make statements like '100 black people were searched in London and 1000 white people' and no-one knows whether that means that white people or black people are _more likely_ to be stopped and searched, because no-one knows how many white people and black people there are. You can't tell if your incidences of anything, be that violent crime, police investigation or representation in parliament, are representative of the population, if you don't count the population in the first place.


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