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Response to Review no. 815

I am grateful to the editors of Reviews in History and to Flemming Christansen for his astute and detailed assessment of The Chinese Puzzle. Rather than debating the specific points brought up by Christiansen in his excellent review, in the spirit of fostering a wider dialogue, I would instead like to address some of the major issues animating the discussion of race in the context of British history. Not only has race yet to receive the same depth of analysis that class and gender have in social history, but the primary analytical lenses through which race has been examined recently in the British context, cultural theory and postcolonial studies, remain highly controversial. The confining of the history of race in Britain largely to a subset of the history of immigration has had a similarly deadening effect on interest in the topic. One exception to this trend has been the excellent work done on the Irish and Jewish populations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But it is only in the last two decades that the Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean populations have begun receiving attention, and most of such scholarship has been content to lay out the basic narratives of immigration and social relations. Very few historians have claimed that, prior to the post-war era, issues of race were essential in domestic British society or that an analysis of them must be incorporated into the historiographical mainstream. In recent years, race has somewhat ridden the coattails of the ‘new imperial history’ to gain more prominence in historians’ narratives of modern Britain, with the work of Antoinette Burton and Laura Tabili being particular standouts.(1)  But even though Edward Said’s Orientalism, Burton’s Burdens of History,and David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism regularly appear on graduate students’ reading lists, race itself is often relegated to tertiary status in the historical narrative, or even dismissed altogether as an explanatory factor. That one of the premier historians of the British Empire can prominently assert that race and racism played no significant factor in British policies of decolonization and can dismiss postcolonial theory’s applicability imperial studies with a single derisive footnote is stark evidence of this.(2)

Arguments that race was not a significant factor in domestic British history (with the aforementioned exceptions of cohort and chronology), however, are coming under increasing scrutiny by scholars who seek to break down the analytical barriers separating colony and metropole and by those who have focused on nation and nationalism in modern Britain. Of particular significance in these projects is the relatively recent recognition of ‘whiteness’ as a constructed, contingent category of identity in Britain and the empire.(3) That racism was not as significant a factor in British domestic history as it was in US history or in the history of British imperialism, on the other hand, is an assertion that can be defended much more effectively. Britain’s constitutional rejection of race-based legislation, its relative paucity of racial violence, and its history as a destination of choice for European, Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants all support such a stance. The xenophobic attitudes, policies, and actions that were clearly visible in 19th and 20th century British society can and should be taken within a broader context of relative tolerance, assimilation, and legal equality. In sum, whereas a restructuring of modern British history along the lines of gender and class has already occurred, a similarly drastic reassessment along the lines of race is, at present, inconceivable. The histories of non-European minorities may be (no pun intended) integrated into broader historical narratives, but hardly seem essential to them.

The broad impact of Chinese immigration and Sinophobia on British society, culture, and politics, however, challenges the underlying assumption that race was largely something that happened ‘out there’ in the empire rather than ‘at home’ in Britain. What I would most like readers to consider as they assess The Chinese Puzzle, and what the reviewer clearly has taken note of, is the possibility that race and racism were inextricably linked to the daily enforcement of law, to popular politics, to the organization of labor, and to the formation of domestic national, gender, and class identity in this period, so much so that the latter cannot possibly be analyzed accurately without reference to the former. Would this not demand a reassessment of the basic narratives of British social, cultural, political, and economic history, not as a nod to inclusiveness, but rather in acknowledgment that the history of modern British society as a whole cannot be understood without reference to the history of race and racism?

That The Chinese Puzzle, one of the few books to examine these issues in a pre-Second World War domestic context, was refused by several academic presses with strong British history listings on the grounds that its subject was too esoteric to attract serious scholarly interest indicates that such a reassessment is not imminent. On the other hand, the centuries-long persistence of non-European enclaves in Britain’s cities; the enduring power and prominence of black, Indian, Arab, and Chinese stereotypes in British culture; the burgeoning scholarly interest in race’s historical relationship to class, gender, and nation; and, finally, Christiansen’s assertion that my research illuminates the broader historical narrative of British society in a fundamental way all suggest that historians’ attitudes towards the significance of race and racism in Britain, like the constructions of both British and Chinese identity, remain very much in flux.


  1. Antoinette Burton, The Burdens of History: British Feminism, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994) and At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1998); Laura Tabili, ‘We Ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca, NY, 1994).  See also Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper (Berkeley, CA, 1997).Back to (1)
  2. Ronald Hyam.  Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonization, 1918-1968 (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 37–42, 2.Back to (2)
  3. Most recently in Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge, 2008).Back to (3)