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Response to Review of The Meaning of White: Race, Class, and the ‘Domiciled Community’ in British India 1858-1930

Let me first express my gratitude to Dr. Amelia Bonea for such a charitable review of my book and for the two important points she has raised, which I believe are extremely helpful in stimulating further discussion and research among anyone interested in the history of whiteness in British India.

Dr. Bonea argues that the book tends to concentrate its attention exclusively on the poorest strata of India’s domiciled community whilst sidestepping the upper and middle strata. This is a more or less correct observation of the book, as I certainly did choose to confine my analysis to the impoverishment of the community, or more precisely, to its wider ‘political’ implications under British rule. In writing this book, my goal was not so much to write a general history of the community as to describe British colonial attitudes towards it. Because a substantial proportion of British discourse centered around the community’s problematical impoverishment – often referred to as the ‘Eurasian Question’ – it was natural for the book to mention poorer sections of the community far more frequently than better-placed ones. The book never meant to present an image of the community as an inherently poor one. Nor have I regarded the histories of the upper and middle classes of the community as having been less important. It is just that my research had very specific aims and concerns.

But of course Bonea is not simply criticizing me for downplaying intra-communal differences. Rather, she argues that I could have examined such differences more fully in order to enhance my analysis of ‘whiteness’, and to this I absolutely agree. I admit that, by largely confining the range of inquiries to those concerning the British response to the community’s poverty, the book manages to present merely one among the several possible ways in which the British in India addressed the question of whiteness. My excuse is that, despite the impression that its title might give, The Meaning of White does not claim to offer any comprehensive account of whiteness in late colonial India. Serious academic research on whiteness concerning India’s domiciled community has just begun, and a fuller picture will emerge when such research is continued by current and future scholars with their different foci and perspectives.

The presence of the domiciled community had different implications for the British construction of whiteness, depending on the particular stratum or group within the community that was the centre of attention. For example, Laura Bear has explored the social world of railway workers in Calcutta, revealing how the British assigned a rather positive role to them as intermediary agents of colonialism, allowing them to be collectively situated between ruler and ruled. Unlike an increasing majority of the community, the railway families remained economically secure across generations, with their whiteness seen certainly as ambiguous but not necessarily as unrespectable as in the case of their poorer counterparts.(1) As I argue on page nine of my book, Bear’s attention to the better-off section of the community should not be seen as a challenge to my own focus on the poorer. Rather, different perspectives should be seen as complementing one another, contributing to a more comprehensive account of the history of the domiciled community.

I find Bonea’s second question regarding my use of the English-language newspaper Friend of India more difficult to answer. In writing the book, I certainly did not fully take into consideration the identity of its editors and the possibility that its political inclinations fluctuated over time. Although I still believe that my analysis of the articles published in The Friend of India was one useful and valid way to carve out a more or less unified attitude on the part of the British towards the Eurasian Question, I appreciate Bonea’s point that the opinions aired by public media like newspapers must be fully contextualized so as not to miss the complex politics behind their making.

At a more general level, I think her criticism can be taken as a constructive suggestion to explore possible fractures within the privileged white community in late colonial India – a community that included civil servants, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, journalists, missionaries and so forth, but that emphatically excluded not just members of the domiciled community but also rank-and-file white soldiers, seamen, subordinate railway engineers, or ‘poor whites’ in general. Attention to such heterogeneity within the privileged might help us to open up new fields of research and further refine our understanding of colonial whiteness. While foregrounding the distinction drawn between ‘respectable’ and ‘degenerate’ whites, I paid scant attention to the subtle gaps and conflicts that might have existed within the former. Nor did I consider the implications that the presence of European planters could have had for the colonial meanings of whiteness. The planters occupied an extremely ambiguous position, not least because, despite the officially constructed image of Europeans as the embodiments of civilization, they were infamous for their highly ‘uncivilized’ behaviours against native subjects.(2) What did these kinds of differences and contradictions mean for the colonial debates on whiteness? Partly because of the methodological requirement to delimit the thematic scope of my research, I left these questions unasked. I hope, however, that they will be fully approached and answered in a foreseeable future, thanks to the recent rise of interest in the question of whiteness in colonial India within both (post)colonial and South Asian studies.

Notes

  1. L. G. Bear, ‘Miscegenations of modernity: constructing European respectability and race in the Indian railway colony,1857–1931’, Women’s History Review, 3 (1994), pp. 531–48.  See also, David Arnold, ‘White colonisation and labour in nineteenth-century India’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 11 (1983), pp. 133–58.Back to (1)
  2. Elizabeth Kolsky, Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2010).Back to (2)