Two Indian gentlemen

by zunguzungu

In The Empire of Nature, I came across a surprising — to me — reference to “two Indian gentlemen” which the author helpfully glosses as referencing two Europeans living in India. There’s something counterintuitive to my ears about an Englishman living in India being called an Indian, about a colonial functionary in the colonies so long as to be interpellated as an Indian without giving up any of the privileges of being white and English.

I wonder about the consequences of that move, about its counterintuitivity. It surprised me because, just as the question of whether an immigrant from India living in the US or Britain is really American or British is still a divisive one, we are even more hesitant to allow that an expatriate in a place like India is really Indian; white people born in Mozambique, after all, don’t get to be African if they want to (a problem not unique Mrs. Heinz Kerry). But while there are good and bad reasons for this kind of claim, I’m less interested in taking a position on the issue than in noting its presence as issue now and in the odd absence of the problem from that original quotation, the interestingly untroubled way the original author put it which required retroactive glossing. Rudyard Kipling, after all, wrote Kim about exactly this kind of thing, the problem of a white person who was born and raised (like himself) in the colonies, but it’s an interesting novel because it is profoundly troubled by the problem of figuring out what that means, very mindful of a contradiction he perceives between the two identities.

So it’s interesting that that contradiction wasn’t always perceived, that it had — at some point — to be established as natural. I wonder how much 17th and 18th century Dutch colonists to South Africa called themselves “Afrikaaners” without ceasing to see themselves as distinct from the Africans who already lived there, and how much 17th and 18th century British colonists saw themselves as American without ever ceasing to be British. Not completely, perhaps, but at least a little bit. And while both eventually did distinguish the two identities, they did so for other reasons, and I wonder whether those reasons, maybe, obscure a little bit of what was at stake in doing so, the now quite difficult notion that one can be both, that what we all are is always a little of many different things at once.

It makes me reflect a little on how much more I like the “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not” Dubois than I do the one who viewed it as such a catastrophic and problematic fact that African-Americans were two things at the same time. But it seems like it’s largely the latter who is still with us, the quasi-psychoanalytic approach to race which finds the origin of  racial identity in the failure to be securely only one thing. But who wanted to be only one thing in the first place? Dubois, after all, never did; that was exactly the point.