- Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921
Colonial Proximities is a scholarly, innovative, and illuminating exploration of law, race, and society in the British Columbian colonial periphery. It makes a significant contribution to postcolonial studies in its exploration of the complexities of British settler societies’ engagement with racial differences and of the managing of such differences through a range of laws, strategies of governance, and bio-political techniques. Its singular contribution is to bring together colonial histories of European–Native contact and European dealings with the increasing presence of Chinese immigrant populations, along with the growing and unruly classes of “half-breeds.” Because the author links Native studies with migrant studies and reads these two sites of racial engagement as interconnected and mutually constitutive, the analysis presented is rich and deep, filled with the narratives, constructions, and often conflicting ambiguities of race that preoccupied colonial administrators, missionaries, and legal agents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Building upon Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualization of the “contact zone,” where peoples geographically and historically separated are brought into the same social space and forced to confront their mutual relations, Renisa Mawani underscores the interracial and cross-racial dimensions of the contact zone in British Columbia. She complicates and expands the idea of the contact zone to take into account multiple dimensions of racial tension among and between Europeans and a multiplicity of non-Europeans, including Indians, Chinese, and various subgroups of “inauthentic” Indians and mixedrace populations. This landscape of racial heterogeneity forced colonial Indian agents and administrators to look beyond their assigned focus on Native peoples and pay attention to the ways in which other racialized communities were affecting the identification and regulation of their imperial objects.
Throughout the book, Mawani explores the colonial regime’s policing of the boundaries of racial categories in its attempt to prevent miscegenation and a range of related cultural and political intimacies between different races. This policing was typically ineffectual and often flat-out failed. Nonetheless, Mawani argues, it produced new “racial truths” and new modes and techniques—both legal and extralegal—of regulating race. Importantly, the author is concerned not so much with mapping the new forms of knowledge and the new laws created but with the underlying anxieties that informed the need to police the boundaries of racial identity in the first place.
In a variety of settings such as salmon canning industries and missions, and around a number of legal problems such as prostitution, slavery, and the illicit sale and consumption of liquor, Mawani elegantly demonstrates how anxieties and related fears punctuated the colonial regime’s everyday implementation of imperial order and control. These anxieties related specifically to the management of Others, who presented challenges to a vision of European resettlement and its platform assumption of white superiority. Through detailed analysis of reports, commissions, and legal cases, Mawani shows the colonial government’s constant need to identify, demarcate, and cordon off Indigenous communities in order to maintain the credibility and legitimacy of the ideological and racial differentiation between European and non-European peoples. The presence of [End Page 115] Chinese and “half-breeds” disrupted the conventional colonial binary between “civilized” and “uncivilized,” contaminating the categories of race and unsettling the racial hierarchies in place. Together Indians, Chinese, and interracial peoples were conceived as “enemies,” attacking from within and without the very basis of colonial authority. As Mawani notes in her examination of “George,” a man of split subjectivity who claimed to be both Native and white at the same time, his “invisibility—his ability to pass as both Indian and white simultaneously—was deeply threatening precisely because it exposed the indeterminacies of race and the cracked, fragmented, and unstable foundations of colonial power” (p. 199).
While Colonial Proximities specifically engages with theoretical and substantive issues pertinent to colonial and postcolonial scholarship, the implications drawn are relevant for all discussions of race and racial discrimination in historical as well as contemporary contexts. Building on the insights of Foucault, Stoler...