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  • Race-Mixing, Radicalism, and Reimaginating the Nation
  • Hilary Jones (bio)

The title of Kumari Jayawardena's monograph, Erasure of the Euro-Asian, reveals the degree to which people of mixed racial ancestry have been silenced in histories of nationalism and national identity in South Asia. The same holds true for the story of mixed race groups in Africa under colonial rule. An obsession with racial purity and the pervasive image of the "tragic mulatto" has dominated popular and academic discourse to the point that we fail to recognize the complex ways that people who lived "betwixt and between" colonial powers created their own sense of group identity and negotiated the politics of race, class, and gender to assert their own interests and even develop a radical critique of colonial rule. Overemphasis on the idea that people of mixed racial ancestry were destined to live lives of marginalization or that they acted simply as the unwitting agents of colonial powers has, thus, erased the critical contributions that Euro-Asian women and men made as leaders, public intellectuals, and reformers in the land of their birth and in the colonial societies of which they were a part.1 Erasure of the Euro-Asian uncovers these hidden histories and in doing so complicates our assumptions about collaboration and resistance and disrupts the notion that assimilation or mimicry constituted the only possible response for people of mixed racial ancestry within modern colonial societies.

Jayawardena's study of Euro-Asians over several generations, from first encounters in the sixteenth century to the emergence of modern nationalism in South Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, confirms my own research on métis identity and French colonialism in Senegal, West Africa. In Senegal, the history of Euro-Africans begins in the period of the Atlantic slave trade. African and Afro-European women known as signares married European merchants or military officials in "country style" marriages that were legitimate according to local practice, but not in the eyes of the church or the French state. While great attention had been paid to the era of the signares and the rise of their "mulatto" descendants as commercial elites in the first half of the nineteenth century, their story ends there. After 1850, historians tend to see the métis as marginal figures seeking to maintain their elite status yet overcome by demographic decline, internecine rivalry, and irrelevance in an environment increasingly shaped by the expansion and consolidation of colonial rule. Senegal's modern political history, moreover, only considers the role of métis men as a political oligarchy, acting either as agents of metropolitan commercial firms or in concert with the colonial administration. [End Page 253] Little attention is paid to the changing nature of métis households, the education of young girls in the habits of republican motherhood, women's attempts to break the glass ceiling by entering liberal professions, and the ways in which men and women used family business, electoral politics, and civic and church organizations to bolster their sense of group identity and articulate their "utopian vision" of modern Senegalese society.

Uncovering the hidden histories of mixed race groups in Africa and Asia reveals much broader themes that cut across national histories. Jayawardena addresses three critical aspects that provide clarity on the social and political implications of racial mixing in modern colonial societies: the construction of identity, the "utopian vision" espoused by mixed race groups, and evidence of early feminism. Mixing, as anthropologist Jean Loup Amselle suggests, is more the norm than the exception for most human societies across time.2 Yet ideologies of racial, ethnic, and cultural purity leave little room for the multiple, overlapping, and fragmented identities of Euro-Asians and Euro-Africans. This holds true for colonial societies as well as for local societies structured by categories of caste, religion, and lineage. According to Jayawardena, in South Asian societies where paternity dominates, Euro-Asian identity was determined by the father essentially erasing the name and identity of the mother. In the period of encounter and company rule, South Asian women tended to marry European men thus passing their husbands surnames to their mixed race children. In the twentieth century as nationalism took...