Your Humble Blogger re-read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim recently. It’s an excellent book, if one likes Kipling.
[waits for it]
It turns out that Kim is an excellent example of a thing that I’ve come across a few times—it’s a very, very racist book that was intended to be an anti-racist book, in fact a critique of racism. I respect the intention, in a way, but it’s tied up with a whole lot of stuff that’s very ugly and unfortunate indeed.
In the case of Kim, the writer is specifically mocking the English cultural image of the local people of the subcontinent, and also the English image of themselves as superior to those people in intelligence, culture and ability. It’s very funny about those things, actually, and clearly comes from a real understanding of the ways those English images are divorced from any kind of reality, or of real interaction with the people as people. Unfortunately, the writer himself is so smug about it that he can’t see his lack of real understanding. The locals—the Buddhist monk from the mountains, the Moslem horse-breeder from Lehore, the Hindu tradesman from Bengal, the Sikh army veteran—are comic stereotypes, treated with affectionate contempt, from the point of view of someone vastly superior in intelligence, culture and ability.
And it is a profound problem, in mocking the racist notion that people from South Asia are like this, to so actively subscribe to the notion that people from Uttar Pradesh are like this and people from Lahore are like this and people from Delhi are like this and people from Kashmir are like this. You know?
But what I find interesting is not that Kim is a racist book, or that Rudyard Kipling holds racist ideas. It’s that he (and the book) are both racist and anti-racist, that they are engaged in fighting racism at the same time that they are passing it along. It’s not that the anti-racism is a thin veil being pulled across a darker, deeper meaning; it’s that the racism and the anti-racism are both at the very core of the book. And in many ways, it’s harder for me to read that sort of thing than to read Charles Dickens, who is just racist (and anti-Semitic) straight-up without trying to avoid it.
A very different example: in the movie Murder by Death, the character of Sidney Wang is intended to mock the racism of the old Charlie Chan movies with Warner Oland. The joke is on those yellowface movies and how racist they were; they are attempting to punch up (or at least sideways) to expose how ridiculous those attitudes were. But it’s all done in a way that is, itself, incredibly wince-inducingly racist. As a result, I’m somehow less uncomfortable watching the old Warner Oland movies than watching Murder by Death. Although, now that I think about it, the creation of Charlie Chan himself was presumably intended to be a positive image of a person of color, in reaction to outrageously racist Yellow Peril stuff. Hm.
That’s actually more like Kim, isn’t it. Ah, well.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,