Trigger Warning: This piece discusses racism and the oppression of people of colour, and mixed race children in particular.
BBC 3 recently published a video entitled ‘Things Not To Say To Someone Of Mixed Race,’ as part of their series in which minorities discuss uncomfortable comments they often hear. In this particular video, the vast majority of comments centred around people’s disbelief that two members of different races could actually procreate. The struggle to reconcile two different sets of racial stereotypes and fit them into one person was incredible.
But where does this come from? When did mixed race children start being a widespread and confusing concern for so many people? Since it’s Black History Month, let’s throw this back to the days of the British Empire, when white governments ruled over their indigenous population. When British men travelled to faraway lands, took new wives, and started new families there, those ‘half-caste’ children blurred the colour line in these countries, and terrified their governments. So what happened to them? And why?
There are many reasons that could account for mixed race children being taken from their indigenous parents by the government, denied work, and cast out from society, but I’m going to discuss the one that led to the most abject fear from the British governments in India and Australia, and that is the idea that mixed race children were thought to have the power to overthrow colonial rule.
Think about it: In India, the 1857 mutiny had rocked Britain by demonstrating that Indians were prepared to fight hard to overturn British rule. If another such rebellion happened, what side would children of mixed blood decide to fight on? And how would one know whether they were to be trusted not to switch?
In Australia, the push to wipe out the Aboriginal population and replace it with a white one could be compromised by dual heritage children. If the British continued producing children with the indigenous population instead of letting them die out, as Darwin’s ‘dying race theory’ assumed they would, Australia could never become completely white. What’s more, mixed race children in Australia were also evidence of a serious political problem.
To colonial settlers, the long term plan for Australia was to transform it into an extension of Britain itself. This dream of “a place where the English race shall be spread from sea to sea unmixed by any lower caste” depended on the genocide of the Aboriginal people. Arguably, this was one of the reasons why aborigines were placed on remote reserves away from the natural resources they needed to survive.The argument went that Europeans as a race were more successful than black people, and hence populations such as the Maori and Aborigines would eventually become extinct, leaving Australia free to be colonised completely.
“Both countries feared mixed race children because they embodied an invasion of ‘white spaces’.”
The fear of invasion, especially by China, was also great. Australian immigration laws were predominantly based on colour, and the restrictions that were put on the lives of ‘half castes’ were a result of such a racially charged country, with Pacific Islanders, for examples, being completely barred from entering the country in 1904.
Predictions of people of colour flooding into Australia, overthrowing British rule, and impregnating white women were rife, which also contributed to a hatred of Anglo-aboriginal children who seemed to bring this reality closer. William Lane’s dystopian fiction White or Yellow, for instance, depicts a violent ‘race war’ between white Australians and Chinese invaders. The way this fear interacted with the perception of mixed race children becomes clear when the hero says that his daughter “Cissie can die as well. She is Australian too. And I’d sooner kill her with my own hands than have her live to raise a brood of coloured curs.”
Ultimately, children of mixed race were forcibly taken from their parents and put into homes where their religions and cultures were taken; the girls were married off to white men to ‘breed out the colour.’ They were given no details of who their Aboriginal parent was, so they could never return and regain that aspect of their ancestry. Mixed race children would be assimilated, the rest of the aborigines would be left to die on uninhabitable reservations, and in the end there would be no trace that they had ever been there at all.
The fear of invasion did exist in India too, but in a different way. Both countries feared mixed race children because they embodied an invasion of ‘white spaces’. When a mixed child was born, a trespass against white bodies and the power they held had been carried out.
There was also a feeling that a dual parental heritage opened up the possibility for mixed race people to ‘switch sides’ during another rebellion or civil war, compromising the security of the British Raj. This led to the denial of professional privileges, such as holding high ranks in the army or gaining any prestigious station in the government. The East India Company had previously employed mixed race workers with vigour, believing that as they had both a British and an Indian parent, they would be well placed to carry out tasks which engaged both Indian and British residents. Later, they were completely banned from such employment.
After India became a matter of the British state, debates raged over the amount of influence Anglo-Indians should be allowed to have over British society. Control was exerted further over mixed race people by regulations such as the decree that any residents of the Upper Orphanage in Calcutta were to be prevented from travelling to England to further their education. Company law also prevented anyone of even partial British descent from residing more than 10 miles away from a Company settlement.
“Whilst the British Empire is no more, the impact of removing indigenous heritage from mixed race children is still felt today.”
In order to ensure these children were loyal to Britain, custody of mixed race children was often given to the state or a white father rather than an indigenous mother. Dhurba Ghosh cites judicial rulings which found in favour of white men who abused or robbed their Indian companions. This is evidence that male authority was deemed absolute, and that white fathers were seen to be in charge of their families. In fact, their whole status was determined by their father. If he was wealthy, his children would be sent to England for their education or to a British school in India in order to raise them as ‘socially white.’ Children such as Dorothy Scott who did stay in India were encouraged to maintain their British connections in order to boast that they were ‘direct from England,’ and more socially British.
Official records of native mothers were virtually nonexistent. Birth certificates would refer to her in vague terms, if at all, and the children themselves were exclusively given British names. If a child’s father had passed away, they were absorbed into outfits such as The Military Orphan Society rather than their Indian family, or homes for mixed race children (for example the Kalimpong homes). This lack of nominal connection with India would erase their parentage, religion, community, and caste from their lives.
Whilst the British Empire is no more, the impact of removing indigenous heritage from mixed race children is still felt today. When we ask mixed race children what they ‘really’ are, and ask them why they ‘act white’ we reveal that we’re still confused by and wary of dual heritage children. But the more we learn about the British Empire, and the more we learn about the history of people of colour, the more we can do to erase prejudice towards people of mixed race.