Monthly Archives: January 2010

quotables, & contortions about racial thinking

When the archive seems easily to give access to what one expects of it, the work is all the more demanding. One has to patiently give up one’s natural ‘sympathy’ for it and consider it an adversary to fight, a piece of knowledge that isn’t to annex but to disrupt. It is not simply a matter of undoing something whose meaning is too easy to find; to be able to know it, you have to unlearn and not think you know it from a first reading.

— Arlette Farge, Le Gout de l’Archive

On first reading, I thought that “natural sympathy” in my own work meant the natural inclination to take colonial records at face value and think with the racial categories they created for Malaysia. It’s become commonplace to claim that the colonial state created Malays, Chinese and Indians out of Bataks, Bugis, Cantonese, Hokkiens, Tamils and Sikhs. But in truth, in the archive I’ve spent so much time resisting the colonial state’s Malays, Chinese and Indians that it’s possible I’ve replaced one natural sympathy for another. Colonial officials referred to the Malays without compunction. I can’t say ‘the Malays’ without adding, even if only in my mind, the scare quotes, and I can’t keep the twinge of mockery out of my voice — The Malays? The Chinese? What are these Malays, these Chinese, these constructed categories?

But I sometimes forget to remember these identities have become real to many people who are to themselves and each other uncomplicatedly ‘us Chinese’ or ‘we Malays’, and subscribe to every naturalized stereotype about them that I instinctively reject. Today, many Indians, Chinese and Malays self-identify as Indians, Chinese and Malays. Those categories, even if created, are largely true. Perhaps my own hesitancy is more academic than my natural sympathies allow me to understand. Are these, my now-natural sympathies, then something to fight against in the archive? When I read Cabinet papers from the 1950s that declare that “The Chinese, living mainly in the towns, are cleverer and more efficient than the Malays and outdistance them in most occupations”, and those scare quotes immediately leap up in my mind, is this resisting the natural inclination to take colonial categories at face value? Or is it simply another sort of sympathy which my immersion in academic history and present historiographical trends has inculcated, and is equally one to be resisted? argh