Sahibs with Black Faces? - Installing and Escaping Whiteness in Rudyard Kipling's “Kim“

Seminar Paper 2004 11 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Construction of Whiteness & The Impersonation of the Other A Theoretical Overview

3. Rudyard Kipling's “Kim” - a Case Study
3.1 The Novel
3.2 “Little Friend of All the World” or “Sahib” - Constructing and Escaping Race in “Kim”

4. A Few Concluding Words

Appendix: Bibliography

1. Introduction

In recent years, more and more attention has been drawn to the study of whiteness, that is, to the way in which whiteness – the state of being of white complexion, and, therefore, of the “white” race – is perceived, both by whites and non-whites, as a race-category, and, ultimately, as a fact; and how this perception came about, how it was constructed – and to what end. Authors like Richard Dyer, among others, have begun deconstructing what has become the commonly accepted perception of white image[1], and white self-image, and have found out that whiteness, as a race-category, has, over centuries, been constructed, by white authors and white authorities the world over, into something that has assumed an almost normative function – representing a racial “norm”, used to compare, distinguish and ultimately separate those who deviate from the norm, and thereby installing a device of control and, at its heart, a white, Eurocentric view of the world.

Alongside their discoveries, scholars like Eric Lott have begun turning their interest to a different question: if, as Dyer had stated, the construction of whiteness was a means of establishing power, then what reason was there for white people to impersonate non-whites, a phenomenon that had come to broader attention in the early 19th century with the emergence of minstrelsy and so-called “blackface”-performances?

In this paper, I will give a short overview on the theories of Eric Lott and David R. Roediger regarding this point and, set before the background of these theories, present a reading of Rudyard Kipling's novel “Kim“ in which I will try to determine in how far the protagonist - a young orphan living on the streets of Lahore, India - is constructed as a white person, to what extend he may be said to be using “blackface“, in what manner he profits from these two facts, and, ultimately, what might be derived from this regarding the construction of white – non-white identities and relations in the novel.

2. The Construction of Whiteness & The Impersonation of the Other ­ A Theoretical Overview

From Richard Dyer´s theories, we learn that whiteness, basically, is a construct, an invention if you will, which was developed, in a nutshell, by a ruling class to control access to that class, and thereby, consolidate power, and which offers those matching the requirements of that construct certain privileges.

So the question is: why would a white person give up these privileges ( does he give them up at all? ), and what is the gain offered in return? Both Eric Lott[2] and David Roediger have attempted to answer this question by examining, from both a anthropological and a psycho-sociological point of view, the phenomenon of minstrelsy, that form of entertainment which had become popular in the 1830's and was, essentially, based on a white person painting his face black ( hence the name “blackface” ) and then performing songs and dances, and they have found several explanations. Roediger argues that, if viewed in its historical context, minstrelsy was appealing to artists, and to audiences as well, because it was an ambiguous medium. On the one hand, its way of depicting black people was obviously racist, as black people were shown as hilarious, and rather stupid figures, and clearly made fun of. On the other hand, minstrelsy was, at the time, a radically new, and quite subversive medium, for not only did it allow for the performers to act, on stage, in a way that was, to the rigid, 19th century society, unusually wild, exciting, and even offensive, but it also embodied and embraced, to some extent, black art and black culture.


[1] In “White”, 1997

[2] Lott, 2001; and Roediger, 1991, 2002


ISBN (eBook)
File size
468 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Free University of Berlin – Institut für Englische Philologie
Sahibs Black Faces Installing Escaping Whiteness Rudyard Kipling Blindness Literature




Title: Sahibs with Black Faces? - Installing and Escaping Whiteness in Rudyard Kipling's “Kim“