White skins/black masks: the pleasures and politics of imperialism

Winter 1989

Low considers literary manifestations of cross-cultural dressing, whereby white characters are able to pass as members of other ethnic groups, for example the eponymous Kim in Rudyard Kipling’s popular novel. She compares this to the real-life example of Sir Richard Burton, who dressed up in clothes of the East, and Jack London, who crossed social class barriers by ‘dressing down’. Taking in Robert Stoller’s work on cross-dressing, Low asks what pleasure is derived from such transgressive acts, arguing that it is precisely that which is hidden - a penis, white skin - which is the locus of enjoyment, allowed for, in Freudian terms, by the ‘fetish’ of the clothes of the other. Informed by the works of Benita Parry, Homi Bhabha and Edward Said, Low argues that in an imperialist context such cross-cultural fantasies are not as innocent as they may appear, and in fact are not only ‘play’ but a mechanism of control.

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