ANGLO-INDIAN WOMEN IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE IDENTITIES by Dr. Erica Lewin
This paper was presented at the conference ‘Who are the Anglo-Indians?’ held in Melbourne, August 2002. It incorporates some of the conclusions of my PhD. thesis. My deepest thanks to the women in Western Australia who participated in this research and shared their lives with me. During the course of the research I received support and encouragement from scholars, friends and family – my thanks to them as well.
Anglo-Indian women are part of a minority group of people who originated in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Their ‘mixed racial’ background, their ability to speak and write English as their first language, their predominantly Christian affiliations and their western style of dress served to distinguish them as a minority group in those environments. It has been suggested that they negotiated a place for themselves "within the gap between Western and Eastern cultures" (Gist & Wright, 1973, p.15).
The term ‘Anglo-Indian’ had various applications through history. However, after 1911, it was "taken to signify persons who were of European descent in the male line but of mixed European and Indian blood" (Anthony, 1969, p.3). This definition is applicable in this study, which seeks to explore the identity of Anglo-Indian women in Western Australia through the process of migration and settlement in Australia, by following the lives of twenty-six women. Four of the participants were Australian-born. This study traced their identity through their memories of life in India and the process of migration and settlement for themselves and their children, some of whom were born in Australia.
This paper outlines the main findings of the research in relation to the porosity and fluidity of ethnic identities and categories as experienced by Anglo-Indian women in Western Australia. The complex ancestry of women who chose to identify as Anglo-Indian demonstrated that ethnic identities and categories are not determined by ancestry alone. Women with a wide range of ancestries identified themselves as Anglo-Indian, including women with no Indian or British ancestry. This suggests that the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ as defined above has taken on different meanings in the Australian context. Contextual factors play a significant role in both individual and group identity. In colonial India, labels such as ‘domiciled European’ and ‘Anglo-Indian’ were imbued with meaning, which has not translated into post-colonial society in Australia. This shift in meaning has implications for those people within ethnic communities, such as the Anglo-Indian community, who are concerned with the preservation of a particular identity. This reshaping of identity occurs over a generation or two and can be a source of both tension and fulfilment in the lives of individuals.
The ways in which Anglo-Indian women were identified by others shifted dramatically as a result of immigration. This came about as a result of the contextual changes between the Indian and Australian environments, which had marked consequences for the ethnic identity of participants. This contextual change related primarily to the composition of ethnic groups in the two environments. Anglo-Indians identified themselves and were identified by others as a distinct group. This dynamic changed considerably in the Australian environment since group comparison became less definitive. Consequently, self-conceptualisation as a group member was destabilised. The ‘western’ bias demonstrated in the markers of identity claimed by Anglo-Indians in India and transferred to Australia, combined with the lack of knowledge on the part of many individuals in Australian society about the Anglo-Indian community in India resulted in the loss of a distinctive identity in the Australian environment. This suggests that ethnic identity is more dependent on contextual factors than on ancestry.
Self-identification as Anglo-Indian in the Indian context was based on racial, cultural and contextual factors, and the participants continued to identify as Anglo-Indian in the Australian environment. However, cultural criteria had decreased relevance in the Australian environment and the motivation to maintain strict ethnic boundaries no longer existed. Both these factors will be discussed in this paper.
The migration experience had a marked effect on the distinctiveness of identity that the Anglo-Indian community strove to create in the Indian environment. Boundaries between the Anglo-Indian community and other Indian ethnic groups had been closely guarded in India and intermarriage with Indians was considered taboo. In the Australian environment, this pattern shifted. Women were more inclined to marry or develop relationships out of the community. Immigration to Western Australia resulted in the loss of the ‘distinctive’ aspect of Anglo-Indian identity since many cultural markers paralleled those of mainstream groups in Australia. The dynamics of ethnic groups in Western Australia meant that the Anglo-Indians needed to reassess their identities. The increased range of ethnic groups and the increased opportunity to interact with ethnic groups which originated in Europe meant that they did not need to guard their ethnic boundaries and that they no longer felt threatened by a predominantly Indian population. The experience of multiple migration, and in particular, the experience of immigrating to England before immigrating to Australia, also resulted in greater identification with the European component of Anglo-Indian identity.
The two diacritical markers of identity that maintained validity in the Australian environment were accent of speech and skin colour. It is necessary to distinguish between the subjective recognition of difference within the Anglo-Indian community and the identification of some Anglo-Indian women as ‘other’ in the Australian environment. The Anglo-Indian community has transferred their preoccupation with skin colour to the Australian environment. Skin colour was recognised as a signifier of status within the Anglo-Indian community in India, even though it may not have resulted in material benefits. Accent was also recognised by Anglo-Indian women as a marker of difference within the Anglo-Indian community in Australia.
It is important to remember that skin colour as a diacritical marker of ‘difference’ applies only to a percentage of Anglo-Indian women since they can have various skin colours. Women marked by difference reported racial prejudice in their lives. It is crucial to recognise however, that these markers were no longer a marker of Anglo-Indian identity but of being ‘other’ and ‘migrant’ in the Australian environment. Women who were identified in this way were prone to prejudice and some level of discrimination, particularly those who came to Australia before the formal abandonment of the White Australia Policy. The woman who grew up in a country town also experienced high levels of abuse, as her family did not fit into the categories of ‘white’ or ‘Aboriginal’. However, many participants indicated that levels of prejudice in Australian society had fallen over the years, so that they felt increasingly comfortable in their lives.
The pre-existing values and attitudes toward difference in Australia were imposed on Anglo-Indian women without regard for their particular history and ethnic background. These pre-existing values and attitudes reflect Australia’s history and serve to erase crucial aspects of Anglo-Indian identity. This was also demonstrated in terms of the historical stereotypes applying to ‘mixed-race’ populations that have affected the lives of such groups. There was no indication in this research that the mainstream population in Australia was aware of the historical negative stereotypes associated with 'mixed-race' populations in India and with the women of those populations, in particular; the stereotype of the promiscuous Anglo-Indian woman. It is significant that although this stereotype persists in the Indian media (Mills, 1998), it does not have currency in the Australian environment, despite the historical recognition of such issues with reference to the Indigenous Australian population. There was no reference to this stereotype by participants. Migration, for Anglo-Indian women, facilitated an opportunity to move on from such stereotypes in terms of identity. It is also significant that many participants subverted their ‘hybrid’ backgrounds into a signifier of cultural wealth, which was contrasted with other ethnicities.
The focus on women in this study has resulted in several conclusions that apply exclusively to them. As already suggested, the positive impact of immigration on the historical stereotyping of Anglo-Indian women is significant. Emphases on the military and economic aspects of Anglo-Indian history and descriptions of the Anglo-Indian community precluded a consideration of the status and role of women within that history. The depiction of Anglo-Indian women as exotic served to limit the discourse relating to their identity. This study contributes to restoring some balance in this respect. The patriarchal framework within which Anglo-Indian women lived in India suggests that the life experience of women and men differed markedly. A gendered approach, therefore, makes women visible and highlights issues that have confronted them both in India and Australia.
This research demonstrated agency on the part of participants in the management and negotiation of their identities. The management of self-identification is indicative of this. The ethnocentric behaviour patterns of Anglo-Indian families indicate their management of a separate identity in the Indian environment. The practice of endogamy was also instrumental in this respect. Maintaining ethnic boundaries reinforced their identity. There is evidence that Anglo-Indians have been selective about what information about ancestry is transmitted from one generation to the next. This secrecy implies a desire to mould ethnic identity, rather than base it purely on ancestry; to discard undesirable aspects of the past.
After immigration to Australia, many participants chose to distance themselves from their constructed Anglo-Indian heritage. This was managed through socialisation patterns, particularly in adulthood, and a move from the endogamy practised in India to exogamy. There was a shift away from the practice of Christian religion, which was a cornerstone of Anglo-Indian identity. Cooking and eating patterns too reflected this change. Low levels of membership of Anglo-Indian organisations suggest the desire to move away from this identity as well. These changes in the lives of the participants suggest an assimilationist approach to their ethnic identity in Australia, or an approach that incorporates the ethnicity of their partners. The western component of their identity, which was derived from their ‘mixed-race’ origin, allowed them access into mainstream Australian society. The inclination by the women to categorise their children as Australian rather than Anglo-Indian adds weight to this argument. However, the attempt to assimilate into Australian society is problematised by the issue of skin colour since Anglo-Indian women can be dark skinned. This marker of identity can be used to block this process of assimilation. Exclusion as a result of this marker individualises this aspect of ethnic identity.
In India there was a strong inclination among Anglo-Indians to identify with the British primarily through the adoption of western cultural markers. This brought with it advantages and privileges. The origin of the Anglo-Indian community through sexual contact between the coloniser and the colonised established a basis from which a separate identity could be constructed, which ensured that Anglo-Indians would be placed in a favourable position within the hierarchy of ethnic groups in India and in terms of class. As history has shown, this did not always work in favour of the Anglo-Indian community and although they experienced favourable treatment, they also experienced discrimination at the hands of the coloniser and the general Indian population.
Ethnocentric patterns established in India were related less to the maintenance of ethnic boundaries generally and more to maintaining a specific boundary between the Indian and Anglo-Indian communities. Anglo-Indian women, particularly older women, had internalised racist attitudes toward the Indian ethnic communities in India. Historical and political context contributed to the development of racial attitudes. The colonial environment within which these women were born and their position vis-a-vis the coloniser and the colonised provided fertile ground for the growth of such attitudes. Some participants were less conscious of this than others. However, many Anglo-Indian women interviewed recognised the racism and prejudice that had been manifested in Anglo-Indian identity through ignorance of Indian culture, a disregard for the ethnic groups that surrounded them in India, and a belittling of the Indian ancestry that was a part of the Anglo-Indian identity. Many of the participants consciously worked against this. Some were ashamed of this racist and prejudiced aspect of their ethnic identity. Despite this greater awareness, many Anglo-Indian women have not overcome these racist assumptions. As stated earlier, this is evident in the preoccupation with skin colour where dark skinned relatives are identified as Anglo-Indian more readily than fair skinned relatives.
As women are distanced from India by time and generations, there is an increased inclination to value Indian culture for itself and not as part of the Anglo-Indian heritage, especially among younger women. The meaning and interpretation of ‘India’ and ‘Indians’ has changed in the minds of Anglo-Indian women. They no longer imply a threat to Anglo-Indian identity in the Australian environment. This re-evaluation of identity is indicative of an ‘undoing’ of negative attitudes toward Indian ethnic groups. It is a self-conscious process and is indicative of the agency of the participants in creating identity. It suggests a ‘healing’ of the rift between ethnic groups. The romanticising of India and its culture among younger women also indicates an evolving relationship between Anglo-Indians and India. This relationship is reflective of the changed context in Australia.
All participants were accepting of Anglo-Indian identity at some level. Self-categorisation does not necessarily reflect intensity of self-identification. Some participants were also inclined to identify with more than one category. The role of Anglo-Indian partners in reinforcing Anglo-Indian identity was evident in the lives of participants. However, it was less significant in the lives of their children. Young participants, in particular, demonstrated an awareness of the markers of identity that they shared with mainstream ethnic groups in Australia. The social value of Anglo-Indian identity as it had been constructed in the Indian environment was less relevant in Australia. If the primary purpose of Anglo-Indian identity was to distinguish it from Indian ethnic communities, as I have suggested, its relevance in the multicultural environment in Australia is questionable. It is not surprising then, that many participants chose to distance themselves from their Indian and Anglo-Indian heritage in the Australian environment. This was verbalised even more clearly by women who had been born in Australia. There was a significant decline in knowledge and understanding of Anglo-Indian identity and heritage among the children and grandchildren of the participants. The diminished understanding on the part of these young people and children of the Anglo-Indian identity and background is instrumental in the changes in Anglo-Indian identity.
The challenges to Anglo-Indian identity posed by the Australian environment brought to the fore the lack of social value of the Anglo-Indian identity in this new context. Many women welcomed the reinforcement of group identity when they first arrived in Australia, but later distanced themselves from it as they made new friends through work, marriage and other interests. The lack of distinction and social value of Anglo-Indian identity was identified by younger women and opens the door to new ways of negotiating identity. ‘Anglo-Indian’ is perceived as an irrelevant social label; the implication is that it belongs in a past era. Doubt was also placed on the Anglo-Indian identity as an authentic ethnic identity because of its western bias, in particular, the use of the English language. Concern was expressed about self-identification that resulted in the formation of separate ethnic groups and the perpetuation of these groups. These ideas of irrelevance and inauthenticity of ethnic groups and their tendency to create divisions in society provide new avenues for the individuals to shape their identities in the Western Australian context. They represent a self-conscious and critical approach to identity formation and development. These insights into Anglo-Indian identity articulated by participants contribute to new ways of perceiving the category 'Anglo-Indian'. Also, as demonstrated in the data, the meaning of the category itself is subject to change. Identification with the term 'Anglo-Indian' does not necessarily infer identification with the Anglo-Indian community that has been the focus of this research. Instead, the term can be used to identify individuals of ‘mixed-race’ background in a multicultural context rather than as defined by the Indian constitution. There are indications that the term 'Anglo-Indian' is being reconstructed to give meaning to identity issues arising from immigration and the multicultural context in Australia.
As indicated in this study, the Anglo-Indians in India had practiced endogamy over many decades in order to maintain their ethnic boundaries. This practice was not sustained after immigration to Australia. Instead, the majority of the participants married men from European and white ethnic communities. If the maintenance of ethnic boundaries and the perpetuation of the Anglo-Indian identity was so important to the Anglo-Indian community, it would follow that the practice of endogamy would have been maintained after immigration to Australia. However, this was not the case. This suggests that the practice of endogamy in India was motivated by a desire not to integrate with the Indian communities. It also implies that another, albeit unsaid, major motivation for immigration was integration into European ethnic groups. The opportunity to assimilate and integrate with European and white communities was not possible in the Indian context but was achieved in the Australian context. Anglo-Indian women did not foresee the loss of a distinct identity or its irrelevance in the Australian context. Nevertheless, the new context in Australia provided an environment that favoured a break from Anglo-Indian heritage in the lives of Anglo-Indian women and favoured assimilation into mainstream Australian society. Responses about the two remaining markers of identity, skin colour and accent, indicated this desire to assimilate. Comments relating to strong accents held by Anglo-Indians in Australia are not complimentary, and suggest that assimilation in terms of accent is important to the participants. The dark children of ‘other’ Anglo-Indians are identified as Anglo-Indian, when fair children are not identified in the same way. Such differentiation on the part of participants demonstrates a willingness to ascribe mainstream identities to individuals who do not exhibit ‘difference’ and for whom assimilation is an easier process.
The concept of ‘passing’ in India, which has historically been perceived as a covert and dishonest method of social mobility, has been transformed into the process of assimilation in the Australian context. ‘Passing’ has been converted into negotiation of identity through assimilation. It is no longer a covert process; Anglo-Indian women can claim their Anglo-Indian identity, while at the same time reject many aspects of this same identity. Assimilation, with its emphasis on cultural markers of identity, can facilitate ‘passing’ into Australian mainstream society. This transformation is reflective of a move from a racial to a cultural discourse. However, this move is more apparent than real, since the process of assimilation and social mobility is generally more difficult for women who exhibit visible ‘difference’.
This study indicated clearly that Anglo-Indian women demonstrated agency in the management and negotiation of their identities. Indian culture has come to be valued for itself and not as part of the Anglo-Indian heritage, especially among younger women. The meaning of the category ‘Anglo-Indian’ has changed for some Anglo-Indian women. As context changed so have perceptions. Contextual factors proved to be instrumental in the development of ethnic identity. The multicultural environment in Australia does not favour the perpetuation of Anglo-Indian identity. Instead, it results in a high degree of assimilation for this group. This has important repercussions for the place and status of Anglo-Indian women in Australia. This status may be related to the concept of separate groups and identities in multiculturalism, which does not account for socialisation and interaction between ethnic groups. Such socialisation and interaction facilitated the origin of the Anglo-Indian community in India. It is also instrumental in the reshaping of ethnic identity in the Australian environment for Anglo-Indian women.
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