Were Colonial Times Really So Essentialist?

This is a question raised by Young. Here we can
distinguish multiple levels: actual social relations, in
which there was plenty of border-crossing, and discourse,
which is differentiated between mainstream
and marginal discourses. Discourse and representation
were also complex and multilayered, witness for instance
the mélange of motifs in Orientalism. While history,
then, is a history of ambivalence, attraction and repulsion,
double takes and zigzag moves, nevertheless the
19th and early 20th-century colonial world was steeped
in a Eurocentric pathos of difference, dédain, distinction.
All the numerous countermoves in the interstices
of history do not annul the overall pathos of the
White Man’s Burden and the mission civilisatrice, nor
its consequences.
But the imperial frontiers are not only geographical
frontiers, where the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarians’
confront and contact one another; they are also frontiers
of status and ethnicity which run through imperialized
societies, as in the form of the colonial ‘colour
bar’. Here colonizers and colonized are segregated and
meet, here slave masters and slaves face one another
and here, where imperial posturing is at its most
pompous and hatred is most intense, the imperial
house of cards folds and paradox takes over. For this
frontier is also the locus of a genetic dialectic, a dialectic
which, in the midst of the most strenuous contradictions,
gives rise to that strangest of cultural and genetic
syntheses – the mulatto, mestizo, half-caste. T