Brown Skins, White Coats. Race Science in India, 1920–66

Mukharji, Projit Bihari
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XII, 348 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Sayori Ghoshal, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science & Technology, University of Toronto

Projit Mukharji’s Brown Skins, White Coats offers historical and theoretical insights into the practice of race science in India. The 20th century scientific investigations into the racial origin and lineage of Indian communities “vividly attests to the simple fact that race was more than just a bitter aftertaste of empire in postcolonial India” (p. 125). This is the book’s central intervention: showing what the practice of race science entailed as it came to be adopted, practiced and developed by elite Indian nationalists. In offering readers this history, Mukharji enters into conversation with recent scholarship on race science as practiced by non-Europeans.[1]Brown Skins, White Coats is the first monograph on the history of race science in India. Within the broader history of race science, the book focuses on seroanthropology. Given the assumption of race science that serological factors “varied by race” (p. 9), seroanthropology, as one of the branches of race science, entailed the “statistical analysis of human blood groups to determine race” (p. 6).

In South Asian scholarship, focus on race has been limited to colonial administrators’ attempts to classify Indian communities racially. Mukharji extends this scope, demonstrating how the practice of race science was neither limited to Europe nor to colonial administrators. Instead of simply showing that Indian intellectuals too participated in this scientific practice, Mukharji attends to the differences, between the imperial and the nationalist sciences, which went beyond the identity of the actors to their respective theories of race and the purpose of their practice. While colonial administrators and ethnographers classifying Indian communities treated them as fixed racial types, Chapter 1 (“Seroanthropological Races”) shows how Indian seroanthropologists reframed race as dynamic and mutable. Moreover, while colonial anthropologists used race science to understand the past of contemporary social divisions, nationalist anthropologists relied on seroanthropology to envision the future nation. In Chapter 7 (“Racing the Future”), Mukharji discusses different nationalist practitioners’ notions of the national future. This included rationally organized natural selection and the practice of eugenics for improving the population, and ideas of assimilation aimed at suppressing dissent from non-majority communities.

How did race researchers study religious communities? Indian race researchers assumed that religious communities were “Mendelian population”, that is reproductively isolated groups, and were therefore suitable to being studied as racialized endogamous units. However, Mukharji argues in Chapter 2 (“Mendelizing Religion”), reproductive isolation “does not just exist in nature” but requires to be “iteratively constructed as such” (p. 82).[2] Much like the myth of caste endogamy, religious groups as isolates also fail to hold up under scrutiny of sociocultural practices. Analyzing the frequency of studies of religious groups, Mukharji formulates “exogeneity” as a new analytical concept, in contrast to the much-studied “indigeneity”. Indian race science, much like the political discourse of insider and outsider to the nation, was focused on studying the “exogenes” or those who seemed to have “come from the ‘outside’” (p. 94).

The discussion of communities is followed by discussions of physiological traits that were considered indicators of race. Chapter 3 (“A Taste for Race”) explores how taste was framed as a racial trait by studying the difference among individuals’ taste sensation to phenyl-thio-carbamide (PTC). This history is posited against a description of the sociocultural milieu where taste, sensation, affects, and eros combined to form a “social aesthetic”. Mukharji eloquently shows how Indian researchers separated the sensory and the affective, geneticizing the former, and pathologizing the latter. Chapter 4 (“Medicalizing Race”) is a history of sickle cell research and its resultant pathologizing of genes as it unfolded in India. Race researchers initially located the risk of disease within the family unit. But eventually they framed this trait as risky to communities, thus configuring race in terms of risk and rendering communities into biological units.

Mukharji also attends to the objects, infrastructure and subjects who “were crucial to the production of seroanthropology’s racialized truths” (p. 183). In the initial decades, most of these studies used blood samples from plantation laborers, prisoners and patients. Later, researchers also traveled to rural and tribal areas to collect blood samples. Based on the researchers’ descriptions of their practice, in Chapter 5 (“Blood Multiple”) Mukharji shows how samples were acquired, when communities were unwilling to participate, through force, threats or deception. Chapter 6 (“Refusing Race”) offers novel insights into the distinction between resistance and refusal. While reading subaltern actions as resistance was an important historiographical turn, Mukharji underlines the limit of the conceptual force of resistance: it is primarily reactive to scientists’ initiatives and fails to highlight the rationalities behind such actions. Instead, analyzing the responses of non-elite subjects of these scientific investigations using the critical race studies lens of refusal, Mukharji is able to illuminate the alternative belief systems around body, health and wellbeing that structured refusals to give blood or share familial information.

A remarkable methodological novelty of this book are the two sets of narratives: besides the historical chapters, Mukharji inserts “interchapters” that constitute literary reflections on human morality, ethical limits of scientific progress and the boundaries between the rational and the supernatural. In crafting the interchapters, Mukharji draws from Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Ray’s literary oeuvre who was contemporaneous with Indian seroanthropologists. The interchapters substantiate Mukharji’s commendable attempt to expand what social context of historical actors entail, in this case, of the seroanthropologists. The separation of the two narratives in the form of chapters and interchapters critically reflects the alienation of genres and the absence of any references in contemporaneous race research to Ray’s challenges to scientific theories. Meanwhile, the parallel alignment of the narratives indicates the shared social milieu and thematic concerns between Ray and the seroanthropologists. This conjunction also reflects the “generic diversity” through which we approach our past: not just through history, but also memories, myths, novels and anecdotes (p. 26). Such “critical fabulation” is inspiring for its critical and creative approach to genres that does not compromise on scholarly rigor (p. 23). At the same time, the alienation of genres provokes further historical questions. How can one account for the mutual alienation of these narratives? What explains the absence of references to Ray’s work in race research: was it the pregiven demarcation of genres that prevented seroanthropologists from engaging with Ray’s critiques? Was Ray’s critique of science and advocacy of humanism incompatible with seroanthropology’s fundamental assumption of humans as biologically differentiated? Or was it the Indian seroanthropologists’ desire to appear modern and rational that they eschewed non-scientific references in their scientific publications?

By not restricting the temporality of his investigation to the conventional colonial-postcolonial divide of 1947, Mukharji is able to show continuities in the practice of race science across the decades. However, this also leads to the less-attended question of changes in the science that would have resulted from the political transformations. Mukharji argues convincingly that the politics around separate electorates for marginalized communities and the policy of making political representation proportional to community demographics, informed the motivation of nationalist researchers to demarcate and classify Indian communities in the 1930s. But after the formation of the postcolonial government, and in the absence of debates about separate electorates and that kind tussle between communities for political representation, such studies continued and flourished with equal intensity. What were the motivations of race researchers to continue these investigations, in the transformed political landscape following the subcontinent’s partition and in the declared secular postcolonial state? Additionally, it is not clear why this historical exploration is cut off at 1966, as foregrounded in the title. This is more striking since Mukharji refers to several post-1966 race science studies, lectures and publications.

Overall, this book is a formidable analysis of the practice of race science as a modern and “normal”[3] science in India. It offers important insights into the tension between science’s reliance on social ideas and practices, and its increasing alienation from the social, cultural layered narratives of identities, community relations and life-worlds. This book is relevant not only for scholars of South Asia but also historians of science globally as well as scholars of colonialism and postcolonialism. Although not foregrounded as a global history, the author shows how the practice of race science in India was connected to practices in other non-western contexts, such as the Middle East and Latin America. This book extends our understanding of the practice of modern science as well as of the complexities of anticolonialism: how colonial hierarchies and inequalities persist in postcolonial science and society.

[1] For example: Elise K. Burton, Genetic Crossroads. The Middle East and the Science of Human Heredity, California 2021; Christopher Houston, An Anti-History of a non-People. Kurds, Colonialism, and Nationalism in the History of Anthropology, in: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009), pp. 19–35; Omnia El Shakry, The Great Social Laboratory. Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt, Stanford 2007; Jaehwan Hyun, In the Name of Human Adaptation. Japanese American “Hybrid Children” and Racial Anthropology in Postwar Japan, in: Perspectives on Science 30 (2022) 1, pp. 167–193; Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science. The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology, Chicago 2012.
[2] On the category of reproductive isolates, see Alexandra Widmer, Making Blood ‘Melanesian’. Fieldwork and Isolating Techniques in Genetic Epidemiology (1963–1976), in: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (2014), pp. 118–129; Veronika Lipphardt, Isolates and Crosses in Human Population Genetics, Or, a Contextualization of German Race Science, in: Current Anthropology 53 (2012) (S5), pp. S69–82; Santiago José Molina, Amerindians, Europeans, Makiritare, Mestizos, Puerto Rican, and Quechua. Categorical Heterogeneity in Latin American Human Biology, in: Perspect. Sci. 25 (2017), pp. 655–679.
[3] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago 1962.

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