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The Meaning Of Race And Sexuality In ‘Stranger Intimacy’ By Nayan Shah

Nayan Shah’s book, ‘Stranger Intimacy’ examines the social history and background of South Asian migrant males in Canada and the North West America in the early 20th century. The unclear and fluid ideas of the age of consent, criminality, and human relationships introduces the concept “legal borderlands” and how that played a key role in the ways legal bodies and officials tried to define “normal” and “proper” behavior and ties among people. Shah further analyzes how the meaning of race and sexuality were formed, policed, and contested in these ‘borderland’ of encounter and intimacy. Shah’s study provides us a narrow study of how the bodies of South Asian male migrants (largely Sikh with some Muslims from Punjab) were racialized in terms of sexuality, heteronormativity, and foreignness.

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Shah critically analyzes court cases, archival records, property relations, labor contracts, marriage contracts, and civil and criminal proceedings to depict how migrants were both secured to and living outside the limits of the nation-state. This draws a parallel to Wendy Brown’s article where she mentions the juridical- liberal state legislative power as the unrestrained powers of the state to protect white middle-class women who were willing to give up their powers to seek protection from the state. Shah further questions “three conceptual stabilizations” that pervade much of historical scholarship namely “permanence over transience,” “the nuclear family household,” and “polarized sexuality.”

Shah examines legal cases through a close reading of court cases involving South Asian migrant males and their predicaments with the justice system in the North West American where they were allegedly accused of sodomy, for indecency, or for a related crime of ‘criminal vagrancy’. The case of Samuel Robbins, a fifty-six-year-old white bookkeeper being accused of sexually harassing or assaulting a sixteen-year-old Sidney, depicts how the credibility of the “accomplice” was hinged on the circumstances and the social status of the adult defendant of the alleged crime. The fact that’s more interesting about this case is the fact that both males had the white privileges but despite this Robbins’s defense succeeded because of his white racial identity and respectable middle-class status. Even Mrs. Nute’s testimony, in this case, was overruled by the court, due to that fact that she was accused of “prying” and had not witnessed the actual crime. Would it had been different if it were a white male’s testimony instead of Mrs. Nute’s?

In this context, age and class proved critical factors as respectable senior, white middle-class status served as symbols of a “normal” masculinity and mentorship, thus standing in contradistinction to sexual predation. The whole idea of “big brother act” mentioned by the judges during the trial depicts how homosocial activities between white men-boys were perceived as natural, moral, and “pedagogically” appropriate. Certainly, one could point to parallels between the mention of “big-brother act” and the juridical-liberal state legislative power which includes the division of power in spheres and situates the vulnerable section of the society in a feminized position. In this case, judicial intervention upheld the reputation of a middle-class white male and instead let Sidney bear the trauma of sexual predation since this situation fitted the big brother scenario.

In contrast, the case of Rola Singh and Carstenbrook, a dark color man suspected either “Mexican” or “Hindu in a car undressed with a white male, depicts how racial profiling lead to severe persecution of Rola Singh being charged with the “crime against nature.” When South Asians and white men are engaged in homosexual relations, the police and courts frequently viewed whites as victims of a something akin to sexual “oriental” inscrutability, protecting white masculinity in the process. The idea of an intervention of the police clearly illustrates how disciplinary powers are used to protect the white masculinity. The notion of inter-racial desire is seemed as going against the consent. In other words, native white men and boys could never willingly engage in such acts without coercion or duplicity, however, ironically same engagements between white men are perceived as “natural”. Shah also brings to our attention how adolescent females were securitized in comparison to these males when they were held in the court.

These two cases help us analyze the racial positioning process as a spatialized and scaled one, that has been and continues to be mutually constituted with sexuality, gender, citizenship, and class. Shah’s work clearly depicts how gender, race, and sex were used as tools in shaping victims. Thus, Shah’s work is particularly powerful as a text that helps us unpack the scaling of difference and the work it does. Finally, ‘Stranger Intimacy’ helps us think through, at a most intimate level, what the lives of immigrants have been like and are still like.

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