Race is everywhere in Kim. We find out on the first page that, underneath Kim's darkly tanned skin (which is "burned black as any native"), Kim is still "white" (1.2). There is no single character in this book whose race we don't know.
And there's an important historical reason for this attention to race: Rudyard Kipling is writing about India during the period of British colonial domination at the turn of the twentieth century. Kipling's India includes a huge mix of people from different nationalities, ethnic groups, religions—you name the category, it appears in this book. But even though people of many cultures appear in Kim, race still makes a big difference to how much economic and social mobility the different characters have.
Undeniably, Kipling is writing according to a pro-imperial, racist worldview. So even though Kim is very poor, he has the opportunity to make a great profession for himself partly because he is white. Indian characters such as the Babu have some degree of flexibility and power in this book, but there are still limits to what they can achieve because of their race.
However, while Kipling has a lot of biases going into his portrayal of India, he also strongly criticizes white racism and he portrays all of his characters, no matter what their background, with depth and compassion. Kim includes a lot of puzzling contradictions in its representations of race, which is one reason why we keep coming back to read this book even today.
Questions About Race
- What narrative tools does Kipling use to portray the races of different characters? How can we tell where these characters come from? Why specifically might Kipling find it important to emphasize the cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds of his characters in Kim?
- How does Kipling portray friendships between white characters and characters of color? Are these friendships based on equality? How so? How not?
- How does Kipling describe British characters who have grown up in Britain, like the regimental drummer-boy? How do these white English characters differ from people like Lurgan and Kim, who are ethnically white but who have grown up in India? What is Kipling trying to suggest about differences among Sahibs?
Chew on This
By presenting British India from Kim's unique perspective, Kipling makes the customs of all of the characters—from Mahbub Ali to Lurgan to the Irish Mavericks—appear unfamiliar and intriguing, regardless of their race.
Kipling's negative portrayal of the Maverick drummer-boy's ignorance, and his positive representation of Anglo-Indian characters like Kim and Lurgan, suggest that not all Sahibs in Kim are equal: while Kipling still upholds pro-imperialist racial hierarchies in this novel, he also criticizes white prejudice about Indian customs and values.