What does it mean to be brown in the world today? Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book, Brown, attempts to answer this question by looking at the concept of brownness in relation to history, travel, labour and gets at some answers that transcend the idea of national identity.
We asked four TVO.org contributors with some ideas and definitions of their own to answer this question: What does it mean to you to be brown— and what does it mean to have others see you as such?
You are never quite the norm, even at ‘home’
My father tells me that when he first moved to England from India, it felt very strange to make friends with Pakistanis. After the violence and acrimony of Partition, they were considered the enemy. But even then, in the late ‘60s, to be brown was to unexpectedly find yourself part of a broad, undefined global diaspora. Even more so now, brownness has become a vague, transnational notion that has somehow come to encompass people and cultures from as disparate places as the subcontinent, Persia and Mexico. It’s an idea cut across by religion, language and nation, obviously, but also shade and how close one can get to whiteness: the Anglo-Indian financier seemingly less brown, the Sri Lankan or Mexican day labourer apparently more so.
Brownness doesn’t so much connote an identity, then, as much as difference in general. It is not the clear marker of blackness, or the assumed foreignness of “the Chinese,” but simply a mystery; an indefinable otherness. It means, then, that brownness is both subject to both its own internal divisions and the “external” logic of a post-colonial, post-9/11 world.
That the quiet, hard-working, brown immigrant has become a symbol of multicultural success is at once both cause and effect. An effect of colonialism and cultural parallels, sure, but in a newly discomfiting figure: the model minority, a cause and a tool through whom white society proves its goodness to itself.
My sense of what it is to be brown is therefore always a choice between unpalatable options. Either to emphasize my difference and be excluded, or play up my colonial sameness and suppress part of who I might be. The trouble with being brown is always this: you are never quite the norm, even at “home.”
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.
The recognition game
Like author Kamal Al-Solaylee, I’ve grown up quite aware of my skin colour. Even though his background is different from mine — he comes from a Yemeni family and grew up in Egypt — I heard the same sort of laments about skin tone that he heard, except as a child of Bengali parents in suburban Toronto. “Don’t stay out too much in the sun, or you will become dark.” Brown communities are very aware of the lightness of skin and carry an internalized form of racism that has its own name: shadeism. Shadeism is my mother growing up hearing that her grandmother preferred her younger sister because of her lighter skin tone.
I also learned a game my parents played whenever they drove downtown. Long before the city’s composition had become as diverse as it is now, they would always point out from the car anyone they thought to be Indian. I don’t quite do the same, but instead have expanded upon their old habit. Wherever I go, I tend to pay attention to the number of people of colour around me — whether it’s on the subway, at a play or even a party. I want to see people like me in every aspect of the city. And when I don’t see that kind of representation, I feel disappointment.
Piali Roy is a freelance writer in Toronto.
The inheritance of being brown
“Do you even understand what was lost to bring you here” are the last words of my friend Safia Elhllio’s poem, “To Make Use of Water.” It is also the best sentence to describe the plight of the brown diaspora, and the youth that has been purloined from us.
To be brown is to be constantly at a loss. To be brown and Muslim in the post-9/11 world has meant being constantly fatigued and disrupted. I understand the pain my parents experienced to get me here — the sacrifice of leaving their families, only to arrive at a world where their intelligence was always undermined, their accents made fun of and belittled in the workplace. To be called ugly, scabby and brown; to be reminded that they were never welcomed in the first place. This is the reality of being brown.
White people might find it hard to believe, but that is their privilege: that they never had to experience such glaring discrimination. The world was built for them and stolen for them. They talk of history, yet take no heed to remember those slaughtered under colonialism, or the millions of people murdered under the hands of royalty, power and Christianity. These are very searing realities of the horror that every black and brown person feels like a bone caught at the back of their throats. This is our history. This world wasn’t built for us, yet we strive to have the same freedoms, the same rights — because we believe in our voices, finally. This is what it means being brown.
Being a brown citizen
The idea of brownness, to me, often seems at odds with the idea of citizenship. There’s the place you’re born and raised, sure — but that doesn’t always line up with where you’re living, where you call home, or the bits and bobs of lives you inherit from parents who grew up in a place that, by circumstance of migration, you can’t quite call home but feel are a part of you regardless.
My father, for example, has kept none of the passports or citizenships he held before starting his life in Canada in the 1970s, the only one I’ve known him to live. I’ve never seen photographs of his childhood in Kenya, where communities of people from that multifaceted umbrella of a place called India were once very large: Khojan, Goan, Gujarati, Punjabi. I rarely hear stories about his life as a boarding school altar boy in Goa, then a Portuguese colony, or teen years in London, growing up alone with just his brother.
While he likely has plenty of memories from all of these lives, I don’t think my father puts much stock in the idea of being “of” any of these places, in part because thanks to colonialism’s neat little trick of swapping countries like baseball cards his citizenship has never lined up with the place he called home at the time. When I ask him about this, he likes to say that he only sees himself as Canadian. Though even 35 years later airline security and bank tellers may not see him the same way, when he says it I know he believes it’s true.
Chantal Braganza is a digital media producer at TVO.org.
Watch parts one and two of Nam Kiwanuka's interview with Kamal Al-Solaylee on The Agenda in the Summer below.
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