Person of Color Column: Accepting the “brown” label

In July 2015, a Huffington Post Canada article about the fashion choices of a Bollywood star’s wife sparked controversy because of its headline, “Shahid Kapoor’s New Wife Mira Rajput’s Outfits Have Every Brown Girl Drooling.” Impassioned readers flooded the comment section and called the headline’s use of the word “brown” offensive and accused the Indian author of encouraging exclusion.

Another fervid Indian Huffington Post staffer wrote an article, “Why Calling Me A Brown Girl Isn’t Racist,” in response to the now disabled comment section. “Brown girl?? Really! That’s offensive,” said one comment. “‘Brown girls … Really? ‘White’ girls are exempt? Blatant racism, no?” questioned another. As an Indian-American myself, I didn’t find anything discriminatory about either headline.

I’ve seen people of all races repeatedly tiptoe around the racial classification of being “brown” because of the way many perceive the word. Their timidness when using the word is not foreign to me and, I assume, to many others who carry this label unabashedly.

My suburban Chicago hometown attracted many minority populations, including a rapidly growing South Asian community. But even my closest friends back home shied away from the word “brown.” After I came back tan and happy from winter vacation in Hawaii to my junior year of high school, one of my white friends exclaimed, “Well, you’re browner for sure.” I didn’t think anything of the remark, but the rest of our very white friend group believed she had said something inappropriate and awkwardly stared at both of us.  

Admittedly, I do sometimes feel odd hearing “brown” being used to label a group of people, especially by non-minorities. But I realize there’s nothing wrong with identifying people as brown as the Huffington Post headline did. Racism and bigotry are not founded in these identifying phrases, but they are in the discriminatory sentiments people may attach in context.

There’s no exact definition for who constitutes as a “brown” person. Many use it as a catch-all term for minorities who don’t fit into, or choose not to identify with the concrete, limited racial classifications they are offered. Many who identify with the word, including me, are South Asian—Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or the like. We are neither white nor black, and we are also are somehow estranged from the “Asian” label as it has come to informally only include East Asians. Some of us are Latinx or darker-skinned Asians. “Brown” even includes those who identify with multiple races or those who check the “other” box when asked their race on forms.

When people say I am brown, I am not offended in the slightest—I am brown. Occasionally,  however, others use my brownness to demean me. Just this last week, someone joked that every other brown person in the vicinity looks like they could be related to me. Another told me I’m pretty for a brown girl. These microaggressions are common but ignorant and hurtful regardless of how often they happen. “Brown” itself is not the antagonistic component of these statements—it’s the way it’s used to devalue a group of people.  

Unlike the n-word and its derogatory counterparts, the word “brown” did not historically express hatred and malicious intentions. Therefore, “brown” does not reinforce the systematic oppression of a specific group and as a result, does not possess a racist connotation.

The stigma around “brown” comes from the infrequency of its use. Those inside the brown community hold the identity with confidence. The collection of South Asians at my high school, and the two others in our district, referred to themselves as “brown town.” Outside of the brown community, however, there are few who are bold enough to utilize the word because of the backlash it sometimes receives. The only way to normalize “brown”  is to use it more regularly and to explain the reasoning behind its political correctness when faced with hostility.

Both “brown” and the n-word can be used as a tool by the people they define. Using the word to identify myself solidifies my distance from whiteness and from the inherent privilege I have not been permitted to automatically carry in my life. “Brown” communicates my struggle with identity to everyone else.

And since the term “brown” encompasses many minority groups around the world, its usage radically protests the prominence of racial categorization today. Though studies by the University of Pennsylvania, amongst other organizations, prove that race is skin-deep with no basis in genetics. Humans continue to allow this color-based categorization to separate us. Brownness is eclectic and accepting of a variety of ethnicities—a subtle dissent against race’s boundaries.

It’s admirable that people avoid or stand up to the usage of the word “brown” because of their belief that it is demeaning. This passion is simply misplaced and would have a greater impact if people redirected it to protest against the more tangible discriminatory threats facing brown people today. For me, I believe the time has come to integrate the word brown into everyday conversation, inside and outside the topic of race.

 

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