What does it mean to have brown skin in the world?
It’s a question I’ve grappled with every single day of my life since I can remember. I grew up undeniably aware of my skin color, extremely aware that, as a child, I was different not just because I was born in another country and my family moved to America with nothing, but because I looked different, too. Many of my close friends growing up—Elizabeth, Leah, Sean, Steven, Rachel—looked nothing like me, and while they never said anything about it, I noticed that difference, acutely.
This is the question that Kamal Al-Solaylee attempts to answer in his book, Brown. It is a question he tackles through the lens of history, of travel, of business, and of identity, coming to the realization that brownness is a spectrum that isn’t about ethnicity or nationality, but instead of belonging and fit, of the space we occupy, the in-between.
I’ve always thought of my brownness as a particular kind of liminality. By being brown, I am able to float in-between, able to benefit from the privileges that come from being non-black, but also reap advantages that are afforded to me because of the cultural marker of being a person of color.
Being brown in school meant that I was seen as smart and motivated even if I didn’t necessarily deserve the accolades. Being brown in the neighborhood meant that I could ingratiate myself with the variety of cultures surrounding me—in those days, in my area, primarily Jamaican, Somali, and Trinidadian—without being accused of appropriation.
Even now, my brownness allows for fluidity: I am non-white to some, non-black to others. I am liminal, I am in-between. It is a position of privilege that I have become more conscious of now, and question regularly.
I wasn’t aware of the concept of the “model minority” until I read A. Sandosharaj’s recent piece in The Millions, but it made sense: growing up, my brownness made me easy, approachable, undefinable, and easy to like, no matter what disposition I may have had.
Asians have often benefited from positive stereotyping, much of which stems from the 1965 Immigration Act. At the time, the nation was panicked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; America desperately needed immigrants with technical skills for the space race. The immigration act lead to a large influx of highly educated Asian and South Asian immigrants. These doctors and engineers contributed to positive stereotypes and unfair comparisons to other minorities: the model minority myth.
This myth benefited even those like me, model minorities whose parents were not college educated. In the classroom being South Asian often meant being tracked as gifted. Was I actually gifted or did I benefit from the assumption I was gifted? Who’s to say. What I can say is that any student would’ve benefited from the privileges and dispensations I received — long before I had achieved anything — not the least of which were my teacher’s rosy expectations.
The privilege of brownness still continues, but it is tempered by a rising negative sentiment against “the other” in our current society. Recent political movements in North America and Europe have shown a disdain for difference, and brown skin is a clear marker of otherness in these contexts.
As a Muslim in post-9/11 America, I sometimes rue my brown skin, which serves to single me out as “one of those people” despite my actual ideology. Brown has always been a color of the in-between, but most recently, that liminality has come with a casting aside instead of integration. Brownness has become an excuse for isolation and exclusion.
I have grappled with these issues, consciously or unconsciously, since my childhood. My brownness has at times been positive, at times been negative, but it has always been evident. By being in-between, we are at once easily seen, and easily ignored. Mr. Al-Solaylee sums it up quite poignantly in his introduction:
Brown people are both visible and invisible in the city’s colleges, plazas, and office towers. Some of us show up to attend classes or cut multimillion-dollar deals, others to clean offices and get them ready for the next day.
Brown takes us around the world to examine these issues of visibility and invisibility, and while it often seems more travelogue than criticism, it does a valiant job of trying to do the impossible: define and understand brownness.
The in-between is not something that can be pinned down, and is only defined by the markers outside of it; being brown is that perpetual dance of being a part and being apart. It is that dance that makes our own brownness so hard to understand, even to ourselves.