THE NUMBERS AND STATS tell one part of the story of being brownĀ in one part of the world, North America. But numbers alone canāt and donāt reveal the personal, the emotional, the stories, the heartbreaks and triumphs behind this or that percentage of brown clout or political capital.
I propose that we think of brown as a continuum, a groupingāa metaphor, evenāfor the millions of darker-skinned people who, in broad historical terms, have missed out on the economic and political gains of the post-industrial world and are now clamouring for their fair share of social mobility, equality and freedom. Past colonial powers (France, Britain, Italy) must now resolve the paradox of having former subjects living among them, transforming themselves from nameless individuals with swarthy skins into neighbours, co-workers and friends. Brown is the colour of the ļ¬ve million Muslims in France, most of whom come from the former North African French colonies. Brown is the colour of the Pakistani and Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom who arrived as the Raj gave way to post-partition chaos and violence.
Brown is the colour of the uprisings that have taken over the Arab world in the ļ¬rst half of this decade. Itās the colour of hundreds of thousands of Egyptiansāyoung and old, illiterate and digitally savvyāsaying āEnoughā to a life of poverty and political oppression. Most of their revolutions have been usurped, silenced or devastated by ruling parties and widening ethnic ten- sions between Sunnis and Shiites, but the essence of that moment, its idealism, lives on. Brown is yet another Mediterranean ghost ship carrying hundreds of Syrian or North African asylum seek- ers who were faced with a choice between staying put or possibly perishing en routeāand still chose the latter. Itās the wave of refugees knocking at Europeās doors in the summer of 2015. The thwarted revolutions in Syria and Libya, as well as the ongoing instability in Iraq, have led to the displacement of about seventeen million people, according to 2014 ļ¬gures from the International Organization for Migration. A population almost half the size of Canadaās is scattered across refugee camps, shelters, no manās lands.
Brown represents hundreds of Nepalese, Indian, and Bangladeshi construction workers dying dailyāliterally, an average of one a dayāto build arenas and infrastructure for Qatarās 2022 World Cup. Brown is the thousands of Latin children smuggled by their own parents or travelling alone across the U.S.āMexico border in hope of ļ¬nding a life away from drug wars, marauding militias and extreme poverty. Some are killed when theyāre deported back to Central America.
We are not a distinct ethnic group but myriad large ones with more in common than we have acknowledged before. Eugenicists have been kept up all night worrying about our birth rates and concocting ways to sterilize our fecund kind before we contaminate the purity (and beauty) of white people. Blacks in East Africa and parts of the Caribbean resented us for being a market-dominant minority. And for that, they exiled us, forcing us to seek refuge anywhere that would have us. Some moved to North America, others to the Gulf States. Our stories and histories have spread worldwide, and weāve created diasporic communities to protect and showcase our heritage and, most of all, our food. Everyone loves our foodābiryani rice, falafel, couscous, tacosāand in many ways, weāre identiļ¬ed with what we prepare in our kitchens or serve others in our āethnicā restaurants. Our bodies, too, are sometimes consumed as a slice of exotica or sexual adventurism, a tradition that has existed in bafļ¬ingly perfect harmony with our supposed physical inferiority since the heyday of racialist science.
For much of our history, weāve been deļ¬ned by othersāas the brown race, as the weaker tribe, as the civilization-ready subjects of empires. But the time has come for us to self-identify as we wish. Thereās strength in numbers and comfort in knowing that oneās experience is not isolated or an aberration. Whenever I get pulled aside when crossing the US border, I ļ¬nd it reassuring that Iām not the only brown face. I see the Iraqi or Pakistani business traveller, the Colombian student, the Sri Lankan chef or the Indian family with three or four or ļ¬ve children, and I know that while our stories are different, we ļ¬nd ourselves singled out because of our brown skins and histories. We donāt talk to each other, but we do exchange knowing glances. Itās our lot as brown people to be treated with suspicion when we cross borders.
Often weāre asked to speak on behalf of a billion people and their faithāany brown Muslim knows what that feels like. Sometimes the calls for us to speak, to justify actions taken by a tiny fraction of our communities, are posed in good faith, as when a friend asks me to explain, say, the origins of the SunniāShiite hostilities. Every Irish person whoās ever been asked about the history of the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants probably can relate to this. Other times the calls to speak have an accusatory tone, particularly when coming from right-wing media outlets in the U.S. and Canada. With the rise of so-called lone-wolf attacks in Western cities, the pressure on the average brown person of Muslim origin to explain the incomprehensible has increased. Many friends ļ¬nd this to be problematic, and I agreeābut only to some extent.
We carry the burden of our skin colour everywhere we go. Pretending that itās otherwise is intellectual dishonesty. I can talk about terrorist attacks in faraway landsāa satirical magazine in Paris, a coffee shop in Sydneyābecause the narrative of the radical jihadist has been thrust into my world by Western media and by the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. It has become part of my story whether I choose to tell it or not. Hispanic and Filipino migrants tell me that they experience a similar thing. If one Filipina maid is caught stealing or āacting immorallyā in the Gulf, all are under suspicion and expected to account for such aberrant behaviour. Similarly, long-established Mexican-Americans are drawn into debates on illegal immigration as if theyāre to blame for any new inļ¬ux. Many of them have not set foot in Mexico for generations, and all are culturally more American than Mexican, but as sociologists tell us, hyphenated peopleālike those of mixed raceāare usually seen as belonging to the subordinate and not the dominant group. Italian and Irish Americans have lost that hyphen, and have worked their way toward whiteness and the mainstream; for us, the hyphen is imprinted like a birthmark on our skin. Our transition into the collective is still in progress.
But perhaps we need that hyphen. In Europeāparticularly France and Britainācolonization serves as the brown peopleās overarching story. In North America, browns donāt have the history of slavery that gives black people their deļ¬ning narrative. Brown people need a grand story. As this book will show, thereās no one deļ¬nitive account but a continuum of story arcs.
Excerpt from Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) by Kamal Al-Solaylee Ā©2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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