We speak of (our) glorious brownness

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“Soldaderas,” Yasmin Hernandez (2011)

(Note: Our blog posts are based on conversations that we have, conversations that we sometimes record. The format of this post is an attempt to demonstrate the dialogic nature of those conversations, and the spirit of collaboration and friendship that informs them. We would love for you to share with us the histories and experiences of your glorious brownness/blackness!)

AC: I was thinking, well, you know what I was thinking initially, that we write about whiteness all the time and we have to because that’s what we’re surrounded by. But we forget that there are these parts to ourselves that are not about Whiteness.

AE [laughing]: It cracks me up because it reminds me of this piece about what if authors wrote about white people the same way they write about brown people. Because when you read fiction, if there’s a brown person in the book, there’s always some discussion of their caramel colored skin or their chocolate tone [laughter].

AC: What do you think I am? [sticks out arm]

AE: I don’t know! I don’t think in food metaphors…You are like toasted almond.

AC: Oooh. That’s kind of yummy.

AE: I on the other hand…

AC: I feel like you’re like one of those vanilla flavors but with flecks.

AE: I feel I’m like French Silk Pie.

AC: Because we just got some ice cream and you got French Silk Pie.

[laughter]

This post is about exploring our brownness–what it means to us now, how we’ve come to understand it, and the people and contexts that have shaped our brownness. The exchange above captures some of what we associate with our brownness–joy, community, sisterhood, laughter, silliness, politics.

Skin color is a part of our brownness. Both within our families and in our Latinx and (South) Indian communities, there’s a range of skin colors and there are politics about which skin colors are desired and valued. Anita’s mom has told her the story many times about how the first thing an aunt said when she saw the newborn Anita was that her skin was so dark. There are many messages about lighter skin being better (skin lightening cream ads, for example. The one linked is an especially fascinating pseudo-feminist one where lightening her skin gives the daughter the courage and strength to tell her dad that she wants to wait to get married till she has a job and can be on equal terms with her husband!). Adriana grew up in a family that called her “güerita” and other cousins “morenita”–both endearments, but with different societal values attached.

Of course, though, our brownness is more than skin color.

AC: I did mean brownness in a larger sense, not just skin color [laughter]. We can always talk, though, about the gloriousness of caramel skin, and toasted almond complexion.

AE: We could talk about the glorious brownness of certain spaces; I’ve been thinking a lot about white space. When I was New York City recently, it meant being in spaces where, yeah, there’s a lot of whiteness, but there are other variations too. It feels so different to move through that city.

AC: It’s the relaxing part…when I think of brown spaces, I always think of community. I grew up in India so there’s that more obvious kind of brown community but even since moving to the U.S., that’s been important. For example, having the critical mass of black and brown folks at Swarthmore [Anita’s undergraduate alma mater] was really important. Not every brown person I’ve met is super supportive but all my supportive spaces are full of black and brown people.

AE: You’ve built them deliberately, especially in a place like Minnesota, to be full of black and brown people.

AC: I just feel like there’s a sense of not having to worry about what I say in those spaces that I feel like has never been true for me at Carleton or other white spaces.

AE: In white spaces, there’s a series of second-guessing that I do. I might still be brave at some point like with these blog posts. But then, for example, I wonder if I say this, (a) are you going to listen (b) are you going to think I’m crazy, or (c) are you going to menospreciar what I’m saying? Are you going to actually care about what I’m saying?

AC: We don’t have to be brave in brown spaces. It’s exhausting being brave and there we can just be. And still be challenged in different kinds of ways. It’s not that we always agree on everything. But I never feel minimized. I always feel heard.

These brown spaces aren’t always physical ones or permanent ones. These spaces can sometimes be created online, temporarily, as in a Facebook post that Adriana wrote once about her annoyance about how a NPR story about Cuba centered Hemingway, a White American author. Her Latinx and other friends of color chimed in with funny, sarcastic pointed comments about the whiteness of NPR. A White friend wrote to Adriana saying that the tone of these comments made them uncomfortable.

AE: And we all had this understanding of why and what was useful about that move. I think the one thing that was so alienating for him was exactly that. It was not a white space.

AC: And that it’s brown snark.

AE: It’s the fear that brown spaces are anti-White. Which…

AC: Sometimes it is

AE: Sometimes it has to be.

AC: Maybe it’s more anti-Whiteness, not so much anti-White people.

This led us to a discussion of our White friends who are politically liberal and demonstrate that stance through articles they post on social media, for example. However, there is still the question of whether these intellectual discussions and stances make them cognizant of the raced influences on their daily lives and interactions.

AC: With some White friends, maybe it’s that I’m not the one who’s always bringing it up.

AE: You know, that is super big. It would be such a lovely thing if more White people in our lives said, “Bring me into your brownness.” And weren’t scared. What is that white people are scared of? White people have been trained to be scared of talking about race because often just talking about race feels to them like it’s racist. And of course for us, if you’re not talking about race…

AC: That’s racist.

AE: That’s racist, because we are living raced lives.

AC: Maybe that’s one of the things about being brown. We’re not so afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations.

AE: If we were afraid, we’d be passing. Like I would be White. And I’d be a f*&*ing different person.

AC: And I feel like the same would go for me. I couldn’t pass in the same way. But there’s lots of ways in which as a person of color, you can assimilate and accommodate….but also, I don’t know if my closest White friends say, “Bring me into your brownness.” [laughter]

AE: We will bring you into our brownness!

AC: Because we are magnificent and..what’s that word for being…magnanimous!

AE: We are magnificent and magnanimous in our brownness [laughter]! One of the things I love about my brownness is having a rich sense of what it means to be anchored in a particular history (related to the U.S.) and about valuing that past of my people and the strength that it takes my community to be here in the way that it is.

AC: I feel like I don’t have that same relationship to the U.S. but for me, reading Black feminist authors like bell hooks and Audre Lorde has been a big part of my intellectual history.

AE: That raises the question for me about when is the moment that you came into your brownness; can you remember what that felt or looked like?

AC: I think unconsciously, I don’t know if I would have named it as such at the time, but moving to the U.S., moving to Fort Collins, Colorado, where my cousins, my brother and I were the only brown people in the school. Or at least that’s what I remember. It was the first time I didn’t look like everyone else around me. I could feel it on my skin in this weird way but I couldn’t talk about it and it wasn’t until college really where I first self-identified as a person of color. I don’t think I had that language before then.

AE: Likewise. I definitely knew I was Mexican and American for the longest time and went back and forth. Had both of those homes. It wasn’t until college and late in college that taking Chicano literature with María Herrera-Sobek changed my life. Senior year, I read Lorna Dee Cervantes and she talks about being Chicana as this movement in between Mexico and the U.S., where you’re not home in either. It named me so deeply. I was floored.Then there’s Cherrie Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez. Not every text mirrored me exactly. That wouldn’t have even been useful. But every text contained fragments of mirrors that I could use to understand better how to map myself into brownness.

AC: For me, it was much more about my classmates. My class was about 40% students of color. I had classmates who already had the vocabulary

AE: And they saw you.

AC:  Yes.

AE: I was never really seen.

AC: I’ve never thought about that…

AE: I wrote a maudlin poem in college about how I’m so brown and blue. [laughter]

AC: We need to find it and publish it!

AE: It’s such a bad poem. Our embodiment is so different in the way we were seen and recognized as belonging by other members of our community.

AC: For me, there was definitely a sense of being a part of this students of color community in college. Not that there weren’t tensions because we were different kinds of students of color and we had to work through that. At least among the students who were politically active, we embraced that. It’s been interesting because I know that some of our students of color now don’t always like that language. I respect that, of course, but for me, it was so much a part of my own racialization and my own coming into consciousness. It makes a little sad sometimes. I’ve always had South Asian friends, for sure, but in undergrad and grad school, it’s always been a community of color. It’s never been just South Asian. So my own community feels like it’s full of people of color and multiracial. It’s been really important for me to think through my own privileges and what it means to be Indian American within that community.

I remember in grad school, there were two of us who were South Asian in my cohort. The head of the African American student group came up to us and invited us to be part of the group because at the time, there wasn’t really a student of color group. I felt very grateful that they took us in! We supported and were supported in ways that would have made my graduate school experience very different if I hadn’t had that.

AE: Yeah. Getting to grad school, it was fraught in a couple of ways. But I came into a community of Chicanas. We were all…marooned at Cornell. I felt like I didn’t know how to do it the right way and others did. It was still super important to have this community that was mainly Chicanas and South Asians as well, which is fascinating historically. There were not many Black students in the program.

AC: There is that whole history of Mexican-Punjabi families in California.

AE: It’s so true!

AC: Not that I’m Punjabi but I’ll claim it anyway. Close enough!

AE: Our connection was predestined is what we’re saying. [laughter]

AC: Our together brownness.

AE: It’s interesting that though we both came into our brownness in different ways, they’re both still mediated by texts. Moraga, hooks, and Lorde are amazingly important to me, too. I feel that the way I think about my brownness and why it was important for me to say Chicana, rather than Mexican-American, was to claim this political identity. My brownness is about this political attitude and inclination.

AC: YES! My brownness was never just about a social or cultural identity; it was always a political identity. I feel like especially as an Asian American, that’s very important to claim because a progressive political Asian American identity isn’t always visible to us as Asian Americans or to the larger society. Ways of being brown and yellow in a political way are often made invisible by how Asian Americans are portrayed in mainstream media and academia. That history is there but it’s so minimized.

AE: I think Latino brown and African American black bodies are seen as political a priori. They’re trouble for the nation. You’re right that with Asian bodies, this whole model minority myth becomes a way of seeing those bodies as apolitical and as accommodating to Whiteness.

AC: At the same time, there’s a whole history of Asian Americans being seen as perpetual foreigners. The Chinese Exclusion Act. A whole history of being excluded from the nation at the same time, once we were included, we were used as a wedge. I loved the “we are not your wedge” movement, a critique of how Asian Americans are often invoked in debates about affirmative action. I love that the younger generation is thinking about our positionality critically and taking that on. I did come to my Asian American political identity but for me, that came after I thought of myself more nebulous as being “of color.”

AE: And I think it was the opposite for me.

AC: Luckily, having 40% students of color meant that there was a good number of Asian American students who were political and it was awesome to grow up with them. Grow up politically.

AE: Talking about brownness in this way, in the sense of our glorious brownness, what does it mean to have brown people but not brown in our kind of way?

AC: Politically? For me, brownness isn’t just cultural, but it is also cultural. To me, there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy but I do understand how sometimes the kinds of cultural practices we engage in as a community reifies certain ideas about tradition and community that can hold back contemporary and more critical forms of cultural practices. When I’m with a group of queer, South Asian folks, sometimes it’s political, sometimes we’re just making fun of our reactions to Indian sweets. I appreciate that kind of brown space too.

AE: There’s something deeply political about these moments of self-care in a world that does not care of  you. But I wasn’t thinking of moments like that. I was thinking of the difficulties of living in a larger community where I expect alliances simply because we inhabit a similar kind of brownness. Then you realize that it’s not a given that my brownness is going to align with their brownness and that our interests can be divided.

AC: And I think this is also where critical mass matters. I learned that lesson at Swarthmore.

AE: You learned a lot at Swarthmore.

AC: Not because of the institution. Because of my classmates. Even if half the Asian American community wasn’t involved, didn’t want anything to do with us, it was okay…

AC: So…are we done talking about brownness?

AE: Yeah, I think we’re done. For now!

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