i dream of being possible

the curious case of the brown race

This is the post about ‘brown’ as a racial colour/marker/category that I’ve been threatening everyone with for a long while. More than anything, all this post is intending to do is explore the various incarnations of the Brown Race and how it exists as, perhaps, the most flexible racial category of them all.

The first time I ever heard ‘brown’ being used as a racial marker was from this white race chaser that I was dating. He said it and I was like “what” and he was like “idk, this is what my South Asian friends call themselves” and I was like “huh”. Since then, I’ve heard it used in many different contexts. Used by people already belonging to a racial category. From people with skin as light as mine to dark Black. I think the only other racialized word that is as ambiguous and flexible is ‘Indian’.

Interestingly, unlike some of the other colours, Brown has a pretty definitive history (well, okay, yellow also has pretty clear roots). Unlike any of the other colours, though, I don’t think I’ve seen any sustained discourse about the history of brown as race. I’ve read about Red, white, Yellow, and Black. But not Brown.

Unsurprisingly, to find the origins of the brown race, we look to everyone’s favourite crusty white german, Johann Blumenbach. Particularly, the third edition of his hugely influential On the natural variety of mankind. In the first edition, there was no brown race. But it is introduced in the 1795 edition, as noted in wikipedia’s article on brown as a racial class:

Early German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach extended Linnaeus’ four-colour race model by adding the brown race, “Malay race”, which included both the Malay division of Austronesian (Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Pattani, Sumatra Madagascar, Formosans, etc.) and Polynesians and Melanesians of Pacific Islands, as well as Papuans and Aborigines of Australia.

And so the Brown race was wished into existence by Blumenbach.

But, tbh, as influential as Blumenbach was, Brown wasn’t really a very sticky colour or racial category. At least not so far as referring to the specific people he delineates. Its pretty clear to see that all of the other colours have had a much longer lasting legacy (particularly in the cases of white and Black).

However, Malay/Brown as a distinct race was at least held as a legal distinction in the US up until sometime in the 1920s, when Malays became Asian as a way to ease immigration regulations (as in, by just subsuming Brown into Yellow, all the existing laws targetting Asians then included Malays). This was also around the time that the US stopped pretending like South Asians were white and also subsummed them into the Asian race.

After this point, brown stopped referring to a specific and clearly identifiable class of people. Which brings us to today, where pretty much anyone who isn’t white can be seen to use ‘brown’ as a self-descriptor.

However… its also important to note that in some contemporary usage brown actually has some political and social importance. I’ve seen, for example, Brown used by South or Southeast Asians as a way to distinguish ourselves from the Yellow/East Asians. As a way to mark the very real fact that either group has a very different history of racialization than East Asians (but also a different history from each other).

Another context I’ve seen it used is for ‘Black and Brown’ being used as a different way to mark those of us who aren’t white – essentially as a more seemingly neutral way instead of using ‘people of colour’.

Even more interesting is the way that ‘brown’ as a racial classifier is strategically employed by various people to emphasize or underscore certain experiences under white supremacy. It serves as a legitimizing rhetorical move to suggest that the experience is more real or authentic because the target(s) are brown.

In this last usage, I’m curious to know if part of the motivation here is that brown is proximal to Blackness, which is – as we know – the gold standard of Racial Categories. In case anyone wants to suggest I’m wrong… Blumenbach had a theory of racial degeneration (ie, that we were all once white and the non-white races are degenerate whites). The intermediary race between white and Black was… Brown. Brown has since its inception as a racial category always been proximal to Blackness.

And I’ve definitely observed many non-Black people of colour use proximity to Blackness (in any fashion) as a way to legitimize our own narratives. Its an interesting thought (that I’m literally just having so I haven’t really considered the potential implications).

Then there is the fact that it is also used simply as a description of colour. But it invokes colour in a specific way that also informs how and why some strategically identify themselves as brown…

Colourism remains a major problem – such that lighter skinned poc like myself are (bc of our proximity to whiteness) generally more valued, considered more beautiful, and a whole host of other privileges that come from both white people and from people within our own communities.

A darker skinned poc (who isn’t Black) will often claim ‘Brown’ as a way to mark this distinction of experiences, since it is undeniable that being darker skinned has real, material consequences. Claiming ‘brown’ is a way to mark this distinction and also highlight the ongoing problem of colourism.

Another novel feature of ‘brown’ as racial class is that… there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of tension or conflict over who is and isn’t brown (other than the strict requirement that you not be white). I can’t think of an instance where, for example, a South Asian calling themselves brown has had their browness question by a Latinx. And so on and so forth.

The current prevelance of brown is also interesting in light of its longer history, since it wasn’t all that important during the height of scientific racism (or rather, it hasn’t received as much attention – its actually incredibly difficult to find research or historical sources explicitly discussing brown as defined by Blumenbach). During that period, ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ had much more purchase.

A situation which has now been reversed. By and large, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ has disappeared from racial discourse (not from white supremacy, mind you, just the discourse). It isn’t very common to see people of the respective races identify as either ‘yellow’ or ‘red’. But brown has become ubiquitous.

Part of me wonders if this is due in part to the fact that it was never strongly associated with its original racial grouping. ‘Yellow’ and ‘red’ continue to have a specificity that most people know and understand (as in, who is and isn’t yellow is generally pretty clear to most people). Whereas Brown does not have a strong association with the now-defunct ‘Malay’ race. This makes it an ideal non-white colour for people to use that has less baggage than either ‘red’ or ‘yellow’.

So who is brown? It depends. And I don’t think that it would be worthwhile to attempt to delineate a specific and distinct group who is the ~real~ brown race. Of course, we could resort to the scientific context, given that these racial categories are still alive and kicking, but I especially think that the use of Brown to highlight colourism and how this impacts a person’s experience of white supremacy is pretty valuable.

However, I also think that some thought needs to be put into the contexts where Browness is claimed as a way to leverage a perceived proximity to Blackness as a way to piggyback upon that distinct discourse. But this would also be super complicated.