Thursday, May 24, 2018

Shades of Brown, Day 3: On "Brown" and "Yellow" Asians

What is the relationship between 'brown' and 'yellow'?

While I feel, anecdotally, that "yellow" has declined as a descriptive term in recent years, it's remained important as an internal identifier and symbol of political solidarity within the east Asian community -- much the same way as 'brown' has been emerging for South Asians, Latinx, some communities from middle eastern and north African nations, and Filipinos (should we be saying Filipinx?). There are a number of excellent recent books that have tackled these issues -- like Frank Wu's Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and a book I have on my shelf by Daniel Kim, Writing Manhood in Black and Yellow.

And when I taught Asian American Literature and Popular Culture a few years ago, I wrote up this "Yellowface" explainer. (It turns out that yellowface has some things in common with blackface in American media culture...)

But here's a curious development: it's no longer socially acceptable to descriptively (i.e,. externally) describe someone of East Asian descent as "yellow." Whereas I identify as "brown" and would not be offended if someone with a different skin complexion also identified me as such. If these racialized terms are at least partially driven by racism, the fact that "yellow" has been rendered offensive suggests that it occupies a different status in the American racial idiom than does "brown."

* * *

On Brown Asians 

There's another book with "Brown Skin" in the title -- E.J.R. David's Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino/-American Postcolonial Psychology. David (who sometimes identifies as E.J. Ramos David) is a Filipino immigrant and a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He's been very active in recent years in public-facing essays advocating for awareness of what he's been referring to as "Brown Asian" identity.

One interesting discussion of brown vs. yellow identification is in this NPR Code Switch piece from November 2017. A listener had written in asking whether East Asian Americans can identify as brown. The author, Leah Danella, started her response with a helpful breakdown of the arbitrariness of these color signifiers:
So, to begin with, let's get one thing straight — the colors that people use to differentiate people of different races have never really been about skin color. Black, white, brown, yellow, red? Those terms bear little resemblance to the actual spectrum of coloring found in humans, not to mention they create false distinctions between groups of people who have always overlapped.

And, of course, there are plenty of East Asians who have very brown skin, just as there are tons of South Asians who have very light skin. This cuts across racial groups. Some black people have skin the color of a chestnut, and others have skin the color of pink sand. In the U.S., Latinos with all different coloring refer to themselves as brown. (source)
Later, Danella goes on to quote from E.J.R. David, talking about the Brown Asian movement:
David says that when people in the United States talk about Asian-Americans, they're about half of all Asian-Americans. And those East Asians, David says, have different educational outcomes, income levels, immigration histories, health outcomes, access to resources and refugee status than brown Asians. (Brown Asians include Filipinos and South and Southeast Asians, David says.)
E. J. R. David
almost always referring to people of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean descent. But today, those groups only make up
So while there certainly may be similarities between the experiences of East Asians and other Asian Americans, David says that the term brown Asians is meant to differentiate people who have felt invisible. It makes sense, he says, that some people might be offended if the term is taken on by someone of East Asian descent. 
"To me, there are terms that only, because of the history of it, and because of the current reality of our situation, I think are best reserved for some people to be able to use, especially if they're using it for their own empowerment, and for their own group's empowerment," David says. And for those people who are not part of it, he adds, "We cannot appropriate that if it's not ours." (source)
Danella is effectively making the argument that East Asians can't or shouldn't identify as "brown" because of economic privilege and the legacy of differential treatment. But this doesn't entirely make sense to me: what about the legacy of the oppression of Chinese and Japanese Americans within the U.S. going back to the Asian Exclusion Act? What about people from China who have darker complexions? And conversely, what about highly economically privileged South Asian American immigrants?

While it does seem to make sense that, historically, "brown" and "yellow" Asians were distinct populations -- again, based on eternal descriptive patterns and the presumption of the transparent facticity of race -- I'm not so sure that's true anymore. If, as I've been arguing, America is slowly but surely turning brown, and if that brownness can be inclusive and intentionally left open-ended, why couldn't people of Korean, Chinese, or Japanese descent identify as part of that loose-knit group? In effect, why couldn't "yellow" be seen as under the broad umbrella of "brown" as I've been trying to redefine it?

* * *
I've been reading some chapters from David's book 2013 book, and struck by some of the ways he describes colorism within Filipino society (both at home and abroad; he sees Filipino culture at home and the Filipino diaspora as a closely networked continuum in terms of attitudes about race):


This is all strikingly similar to how colorism works in South Asia, right down to the contempt that many fairer-skinned Indians and Pakistanis feel for indigenous peoples (referred to as Adivasis in India).

That said, there are some important difference between Filipinos and other Asian immigrants with respect to educational level and economic status, and these differences need to be taken seriously:


These differences are important for David's conception of "brown Asian" as a politically charged marker -- an indicator of a different way of identifying as Asian (i.e., at a substantial distance from many of the cultural stereotypes that have been affixed to the Asian American community -- of being highly focused on STEM education, on technical professions, and materially successful).

Another recommended essay by E.J.R. David is this Huffpost piece pushing back against a New York Times profile of Asian Americans that, he claims, underrepresented Brown Asians.


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