Thoughts on Brownness Studies (for MLA 2021)

Below is the text of my talk for MLA 2021: "Critical Brownness Studies."

Here are three book titles we could put on the table: 

Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), 

E.J.R. David’s Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino/American Psychology  (2013), and Hamid Dabashi’s Brown Skin, White Masks (2011). 

What do the titles of these very different books have in common? All three transpose “Black” to “Brown” in really recognizable ways. The transformation is legible within a frame of reference where the “Black” text is visible as an antecedent and as a standard -- The Souls of Black Folk; Black Skin, White Masks. Here “Brown” thinking is dependent on and probably could be described as appropriating Black thought. Importantly, while all three authors of these texts could be described as “Brown” (an Indian, a Filipino, and an Iranian, respectively), none of the three authors of these texts is self-conscious about the borrowing or their rhetorical dependence on Du Bois or Fanon.  (Vijay Prashad, to his credit, is highly aware of the ways in which model minority discourse as applied to South Asian Americans is built on anti-Blackness. And yet, theorizations of Brownness are likely to be dependent on analytical frameworks for Blackness created by folks like Du Bois, Fanon, or more recent theorists like Christina Sharpe or Saidiya Hartman. How far would we get in theorizing Brownness without double consciousness? Without Fanonian thinking about the entanglement of race, gender, and desire?

So when Ren Ellis Neyra wrote this past October that “‘Brownness” distorts extraction into relation” in their essay for SX Salon, “the question of ethics in the semiotics of brownness,” I think I understand what they are saying, even if I am not entirely sure I agree. 

Aside from the titles mentioned above, the appropriative gesture is not especially uncommon. The early Asian American studies movement that came out of UCLA and Berkeley in the early 1970s sometimes embraced a “Yellow Power” discourse that might be understood as “extractive” along the lines Neyra indicates. And much more recently, I’ve grown ambivalent about East Asian, Arab, and South Asian American performers in hip hop -- people like Awkwafina, Belly, Anik Khan, Raja Kumari and Heems (Himanshu Suri) -- nonblack rappers who appropriate Black English Vernacular as a way of creating a new minoritized aesthetic, what Hasan Minhaj refers to as “New Brown America.” I celebrated these artists when they first emerged, but I increasingly have doubts about their projects. Would Awkwafina have had the same impact if she spoke in her own voice? What were Das Racist thinking when they wrote a song called “Fake Patois,” policing the putative inauthenticity of Hip Hop’s appropriation of Jamaican patois? When I read critiques like Neyra’s response to the essays in Muñoz’s Sense of Brown, I think the idea of a Brownness framed entirely in relation to Blackness is something we would want to avoid in any emergent Critical Brownness Studies. 

More broadly, I should say that I’m wary of over-complicated theoretical language as we start to theorize brownness. Within a U.S. context, I think we need to start by making some decisions about how we’re defining race and ethnicity. In the U.S., since the 19th century Race has been binarized as white vs. Black and animated by anti-Black racism. "Ethnicity" emerged as a category for non-black others -- in some sense occupying the space we're now proposing to call "Brown." In the current U.S. census, the only group that is marked specifically by Ethnicity is Hispanics/Latinos. All other groups are asked to check a box for “race.” This is incoherent -- it results in Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans describing themselves as belonging to different races, while everyone from Ted Cruz to Cardi B might be understood as of the same Latinx ethnicity.  

Because of its contradictions and because I think it has historically been animated by anti-Blackness I increasingly think that "Ethnicity" does not exist in any meaningful way in the U.S. Ethnicity was merely a way of describing contingent (temporary) racialization. For eastern European Jews or Italian immigrants, the signs of difference proved, over time, to be readily assimilable to whiteness. For more recent non-white immigrants, that assimilability remains an open question. A recent Pew study indicated that by the 3rd generation, a full third of Latino immigrants no longer think of themselves as “Hispanic or Latino” and instead prefer to identify as merely and plainly “American” (which I cannot help but read as code for “White”). The Iranian American comedian Zahra Noorbaksh has a fascinating routine about Iranian American whiteness; I would also recommend Neda Maghbouleh’s book The Limits of Whitness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race. Brownness only becomes a meaningful category insofar as the U.S. does come to actually racialize newer immigrants as permanently not assimilable to whiteness and also *as something other than Black*. In other words, if Latinx, South Asian, and Middle Eastern North African communities in North America become a permanent part of the American race-formation, Brownness might come to signify specifically as a racial identity

Which is to say, if there is to be an ontology of Brownness, it is going to be built on a discourse of race

Alongside ontology, we should also be having a conversation about aesthetics. Again returning to the story of the emergence of Blackness, it’s important to remember that “Black” started out as a term of denigration that generations of 20th century Black poets and artists strove to reverse. Does “Brown” have its own story to tell -- again, one that is not merely described as an imperfect analogy to Blackness? 

I won’t go deep into Latinx issues, since I should probably stay in my lane, though I’ve been struck by the embrace of “moreno/morena” in Latino music, from Brazilian jazz samba and Joao Gilberto’s “Rosa Morena” (1958) to hip hop, starting with Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” (“Boricua Morena”...) (1997). If we return to this conversation about comparative Brownness, I’d like to learn more from my colleagues specifically on Moreno aesthetics.

In a desi context, most people in the Indian subcontinent are some shade of brown: the operative aesthetics relate to Colorism (very visible) and Caste prejudice (often occluded), not necessarily Brown identity. In north Indian languages, we don’t usually hear the word for brown (“Bhoora”) applied to skin color; brown skin is, if you will, largely invisible -- flesh-colored. In the poetry and Bollywood songs I grew up hearing, it’s more common to hear deviations; very light-skinned South Asians might be gora/gori; dark-skinned people might be black (“kala”); and there’s the infamous “wheatish” complexion (“gehua”) of the matrimonial ad culture. The invisibility of Brown might be challenged -- and the South Asian diaspora can be instrumental in challenging it -- though there are many traps and dead-ends here as elsewhere. If we do it right, we get to a fleshed out articulation of “New Brown America”; if we do it wrong, we are stuck with Bobby Jindal’s doomed 2016 Presidential campaign slogan “Tanned, Rested, and Ready.” 

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