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.