Friday, 28 December 2012

On Identity & Post-Identity: Reflections of a Brown Man (Part 1)...

This post comprises a set of reflections peppered with professional musings about geopolitics and the world around us. 

There's probably an entire television series I could write simply based on 'interactions' that I've had at the airport. Whether it's been in Central Asia, the Sub-continent, the Middle East, Europe or of course, North America, I've never felt more brown than when I've walked into an airport. It's as if I spend a few extra hours in the sun on the days I travel. I'm crispy and a shade darker. Every Muslim - or Muslimish - male likely has a special razor he uses for long-haul flights, lest his 5 o'clock shadow becomes a security-risk mid-flight.

Brownness it seems is an odd curse in our world. There are entire industries dedicated to de-browning people. Literally. The leading products are those from our friends at Fair & Lovely, who politely inform us that our skin could get in the way of a dream job. There are also more 'intimate' concerns as well (for down there that is). Estimates are that the global skin whitening market reaches upwards of $18 billion in just Asia alone. Yet, it's not just an Asian (West or South) trend, our darker shaded brethren also partake in the habit. The Economist reported that a whopping 77% of Nigerian women use some form of skin-lightening product. And why not - from your personal life to your professional life, there are countless studies that shows being a little lighter and whiter can make your days brighter. In Mexico, it appears that dark skin can limit your socio-economic status. Nevertheless, who wants to live a life not comfortable in your own skin?

I think I've always been comfortable with 'brown' even if others have always been ambivalent about the term (and my own level of comfort with it). UPS' branded slogan, "What can brown do for you" was my slogan when I ran for student government at the Kennedy School of Government (n.b. never run for government at a school of government). This was to the chagrin of some of my latino-associated 'browns'. You see, 'brown' is an amorphous word that can encompass a range of individuals from across the religious, ethnic, and racial spectrum. Hispanic. Latino. Indian. Pakistani. Middle Eastern (Arab to Persian). Even Black. From there. Originally from there. Kind of from there. It's a catch-all term that belies ascription or description. It is a self-definition. There is much more of a tendency of society, Eastern & Western, global and local, to avoid the obvious or conversely assume while oblivious. It is why, the term Black when entering into popular consciousness is still uncomfortable in contemporary American society, even though many feel that it is the term that refers most closely to their being.

Our mass media culture is much more comfortable failing to acknowledge difference or accentuating it without understanding it. President Barack Obama is an African-American - even though he is half-white, raised by White grandparents in White America. Everything else is too complicated. The world looks for static and stereotyped identities when the truth is our own sense of self is much more fluid and dynamic. 'Brown' is at once simple and sophomoric while at the same time nebulous and nuanced. I've found that whether you like it or not, others will seek to define you along the lines they would like you to fit within - it's your choice, however, to live inside or outside those lines.

Growing up in the West, you are automatically attuned to your racial identity. In Canada you are a jigsaw piece to a mosaic multicultural puzzle. What exotic element do you represent? In Vancouver over 50% of respondents identify themselves as non-white. There, 'brown' is part of the visible majority (visible in being dark I guess) rather than a visible minority. In the U.S. you are expected to blend into some type of melting pot. There, across the nation, over half of children born in the country are born to ethnic and visible minorities.

Some people run from their background. It's an immigrant story not just specific to the brown-folk. Afshin turns into Sean, Mohammed into Mo, and the list goes on. That well integrated Muslim may be shaving, but he mysteriously disappears around prayer time on Fridays. I once had a friend who thought that 'Mosque' was the name of some club I went to every week. True story (actually true). One of the key things is to not speak like your parents, depending, of course, on how your parents speak. In my case, at 12, I still had trouble pronouncing the letter 'V'. For whatever reason, I would also mix up my 'Vs' and 'Ws' - being from West Vancouver, it was a bit of a problem.

Yet, as much as there are people trying to wash the brown away, there are others who soak in it. They bask in the familiarity of their likeness. Other brown-folk get the jokes. The inside jokes. About why the house may smell like curry spices. That at least one relative is an illegal immigrant. That you don't understand why white people can't dance (although your Bollywood numbers would cause you to question your own moves).

And all the while, whatever the second-generation immigrant choice, the society around you has already made its own decisions. For the former group, one day they'll walk into a room and realize: we're brown. It may be that your true name will be discovered. Once, when I came to my grade 7 science class, my teacher excitedly looked at me claiming he had seen my namesake in the movies over the weekend. He had just watched the Lion King and pointed at me saying 'Rafiki'. The fact that I actually do have East African roots, and relatives who live in Kenya was not known to him; he was just amused by the exoticism of the phonetic connection. It happens to the best of those hiding in plain sight, when they are asked to speak for a 'group'. You can run all you want but you are always an outsider to some people. After 9/11 all types of brown people who had never even contemplated their brownness were swept up - literally and figuratively - in the hysteria.

Yet, even the latter group, that seeks to withdraw into a bubbled existence of sameness, realizes the folly of that path. Going back to Mumbai. Or Baghdad. Or Cairo. Or Karachi. It's much more going until returning than going back. The first thing that normally happens is your language is bit off. That Hindi isn't really that good. You never quite mastered how to read Arabic. And there's that aunt who's kind of laughing at the fact that you aren't really brown anymore but white. What? Exactly.

Neither here nor there is the place of the East-West hybridity that is many of us today. You can be confused. And the world around you will be confused. Living in Dubai and working in the wider Middle East (another strange term of history) has only heightened the absurdity of dissonance for me. While in the West, your compatriots may give you the colour-blind benefit of the doubt, there ain't no leniency back East. The moment I get into a cab, the fellow brown driver (Nepali, Indian or Pakistani) tries to make the 'original' connection. But it's worse with your socio-economic classmates. With the cavalry of cacophonous colours collecting in the city, disaggregating the rainbow appears to be priority number one. There is no priority for understanding complex identities. As if you could wash the colour away with one generation (even if that was not what you were trying to do)? In Canada or the U.S., I'm a hyphenated identity or a misunderstood one, but in Dubai, I'm - Indian or Pakistani. Is it worth it to confuse people? To tell them your father is from Uganda - ah but he's not Black! Or that you are born in Canada - but you're not White! Or that you feel connection to India as much as Pakistan - but you're Muslim!

Being 'brown' really is a euphemism for what is really our ability to define our own identity. I'm Brown not Indian or Ugandan or Pakistani or Muslim or Eastern or Western. There's more to that identity than just pronouns and assumptions. And while people may feel it's inventive or counter-cultural, is it more so than the modern form of nationality? Until 1945, there was no such thing as the United Nations and most the developing world was the 'third world' under colonial rule. India and Pakistan didn't exist when my father's family immigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s to East Africa - it was British India. Canada itself only became a country in 1867. There's a myth that migration is new and borders old. It's the other way around.

So then, what is my identity? How can you embrace a multitude of discrete faces without becoming unrecognizable? And can society and the world accept what confounds conventions?

These are some of the questions that I'll address in subsequent posts in the coming days. Yet, one thing I'll say:

Each of us has a multitude of identities we are always balancing that weave together to form our individual tapestries. We are a blend of ethnicity and language, religion and philosophy. Our parents and grandparents often have varying geographical roots and in our lives so far we've traversed many more. Where we settle isn't always where we started. For me, finding how this comes together becomes important for understanding my own individiual path. Yet, for society, and especially transitional societies, understanding this complexity of identity becomes formative in building stable nations in the 21st century.


  1. Your opinions are quite interesting, I enjoy reading what you write. Hope to hear more from you. You have been Subscribed.
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  2. I am very happy with my natural brown color despite and in spite the connotation it entails. As long as it's clean and smooth, I'm good. Cheers!