Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone)
By Kamal Al-Solaylee. HarperCollins, 326 pp, hardcover
Do people from countries as disparate as Mexico, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Trinidad and Tobago share a common state of mind? Is it appropriate to lump their experiences under one theme linked to their skin colour?
As bizarre as this might sound, it’s the premise of Ryerson University journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone). And you know what? He succeeds in highlighting the lifelong implications for those who happen to be born brown, rather than black or white. Moreover, he shows that in many countries, those with lighter-coloured skin enjoy better economic prospects, leading to a constant worry among some about remaining too long in the sun and getting darker. Yes, for some brown people, he writes, skin colour can be a burden.
Nominated as an English-language finalist in this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards, Brown stirs up brown consciousness unlike any other Canadian nonfiction book.
“Brown people seem close to the mainstream, so normal, and many of us are light enough to pass for a tanned white person,” Al-Solaylee writes. “And yet we worship different gods (too many gods), wear strange face covers and write from right to left—all of which designates us as strangers still. We’re hired in different parts of the world for our skills and often recruited (or dragged) from our home countries as temporary or seasonal foreign workers, but the welcome mat is pulled from under us if we want to transition from guests into permanent residents, or if we wish to be united with our spouses, children or parents.”
One of the book’s strengths is its on-the-ground reports from 10 countries that Al-Solaylee visited in the course of his research. Readers meet domestic workers from the Philippines who moved to Hong Kong so they can generate sufficient income to keep their families fed back at home. There are the expected sad stories, but readers will be inspired by the women’s courage and the dedication of a nongovernmental organization in assisting them through tough times. He also quotes gay and trans sex workers from the Philippines in Japan, as well as male Sri Lankan construction workers who toil in exceedingly dangerous conditions in Qatar.
In these cases, migrant workers are motivated by money: they’re driven out of their own countries by the lack of family-supporting jobs. But the book is more than a travelogue depicting hard-done-by brown people who are exploited in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Al-Solaylee also explores the complex and, at times, difficult relationship between people of South Asian descent and African descent in Trinidad and Tobago. Both the brown and the black people in the Caribbean experienced colonialism, but, as Al-Solaylee points out, that hasn’t prevented new tensions from arising.
His definition of brown does not include indigenous people. Nor do any exceedingly wealthy brown people—like industrialist Lakshmi Mittal or PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi—show up within the pages of Brown. Despite this, Al-Solaylee makes a compelling case that being brown comes with its own set of challenges. If there’s any doubt, just ask someone of South Asian or Arab descent if they feel they’re treated any differently whenever they travel through a U.S. airport.