Monday, December 07, 2009


When did "Brown" become the new thing that we self-important intellectuals are supposed to call everyone who is not of predominantly European, African, and/or East Asian origin? I don't actually object to the term as such. Assuming that we are not going to abandon anytime soon the project of categorizing people by racial or ethnic origin, "Brown" does a fairly good job of conveying American social attitudes toward the people it describes: not subject to the disabilities of Blackness, but not afforded the privileges of Whiteness, either. What bugs me is that everyone around me started using the word without explanation or acknowledgement, as if they had received a universal memorandum so unassailable in its logic as to preclude further discussion.

I did not receive this memorandum. Rather, I distinctly recall coming across the term by accident, in the unprepossessing forum of an "Ask Amy" column. Amy's correspondent complained that her mother disapproved of the writer's boyfriend: "the problem? He is Brown and I am not." There was "Brown" in the Washington Post, a daily newspaper of national reach, as if the term had been in common usage since Dr. Johnson retired to Gough Square. While I could puzzle out the writer's intention from the context, I felt entitled to a footnote, a word of explanation from the Post's copy desk to the effect of "attention readers: by virtue of Style Manual revision 234B, persons of other than predominantly European, African, or East Asian origin will henceforth be referred to as Brown."

I am only a little annoyed because this reminds me of what happened with the word "Asian." When I was a kid, everybody called people of East and South East Asian origin "Oriental." Self-important intellectuals called them "Oriental"; "Orientals" called themselves "Oriental." And then it was decided that the term should change to "Asian." The switch started on the East Coast--at the time I was applying to colleges, everyone I knew in the Midwest still said "Oriental," but I was scolded for using the term while on a college visit in the East. And I've used the word "Asian" ever since, not because I believe that even one person in ten knows why "Oriental" is offensive, but because saying it makes you sound like a redneck. My change in usage, and everyone else's, has made the transition self-reinforcing: anyone under the age of 70 who uses the term "Oriental" today is either unusually sheltered or being deliberately provocative.

(If you're curious, "Oriental" is supposed to be offensive because it divides the world into Occident (West, from the Latin occidere, "to set") and Orient (East, from the Latin oriri, "to rise") with it being Eurocentric to label someone as being "from the East," thereby implying that the speaker's society is located at the central reference point. Ask your Asian friend in the next cubicle over if she knew that.)

But the abandonment of "Oriental" has resulted in a net loss of linguistic specificity, because, again, assuming that categorizing others by ethnicity is an inescapable part of human experience, "Oriental" had a less ambiguous reach than "Asian." Today, when I say "Asian," the listener must decode whether I'm just using the substitute terminology for people we both grew up knowing as "Oriental," or whether I really could be talking about someone of Sri Lankan or Kazakhstani origin. And if I'm talking to a British person, they must guess whether I am translating for their benefit to the British meaning of "Asian," which refers to people of Indian subcontinental ancestry. In America, of course, such people are now "Brown."

And so, much as it vexes me, I too have caught myself saying "Brown." All I want to know is, who gets to decide these things? To whom have we ceded the power to crawl inside our brains and reprogram our labels for the world outside? No, don't answer that question. I fear the response will include a citation to an academic journal of which the title ends in "Studies," and an article making repeated use of "unpack."


On a related note, can I just take this opportunity to question the assumption held by many American office workers that Latino janitors don't know the English word "trash"? Whenever people in my office want to dispose of something too large to fit in a standard trash can, they tape a sign to it that says "basura."

Now, if you moved to another country and took a job where a significant part of your job responsibilities included collecting trash, don't you think that within the first day or two you'd probably pick up the word in that country's language for "trash"?

Really what those signs should say is "look, I know a word in Spanish!"


  1. You can be specific and say East Asian or South Asian.

    (it's Jenn Chu, btw, in case my email address is vague).

  2. It's my understanding that "brown" as a race originally referred to Mediterranian (particularly eastern) people. North Europeans were white, Africans black, etc.

    Color coding "races" fell out of favor for a while though.
    In the USA as racial integration became more common, people of mixed African and European ancestry started to be called "brown" to distinguis from purely "white" or "black".
    We're talking the 60s here.
    During the height of British imperialism the Brits referred to their subjects in India as brown people.

    I'm not really sure how Mexicans came to be included, but as you say, they don't have the baggage that comes with being black nor the privileges of being white.

    I'm really surprised you are asking about a term that's been in use for so long. Kind of like asking why we call a certain type of person a "hippie".

    Oh, and you might be interested to know that 2 years ago a school principle (Virginia Voinovich) lost her job over an incident in which she used the term "brown people" then suspended a child who said he didn't like to cooperate with "brown people".

  3. Jenn--

    True, although I suspect the term "South Asian" (even if used before this in academic circles) first came into the vernacular in reaction to the "Oriental" / "Asian" substitution. All of a sudden everyone was using the general term "Asian" (which previously meant "of or relating to the (entire) Asian continent") to mean something quite specific -- "people of East Asian and South East Asian descent"; i.e., the people they had called "Oriental" until someone told them not to.

    Prior to that time, I think most "South Asians" in America would have referred to themselves by their specific place of origin or descent (e.g. "Indian", or, even more specifically, e.g. "Gujarati.")

    Vincent-- while I recognize that the term "brown" has a much longer history than I recount, I think the phenomenon that I describe of the American intellectual class in general using the term in day to day conversation is a relatively recent phenomenon.

  4. hmm. interesting post. your insight into the intermediate position in the color and privilege spectrums is dead on, though of course we know all "browns" are not treated indentically with respect to privilege. i knew brown was used with respect to south asians, but i didn't know it was also used for latinos. and to be honest, though i'm ok calling myself brown, i don't know that i'm 100% ok with someone who isn't calling me that. And to the extent the Post style book says that, that's awful. can't they just refer to people by either the appropriate sub label (asian, latino, mexican, whatever) or not at all?

    with "oriental" there's also the problem of orientalism, the "exotic east" the subservient yellow woman etc. i think you'd be surpised by how many Asians/south asians are aware of that. and at least by the time i was in high school, i think a number of people used "asian". but maybe that was just the asians and south asians themselves?

    i'm still confused as to why "oriental" is more specific than "asian" as i'm guessing in practice no one from khazakstan is referred to as either asian or oriental.

    i do agree that "south asian" has had an interesting evolution. growing up i always said i was indian (and i still do.) i never gave the subgroup unless someone asked. It seems to me that "south asian" evolved as a label for student and professional groups, as a way to recognize that pakistanis and bangladeshis have much in common culturally with indians, though they deserve to have their separate identities recognized and acknowledged. From there it seems to have spread to some members of the "intellectual class" but i wonder if people use it to describe themselves much. i've heard people refer to the "south asian" community, but never heard anyone introduce themselves that way. in many ways it seems to be mostly a term we use to define ourselves to others. I also think Asian was sort of the same thing for south asians--we called ourselves "asian" because it was the box on forms that was closest to what we were, and because the communities that were the most similar to us in terms of culture and how we were viewed and treated were the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.
    an interesting q, which i've pondered for a while--Louisiana now has an Indian-American governor, a woman senator and a Vietnamese-American Congressman, an amazing range of diversity in its high elected representatives. When Bobby Jindal won the govenorship of Louisiana, he was the first non-white to do so since reconstruction. You'd think this would be a big deal, racial progress, etc. but it really wasn't played up in the media at all. i wonder if that was, at least in part, because he was considered not entirely non-white?--AaS

  5. Oh, and as to "asian" or "oriental" I find these terms as odd as you. Growing up I don't recall hearing either of them in common use. People were either Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Chinese (didn't know any chines) or Japanese (didn't know any til college), etc.
    It just happened that the city I grew up in had fairly large and fairly insular communities of these various immigrant groups. I've lost the knack but used to be able to tell right off from a name which s.e. asian country the person came from.
    I suppose I did occasionally here "oriental" when they were giving out things like statistics of a public school (e.g. 60% white, 25% black, 10% oriental, 5% other).

    And my dad told me that Italians used to call Albanians "orientals" so it's not exactly a more specific term.

  6. Since we are calling some people "brown," are we back to calling others "black?" And maybe calling certain of the Asian people "yellow?" I was under the impression that describing someone in a minority as a color was offensive in one way or another.


(You can comment here, or on the Holy Prepuce! Facebook page.)