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!"