“Brown” evokes several things at once. Brown representation. The magic of the brunette girl. Badass betis. Apu of The simpsons. Outrage over Apu’s The simpsons. Subtle hints of curry. Instagram story pages with black and white photos of South Asians. More often than not, lately, the idea of Brownness invokes an aesthetic of resistance. It is supposedly a decolonization project to proudly claim Brownness. It’s the empire that responds, responds, responds on Instagram.
But in trying to do this, conversations about brownness often become doomed – they carve out spaces for white gaze, attracting white guilt-induced validation. In other words, conversations about brownness claim to encompass South Asians as a homogenous group while only talking about whiteness; he reproduces an Orientalist narrative about his culture – a narrative that invokes stereotypical associations of unknowability, mysticism, and discovery.
When brownness is claimed as an identity, it is usually in the context of relatively privileged relationships. design based overseas – usually in the US, UK or the surrounding area. And this is where the problem begins. The best representation of Brown we have is the representation of the Hindu upper caste, assimilated almost completely into American culture. Under the auspices of brown representation, authenticity can be claimed simply by being present as a brown-skinned person in a predominantly white environment.
A cursory glance at Instagram shows that Brownness is equated with an amorphous, purely aesthetic and vague definition of culture that starts with spices and ends somewhere near sarees. In most popular depictions, Hindu icons like the bindi, idols of gods and goddesses (Kali is a popular example), and other signifiers like the mangal sutra and even the January are romanticized as talking about the “wealth” of brown culture – when in fact they are talking about a violent Brahmanical culture. This not only ensures that “Brown” (often interchangeable with “desi”) means mainly Hindu (and Sikh in some cases) but also mainly upper caste and insistently apolitical.
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Even grounding Brownness as an identity around the lowest common denominator – general South Asian skin color – is fraught with erasure. How much too brown is brown? Instagram artists who have imbued their work with the idea of Brownness have often used darker-skinned working-class Indians as a backdrop to center their more palatable, lighter-skinned selves, while eloquently waxing ‘homeland’ and ‘heritage’.
The aesthetics of a culture are often the most visible part of it – but the discourse around Brownness equates the privileged aesthetics of Brownness with the culture itself. The problem with this is that it flattens incredibly complex demographics into readable demographics for “colonizers”.
The celebration of aesthetics as a victory for South Asian representation has been most visible recently in Bridgerton’s second season, where Brownness was front and center. The two main Indian characters – Kate and Edwina Sharma – were such melting pots of brown culture that they came from Bombay, addressed each other in Bengali, claimed to know Hindi and called their father the word South Indian. Appa. Although this was only the beginning of what could have been a nuanced portrayal of South Asians, but again the focus on aesthetics cemented a romanticization of upper caste aristocracy and transformed them into pop culture icons who celebrate our “heritage” today.
I have never also received similar uncritical praise for its portrayal of Brownness. Mindy Kaling’s production – who is said to have officially marked us by making it big – tells the story of Devi, an Indian teenager in an all-American high school and her hormonal woes. Devi’s story is, in itself, ordinary and refreshing. Attempts to explore his “culture” – not so much. There’s a moment in the first season when Devi wearing a blue half-sari is called Princess Jasmine by a little girl, whose parents ask her for pictures. It’s an unintended meta-moment – criticizing the Orientalist gaze of Americans, while using the exact same kind of easy and simple reductionism to make the story palatable to an American audience. Those with Indian accents sound exactly like Apu – perhaps because the actors themselves have American accents in real life. It’s not so much about portraying a culture as ‘complicated’ as lazy – reducing Indianness to upper-caste Hinduism and stereotypes about complicated parental relationships.
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Brown’s narrative is also peppered with popular buzzwords like “colonization” and “decolonization.” But the missing link is that there are no stated goals as to who or what should be decolonized, or why, or even what decolonization means. Rather than addressing the material consequences of colonization – poverty, inequality, disease, among others – the brown color craze limits decolonization to an aesthetic that makes little tangible difference in people’s lives. Now, mere vague visuals of the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism began to be recognized as a brown culture and, by extension, a project of decolonization. The implicit idea is to tackle the inferiority complex by exalting our culture as beautiful, rich and dignified. But reinforcing upper-caste norms as Brownness, being proud of it, and framing it in the language of decolonization only achieves the opposite: cementing colonization of caste hierarchies and obscuring its violence under a lofty guise.
While trying to exalt Brownness, there is also a tendency to unearth accounts from the archives that paint a picture of free and progressive India before the arrival of the British with their Victorian mores. But the part that is not mentioned is the thousands of years of caste oppression recorded by scriptural doctrine.
Even within the South Asian community overseas, the people who most claim the color brown are not usually the South Hall workers or the small business owners in New Jersey. These appeals also do nothing to help poor South Asians through health care, political campaigning, debt cancellation, access to education, or advocacy for food security. . The rise of Stanning Kamala Harris to the vice presidency, for example, was as political as the Brownness project. This, too, only because she represented the less political type of Brownness—performing Brownness looking and sounding fair, but without any meaningful action that concretely addresses South Asian issues like colorism, caste, and inequality. In other words, the fact that she’s a visibly dark person in a position of power is reason enough to celebrate.
American Indians are also notorious for their silence on systemic racism against other Asians or against black people – a fact that reinforces the dishonesty of celebrating brown culture without rooting it firmly in any form of inter-ethnic solidarity. Moreover, Brownness does not provide an adequate framework for having conversations about caste in the workplace or at universities – arguably showing that it was never meant to encompass the real issues that many “brown” people suffer from. “. Recently, the founder of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, was not invited to a conference on caste at Google, due to fears and prejudices among employees. Soundararajan – obviously a brunette woman in the United States – faced discrimination from her fellow browns. There was, however, no mobilization around the incident from the wider “Brown” community overseas – showing its inherent impotence as a so-called cultural and political discourse.
Brownness’ uprooting lies primarily in how it defines and dilutes “culture” as something that can be seen, tasted, and touched. The best and most badass type of Brownness is the one with a slight edge – wearing a saree with sneakers, for example, or a bindi with a backless dress. In short, the type of browning advocated in mainstream cultural discourse is part of the Savarna Indian imaginary – an imaginary that colonizes within and pretends to be colonized without; one who asks to be recognized, but only by those he calls colonizers.
Brownness thus claims to be a tool to talk about colonization while hiding the colonization within – that of the upper caste Hindus in India who derive their social, political and cultural capital from the labor and exploitation of marginalized castes in the country.
To say that we have to remove Brownness would then be a mistake – because Brownness never was. “Brown” people do not have a common history to speak of, much less a common oppression around which to mobilize or against which to advocate. Decolonization cannot be based on an idea perpetuated by people who are themselves colonizers by caste in what they affectionately call the “homeland”.