Perhaps there is no better time, as Trump-fuelled anti-immigrant rhetoric is becoming more prominent and global migration is on the rise, that Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) come in. Al-Solaylee explores the grey, or in this case, brown area that exists between the binary system of Black and White racism. To navigate this uncharted territory he poses a question: What does skin colour imply about the types of labour people are expected to, and do, perform around the world? The search for answers took him to 10 different countries on four continents, from the US to Qatar, Hong Kong to Paris, and many more, where he sought out the personal stories of those who identify as Brown. In the homes of strangers and the streets of foreign cities Al-Solaylee explores the notion of colourism, a phenomena that can’t be accounted for in a quantitative sense, yet remains a pervasive force in shaping global economic, social, and political relations. Brown is a timely intervention in an ongoing conversation about race that has become dominated by a Western perspective and often manipulated to serve a political agenda.
Al-Solaylee first encountered the idea of colourism, or shadism, long before he had the words to articulate the experience. “I grew up in the Middle East in a world where if you were lighter skinned, it was seen as a privilege within the Arab, Middle Eastern context,” he said. In fact it was many years before the term formally entered his vocabulary, becoming central to his work and his self-described “gateway to seeing the world and being seen by it.” Surrounded by other Brown people during a childhood spent in Yemen, the variances in shade and privilege were initially less stark. It was a British pop culture intervention, an innocent viewing of the film Oliver! that Al-Solaylee describes as the moment beauty and perfection became defined by Whiteness. A subsequent self-awareness of his own comparatively dark complexion forever altered his perception of the world and his place within it. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate myself from it,” Al-Solaylee writes in the introduction to Brown, “but I can unpack its meanings, or at least some of them, with a look back at my own and other people’s journeys with Brownness.”
“Colourism particularly has a history in the African American community, and the definitions of blackness,” said Al-Solaylee. “I use the term colourism in the book, and sometimes I say shadism.” He admits that since the book came out several people have acknowledged the limited applicability of the latter term to Black communities, “Shadism I guess has been owned by the South Asian communities.” Shadism, as Al-Solaylee describes it, is “the idea that within Brownness there are degrees of Brownness, different shades. The lighter you are, the more privileged you are. Because you almost have the privilege of passing for white, being so light-skinned that people don't always know where you come from.” He says it is common for those with lighter skin to accentuate their perceived whiteness by augmenting certain features - hair dye, makeup, and even potentially caustic skin-lightening creams are popular tools in the cosmetic arsenal. “We say lighter skin, but at the heart of it is this worship of whiteness,” he adds, a collective persuasion that fuels the billion dollar skin-lightening industry in Southern Asia.
But to call these attempts to assume whiteness “superficial” would be to undermine the profound social, economic, and political implications that a fair complexion has in the world. Racism is not always a polarized ideology, it is not always clear cut or even palpable at face value; it is more nefarious than that, sometimes an instantaneous judgement based on the single, immutable factor of skin colour, and other times an unconscious reaction to where one lands on the gradient of black and white.
“Brownness is a kind of “buffer” space between whiteness and blackness,” said Al-Solaylee, and it is by no means a comfortable space to occupy, he adds.
It means existing at the centre of a conflict that can be traced back to the colonial project, the earliest divisions of labour and enslavement of people by white European settlers. “Basically we’re left fighting for scraps, is what happens, where Brown and Black and Indigenous people have to fight for whatever is left over (from the white majority).” Colourism between, and even within Brown and Black communities, is as much of a survival mechanism as it is a product of an oppressive ideology. “That is something I hope the book makes people realize, the strategic use of anti-blackness by the Brown community, and the idea of the model minority, that some immigrants are more prized than others.” He says Canada isn’t exempt from perpetuating this notion, “despite multiculturalism being our creed, despite defining ourselves in opposition to what is going on in the States.” Where some light-skinned immigrants are able to “work themselves into whiteness,” referring to the assimilation of second generation Irish and Italian immigrants, immigrants of colour will never be able to clear the social hurdle of Brownness or detach the hyphen that has become fixed between one’s past and present nationalities. Perhaps Canada is making a conscious effort to reflect the diversity and the changing face of the country, but “at the end of the day, if your name is Mohammed and you’re going through security at Pearson Airport to go to the US, you’re going to get stopped,” said Al-Solaylee.
Al-Solaylee said the book is in no way a definitive guide to Brownness, but rather a storyteller’s attempt to articulate a Brown narrative derived from the patterns he had witnessed at home and abroad. The project was less to validate his own personal experiences and more to grasp the extent to which the phenomenon existed outside of his own perception. “I did have a hypothesis in mind, in that there are a lot of commonalities no matter where you go, in what I call the Brown experience,” he said. “An undocumented Mexican worker in Arizona has a lot in common with the domestic worker in Hong Kong from the Philippines, but they don't always see themselves as a part of the same world.” Many of the people he encountered around the world led lives that paralleled his suspected master narrative, though Al-Solaylee admits he was truly shocked at the pervasiveness of colourism in majority Brown countries. “Whether you’re in Trinidad, Hong Kong, the US, France, or Qatar, there’s this pursuit of white skin among Brown people,” he said. “I was gobsmacked how recurrent these ideas are.”
What he suspected to find embedded in the social ideology of each country was made evident by the economic disparities between lighter and darker-skinned people, and the religious and cultural factors that further carved out social chasms between many Brown communities and the societies in which they lived. It didn't take long after touching down in the Philippines to notice only light-skinned Filipinos working in high-end stores, while darker-skinned people made up the staff in small stores and cheap eateries. In Paris, Al-Solaylee spoke to Samira, a university-educated woman who could not find employment due to her Muslim identity, despite having relatively light skin. Financial insecurity led her to take a job as a cleaner, comparatively low-paying work that was well below her high level of qualification. But the most striking contrast of affluence and subjugation Al-Solaylee encountered was in Qatar, where he witnessed the inhumane conditions to which South Asian construction labourers were subjected. “I was very skeptical of the term ‘modern slavery’ until I went to Qatar,” he remarks gravely, reminiscing on his time spent alongside foreign workers on the future site of the 2022 World Cup. Despite later being accused of word inflation, he remains steadfast in his assertion, “I pushed back, because what I’ve seen there was slavery. These people didn't have a say in how they lived their lives, at all.”
It may not register the same magnitude as what he encountered in Qatar, but Al-Solaylee makes it clear that you do not have to look far to see these shade-oriented patterns of labour in Canada’s domestic economy. He mentions his own encounter with several Filipino domestic workers taking the bus home from an affluent Toronto neighbourhood where they were most likely employed to raise other people’s children, earning money to send home and support their own. It was a sight he had seen before in Hong Kong, but this time it was close to home. On each continent Al-Solaylee’s notion of the “Brown experience” was visible. “If there’s one sort of ray of hope it is how resilient these people are,” he said, which is as much a part of the Brown experience as the hardships. “They do it for their families, and they do it because they want a better life for their children.”
Although he admits that intersectionality was not a framework he initially positioned his work within, the nature of suffering Al-Solaylee encountered in various countries had recurring gendered dimensions. “I noticed there were different kinds of oppression,” he said. “Women’s bodies are far more vulnerable to sexual violence, or threats of violence, and are seen far more as sexual beings. Brown male bodies are subject to physical threats of dangerous (labour) situations.” In Sri Lanka he witnessed women being taught to take precautions to prevent sexual harassment from future employers as part of their training. “Domestic workers, who were almost exclusively women, work in the home environment and because the home is not considered a workplace, employers get away with, sometimes literally, murder,” he said. What appeared to be institutionalized victim-blaming, implying it was the woman’s responsibility to prevent assault, was meant to personally empower each woman in a situation where they are the most vulnerable. The potential threat was not seen as a problem to be solved, but a reality of the job.
Around the world and back again, the book ends in the familiarity of Al-Solaylee’s own neighbourhood where he is confronted with the question himself: What does it mean to be Brown in Canada? The answer, he says, is contingent on who is in power, on which political ideology is dominant. “I think we went through the nadir during the Stephen Harper years, and things are better with Trudeau.” Al-Solaylee ventures on to be cautiously optimistic, “The picture in Canada is better than other places, but it’s far from the perfect image we project.”
Although there are countless ongoing instances of discrimination within Canada’s borders that quickly become buried beneath Trump-filled headlines, the recent developments in the case of convicted serial killer Bruce McArthur is one story carrying deep racial undertones that speak to the longstanding cracks in the country’s amicable facade. McArthur, who has so far been charged with the murder of eight men, targeted a very specific demographic - Brown gay men of similar ages all residing in Toronto. A resident of the city himself, Al-Solaylee recalls feeling as though something was wrong long before any bodies were discovered. “I actually posted about it, in 2015, saying it’s weird that three Brown men of similar age have disappeared,” he said. “Everybody said I was being paranoid, that it was just a coincidence.” Only when Andrew Kinsman, McArthur’s only known White victim, went missing last June was there a comprehensive, ultimately successful investigation effort. “It actually took the body of a White man to find [McArthur], because the bodies of these immigrant men did not not really count. They were not seen as worth investigating,” said Al-Solaylee. Even now, in 21st-century Canadian society, the implicit value placed on human life differs by the shade of one’s skin.
If the hostility towards Brown bodies remains present even in the most socially progressive societies, how does one collectively resist against a force that oppresses each individual to varying degrees? “I’m a believer in conversations,” Al-Solaylee said, “but conversations are a starting point.” After that, he said, it’s a matter of collective participation from all parties who fall, however distant from each other, on the spectrum of oppression. In the introduction to Brown Al-Solaylee writes, “We carry the burden of our skin colour everywhere we go,” but perhaps it is just as valid as a closing statement, a reminder that there is no opting out, no compartmentalizing of skin colour from gender, class, or sexuality within collective resistance.
“It’s the idea of protecting each other. Not just protecting your own rights, but protecting the rights of other people. If you’re a man then protect gender rights, if you're straight then protect gay rights, and if you're a gay man then protect race.” he said. “It goes to the heart of what you’re all doing here, it’s intersectionality.”