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Can East Asians Call Themselves 'Brown'?

Chelsea Beck

It's time for another Ask Code Switch. This week, we're getting into the gray area between yellow and brown.

Amy Tran, from Minneapolis, asks:

Can light-skinned Asians (East Asian) call themselves "brown"? I am East Asian, and have a friend who is South Asian. She is much darker than me, and told me that because of my skin color, I cannot identify as brown. I acknowledge that even though I am not technically brown, I do face similar challenges that people under the "brown" umbrella face - gentrification, unfair labor conditions, xenophobia, not to mention micro-aggressions and stereotypes, etc. - and that to exclude me from this "group" is excluding all light-skinned Asians from the oppression we face. What's your take?

Hi Amy,

I think there are actually two different questions — both very important — that we have to parse out here. One of them is about skin color, and the other is about political identity. And in the conversation about who gets to claim the term "brown," those are very different things.

So, to begin with, let's get one thing straight — the colors that people use to differentiate people of different races have never reallybeen about skin color. Black, white, brown, yellow, red? Those terms bear little resemblance to the actual spectrum of coloring found in humans, not to mention they create false distinctions between groups of people who have always overlapped.

And, of course, there are plenty of East Asians who have very brown skin, just as there are tons of South Asians who have very light skin. This cuts across racial groups. Some black people have skin the color of a chestnut, and others have skin the color of pink sand. In the U.S., Latinos with all different coloring refer to themselves as brown.

The racial categories we use today were largely the brainchild of eighteenth and nineteenth century European "racialist anthropologists," who used things like skull measurements and hair texture to divide people into racial groups. For years, many of these anthropologists referred to four races: red, yellow, black and white. Then in 1795, Johann Blumenbach, a German naturalist, wrote about a fifth brown race (the "Malays",) consisting of Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders.

All that is to say, the way someone identifies racially has never been strictly about physical appearance and always about drawing (arbitrary) lines between groups of people.

So, the idea that you shouldn't refer to yourself as brown because of your literal skin color, I think, is a bit misguided.

Having said that, Amy, there is a pretty compelling reason not to call yourself brown.

As you've rightly pointed out, identifying as "brown" (or black, or white, or yellow) is a political statement. To you, and many others, being brown is about a set of shared experiences, that include things like being subjected to discrimination and stereotyping.

But there's some important history here, and it goes back to the Yellow Power Movement of the 1960s and '70s. The Yellow Power Movement was instrumental in fighting for the civil rights of Asian-Americans. But not all Asian-Americans felt represented by the movement. And that's where the East Asian/"Brown Asian" divide comes in.

The brown Asian movement was a response to the fact that "brown Asians are still really forgotten and marginalized within the Asian American umbrella, to this day," saysE.J.R. David. He's a professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage who studies the mental health consequences of colonialism. He also wrote Brown Skin, White Minds,a book about the psychological experiences of Filipino Americans.

David says that when people in the United States talk about Asian-Americans, they're almost always referring to people of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean descent. But today, those groups only make up about half of all Asian-Americans. And those East Asians, David says, have different educational outcomes, income levels, immigration histories, health outcomes, access to resources and refugee status than brown Asians. (Brown Asians include Filipinos and South and Southeast Asians, David says.)

So while there certainly may be similarities between the experiences of East Asians and other Asian Americans, David says that the term brown Asians is meant to differentiate people who have felt invisible. It makes sense, he says, that some people might be offended if the term is taken on by someone of East Asian descent.

"To me, there are terms that only, because of the history of it, and because of the current reality of our situation, I think are best reserved for some people to be able to use, especially if they're using it for their own empowerment, and for their own group's empowerment," David says. And for those people who are not part of it, he adds, "We cannot appropriate that if it's not ours."

So readers, what do you think? What's fair game for East Asians to self-identify? Share your thoughts here.

And as always, if you have a racial question of your own, fill out this form or email us (CodeSwitch@npr.org.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.