'We continue to be feared': Kamal Al-Solaylee on why being brown matters to everyone

In a compelling conversation, acclaimed journalist and author Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses all things brown, from the psychology of the colour, to why he says, it’s always 'a bridesmaid, never the bride,' in the constructed hierarchy of human skin tone. 

Acclaimed author says majority of brown people now feel less safe

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the author of 'Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).' His first book, 'Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes,' shares the personal story of his Arab family caught in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics over six decades. (Gary Gould)

* Originally published on November 6, 2019.

Around the world, more than 2.1 billion people are considered brown-skinned. And that population is increasing.

"That is a lot of people whose stories have not been told yet," according to academic and journalist, Kamal Al-Solaylee.

His book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone), was published in 2016, just before the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and populism, when things became very difficult for brown-skinned people, says Al-Solaylee.

"If I had a time machine and I could go back to any era, I just want to go back to early 2016 and warn everyone about Trump and Brexit," the award-winning author told IDEAS producer. Mary Lynk. The two spoke onstage in Halifax, as part of part of the city's inaugural AfterWords Literary Festival at the University of King's College.

Al-Solaylee warns race relations in Canada have also entered a complicated and troubling stage. He argues that Prime Minister Trudeau's brown face photos should have been an opportunity to discuss "attitudes toward people who come from brown and black communities."

He adds the photos pale in light of the implications of Quebec's Bill 21, the controversial new bill bars public employees from wearing religious symbols — such as Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Catholic crosses.

Demonstrators protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21, June 17, 2019. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"Bill 21 is the conversation we should be having about race, not brown face or black face. This should have been the focus," he said. 

"And the fact that many of the parties have been sort of mealy-mouthed about what they're going to do about it, or not going to do about it, tells me that we just don't have what it takes to address serious issues of racial discrimination in this country." 

In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee challenges assumptions about race, immigration and globalism — and shares riveting stories of the people caught in the middle. He says these stories about being brown matter to everyone: 

"This is now our destiny as brown people. Our labour is needed, but citizenship is denied; our presence as Muslims or religious minorities is offered as an example of the tolerant, diverse societies in which we live, but we continue to be feared."

Excerpt from Brown, on how categorizing people by skin colour is a relatively recent phenomenon:

LOOKED AT IN TERMS of human evolution, using skin colour to cate- gorize people into distinct racial groups is a relatively recent endeav- our. Historians of race, and in particular of what's now known as scientific racism, identify Carolus Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century Swedish zoologist and botanist, as the first to create a four-part racial scheme with a corresponding colour system: Europeans were white, Africans black, Asians yellow and Native Americans red. From the 1730s until his death in 1778, Linnaeus turned his atten- tion to classification of animals, insects, plants—and humans.

Later in the eighteenth century, German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach added a fifth racial group to Linnaeus's exist- ing four: browns, or what he called the Malay race. (He called the four other groups Caucasian, Ethiopian, Mongolian and American.) The Malay race covered a large swath of what we would now call South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Thailand and Malaysia to the Pacific Islands and Australia. As Nell Irvin Painter explains in her thoroughgoing History of White People, Blumenbach was both ahead of and representative of the racialist thinking of his time. He asserted the superiority of the white, European race not just in physical strength and stan- dards of beauty but in moral character and temperament as well. In introducing the brown race in the revised edition of his influential On the Natural Variety of Mankind in 1781, Blumenbach (who, like many of his contemporaries, was a skull collector) filled the middle space between the "beautiful" whites and the "ugly" Mongolians. The idea of a brown group of people as a "buffer" race starts with him, and while much of his work is now discounted, this particular aspect shows remarkable resiliency, even if the specifics and contexts have changed. In a large number of societies, being brown still means occupying that middle space, on the cusp of whiteness and on the edge of blackness.

Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) by Kamal Al-Solaylee © 2016. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

** This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.

This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here:

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