Something woke up in me when I read the Contract and Social Change. Not an epiphany, but more of a moment of realization when I read the lines, “In Jamaica, with a different set of racial/color rules, I count as “brown” rather than “black,” since blackness isn’t determined by the “one drop rule” (any black ancestry makes you black) as it is here. So brown constitutes a recognized and relatively privileged social category of their own, intermediate between white and black.”
In the moment, I was unsure of the surge of feelings I was compelled by. There was sadness, guilt, and anger, but I was unable to place blame on anyone besides myself. I had allowed these feelings to oppress me and for years I did not understand why. But when I read that Charles Mills experienced privilege as a brown boy in Jamaica, it angered me. Here’s some background as to why:
I’m a New Yorker from birth, New York City will always be my home, but America, regardless of what anyone else insists, will always be my place of origin. I’m just as American as Angelina Jolie or George Clooney, or dare I say, Donald Trump himself. But for some reason, when I’m waiting for the fifteen minute delayed train, someone will glance at me, smile, and think that it’s okay to ask, “Where are you from? Pakistan? India?” Of course, in New York City, it is very common to ignore those around you, so my go to response is always a curt “no” and immediately walking away. It’s disgusting that in New York City, a city of diversity, there are still a select few of people who think that anyone who isn’t white is not American and are just foreigners, or worse, tourists (us New Yorker’s HATE tourists). But I digress, this question of where I belong is something I have encountered multiple times, so when I learn that Mills experienced privilege, it frustrates me. No one should have to feel like a second rate citizen. Not brown people. Not black people. Not hispanic people. Not asian people. Not Arabs. And, for some rare occasions, not even white people.
But Mills comment didn’t just upset me because I was angered by the reality of privilege. What really upset me was that I was a brown girl, who like many brown girls, grew up in a society that viewed beauty as having glowing white skin and beautiful luscious hair. In the literature we were exposed to as children, the characters always had white skin and blue eyes, or red hair and a freckled nose. Can you believe, I was never exposed to a book where the protagonist was a brown girl until high school! It was my sophomore year, and I was looking through the books my English teacher brought in, I came across an author named, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the first thing that popped in my head was “Oh my god. A brown writer. A brown female writer.” I didn’t question whether she was American or not, (which she is, if that matters) and I started reading because I wanted to see how a brown woman would be depicted. I wanted to see if there were any parallels to the literature that I had grown to love, but that didn’t represent me. I later learned, that Jhumpa Lahiri and I had a few things in common, we were both brown women, both born to immigrant families, and both American. After that one novel I read, I went back to the authors that I grew to love, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Shelley, Tolstoy, back to the beautiful, elegant white people.
I suppose this is the dilemma. I want to be represented, I want my future children to be represented, I want the brown boys and girls all over the world to be represented through literature. To have something written about them that is not related to their poverty. It would be nice, to have more stories like Jhumpa Lahiri’s, or stories about homosexuality in brown cultures, stories about passionate romance, stories in which the brown girl is the heroine and the white girl is the best friend. But yet even with this concern, I still intend to spend the rest of my life dedicated to Victorian literature.
I think it’s fascinating that Mills’ comment made me reflect on my own hypocrisy, but it made something even more apparent to me, and that is that we need more Jhumpa Lahiri’s and Octavia Butler’s in the world. We need more books about the brown girls in the sorority. We need more stories about the hijabi having her first high school kiss. We need more stories about the Mexican vampire, who falls in love with a black guy, or better yet, a black woman. We need more interracial couples. We need more Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s, but without the social stigmas. We need more stories about the Chinese-American majoring in Art and taking a gap year to travel the world. We need more stories about the Pakistani professor. We need more stories about the people who make up the population of the rest of the world. They need to be on the frontlines of the bookshelves, next to their white counterparts. And we need more Mindy Kaling’s*, to show us brown women that we are beautiful, regardless of whether we’re one shade darker, or one shade lighter, than our friend sitting next to us.
PSA: In case some people are struggling with complimenting their brown friend, I have provided a tip that I think everyone should be aware of.
It is racist to assume that because I am brown and I make sarcastic, witty remarks, that does not mean I can pass as Mindy Kaling’s sister. No. We look nothing alike. I love Mindy Kaling, she is an incredible role model, but just because you can’t name another brown celebrity to compare my looks to, does not make it okay to just associate me with the only brown celebrity you do happen to know.
If I know that it is wrong to assume that all white people are racist because I can only think of a group like the KKK or Trump, then it should be known, that in fact, not all brown people look the same. Or, for a more relevant issue in our society, that not all muslims are terrorists. Not all Mexicans are rapists. And most importantly, not all blacks bending the knee are “sons of bitches.”