Words of Others: Brown

Brown: What Being Brown In the World Today Means (to Everyone) by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Brown is not only an important book but also an extremely relevant one, in an environment that routinely calls into question the very existence of black and brown people, and at a time when the US President is pushing hard for a travel ban aka Muslim ban. Race is a story that tends to be told in white and black, with very little room and consideration for anybody who falls into the “other” category(ies). In the hierarchy of humanity, as it stands right now, white is at the top, black at the bottom, and brown is somewhere in the middle. Brown was almost invisible for a long time but has become increasingly feared, especially when associated with Islam.

I have often wondered how people who are neither white nor black find their place in that conversation and whether they feel the need to claim or reclaim this place. Black and brown people have a lot in common, especially when it comes to our experiences in so-called “white societies”, but there are also undeniable differences, and this extensive work by Kamal Al-Solaylee did a lot to help me understand them even better. Along with the fact that he shares stories from his own life as a brown man, and stories of those he interviewed in various parts of the world, one of the most fascinating attributes of this book is that it focuses on labor. I think it was a brilliant approach because it gives the reader an opportunity to think about the role of these people in the global economy and their place in society at the same time. He addresses the plight of brown people from Mexico, the Philippines, Algeria, Syria, among others, both in their own countries of origin, with a long look at the impact of shadeism/colorism, which plays a big role in black communities as well, and in their journey abroad to make a living for themselves and their loved ones. I truly enjoyed reading about their life experiences as a group and as individuals. These stories and the statistics represent real people that we get to know thanks to Kamal Al-Solaylee.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kamal Al-Solaylee at a library in Toronto when he came for a discussion about this book and he could not have been more gracious and kind. He even gave me pointers regarding the book-writing process after I told him about my own project. He gets extra points for that;)

If you have read Brown, I would be curious to know what your thoughts are. If you haven’t, I really encourage to do so.

Excerpts:

“Wherever I lived or travelled to, my skin awareness followed, a shadow of my shadow. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate myself from it, 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.”

“Brown people are everywhere and yet somehow remain invisible or nameless. But life and the global economy would come to a halt if the mass relocation of these workers – cleaners, domestic workers, security guards, maintenance staff, cooks, pedicurists, construction workers, farmhands, and cashiers who ask for your loyalty card when you pay for toothpaste and toilet paper – were to stop. We keep the world running as we ourselves are run out from one spot to another.”

“When Francisca and I talked about this incident the previous week, she told me that her first thoughts upon hearing about the shooter were: “Please be white, please be white.” It’s the same reaction that Muslims in North America or Europe have whenever stories of lone-wolf attacks break. We brace ourselves for the inevitable backlash.” – On the shooting death of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico is San Francisco.

About the author: Kamal Al-Solaylee is a Yemen-born, Canadian author and associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. He has written features and reviews in Toronto Star, National Post, Elle Canada, Chatelaine and Toronto Life among other publications. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham and has taught at the University of Waterloo and York University. He also previously worked at the Globe and Mail and Report on Business Magazine.

His bestselling memoir Intolerable won the Toronto Book Award and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award, and Canada Reads. His latest book Brown is a finalist for the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Literary Non-Fiction.

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