Ambiguously Brown

My skin color means some people will always see me as exotic—and others will assume I’m family

I love trawling through TV Tropes, a wiki (a.k.a. “a black hole of information on the internet”) that points out storytelling motifs used in media, especially television. I’ve learned from my time there that Harry, Hermione, and Ron have a relationship based on the tropes of The Kirk, the Spock, and The Bones. I’ve learned that the Troperiffic show Community has five folders’ worth of tropes, including a separate page for Character Tropes. And I’ve learned a new term for my racial identity: Ambiguously Brown.

The site defines “Ambiguously Brown” as “a skin tone that’s definitely not Northern European, but it’s not entirely clear what ethnicity they are supposed to be.” Shows and movies cast with Ambiguously Brown actors avoid being completely whitewashed, but only by increasing diversity in the vaguest sense:

“You have no clue what ethnicity or race they are just by looking at them. Are they a light-skinned black person? Hispanic? Arab? Italian? Greek? Indian? American Indian? Malaysian? A really tanned Japanese person? Polynesian? Their facial features don’t correspond to any particular race either, so we don’t know. They’re just… brown.”

The TV section of the Ambiguously Brown page lists several characters and actors that fit this trope, including Rashida Jones, who provides brownness to both The Office and Parks and Recreation (in both shows, other characters comment on her ethnic ambiguity; both times make her incredibly uncomfortable). The same section also points out that the fantasy race in Game of Thrones, the Dothraki, described as having “copper skin” in the books, are played by actors whose racial makeup run the gamut between Arabic, Indian, Nepalese, African-British and Eastern European. Any amount of brownness is Ambiguously Brown enough.

Every “ambiguously brown” person understands how this works in reality: people tend asking point-blank “what you are,” or smugly assume they already know, pinning your brown body down and through, like a butterfly in a natural history archive. Growing up in primarily white suburbs, I had become used to expecting this question, though I won’t say I’m really okay with it.

The tiring game of “What Are You” means someone holding you at arm’s length and scrutinizing you like a specimen (metaphorically, at least). Answering the question over and over to people I’ve just met is tiring and invasive. Friends understand that these questions are a natural progression of building friendship intimacy, but for strangers it tends to mean a lack of self-control, an inability to not ask the question that pops up in their heads unbidden instead of considering the other person’s privacy.

But in contrast, brown people assume I’m one of them. People in both Brooklyn and Downtown Los Angeles would talk to me in Spanish, and halal cart owners would add pastries to my street meat (which I facetiously referred to as “halal cart privilege”) while discussing at length where we were from, which for them can range from South Asia to the Middle East. Pakistani and Indian people assumed I was Pakistani, while my uncommon name would suggest to some people that I was Iranian or, once, “Bulgarian gypsy.”

My fellow brown people aren’t just trying to figure out where I belong. They’re hoping to find out that I belong to them, and that makes all the difference.

While I can’t understand what people are saying when they talk to me in Spanish, the macro communication is clear: we speak the same language because we understand each other. Instead of being treated like an archeological dig, I feel like the kid picked first for soccer. And when someone assumes I belong to their brown clan rather than being Indian American, I feel momentarily like some sort of race spy, temporarily relieved from my race duties of being asked about arranged marriages and Bollywood movies and Mindy Kaling.

This is par for the course for my parents too. A waitress at an Indonesian restaurant in New York City hopefully asked my mother if she was Indonesian. On a trip to the Dominican Republic, the concierge talked to my father in Spanish. Even after he explained he didn’t know Spanish, she still proffered the keys with a “Welcome home.”

Being brown means I look as though “home” could be anywhere. On another TV Tropes page, I recently saw a commenter complain about Star Trek. She expressed frustration with how Star Trek depicted all alien races as basically looking alike. But she also noted that the same applied to most of Earth’s population, because the majority of people in the world have brown skin and dark hair. (South Asia’s population is at 1.671 billion, while Latin America is at over half a billion, just over East Asia’s numbers, which are almost two billion.) Most of the people on Earth look like me.

Or do they? Another facet of brownness is how much variation you find within different races. Indian and Pakistani people have often told me I looked Pakistani because of my fair skin, even though both my parents are Indian. I have Middle Eastern friends who people assume are white but whose families are sometimes read as Indian and Hispanic, and Hispanic friends who could pass as South Asian. Maybe brownness is ambiguous in part because our hazy shared concepts of what people “should” look like don’t necessarily reflect reality.

So it makes sense that I get a slew of assumptions both outside and inside the United States. But how much of what it means to be brown in America is affected by the fact that this country thinks of race as black and white? I get asked where I’m from not only because I’m not white, but because I’m not black. There’s a perception that brownness is fundamentally “exotic” or “foreign”—that being brown means you’re from outside of the United States, despite large portions of the population being Indian, Filipino, Hispanic, etc. (And despite the fact that many people who were until recently deemed “foreign” are far from brown. The pearly gates of American whiteness only started including Irish, Italians, and the like within the past century.)

This equation of brownness with “foreign” or “other” has been a part of the American racial complex for a long time. Tanvi Misra (no relation…that I know of) writes about how some black people turned to turbans and faux-brownness in the Jim Crow era south: “In some places, if you could pass yourself off as something other than black, you could circumvent some amount of discrimination.” Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne, a scholar who lectured around the United States in the 1920s, was alarmed to face anti-black discrimination. He fended this off by wearing a turban, noting that “A turban makes anyone Indian.” As Misra points out, turbans aren’t exclusively Indian, but are also seen in the Middle East, East Asia, and North Africa — and the turban can make you a target of racial prejudice too. But at that time, wearing a turban could let you sidestep by appearing brown—which meant “foreign,” “exempt,” “not black,” “just white enough.”

Race has always been a social construct, but American social construction around being brown has shifted and changed over the years. Julia Carrie Wong examines how Asian-Americans toe the line between minority and ideas of whiteness: “A recent example of how Asians may be functionally folded into whiteness came on May 29, when Google revealed for the first time the demographic makeup of its employees. In addition to being overwhelmingly male, Google’s workforce is 61 percent white and 30 percent Asian.” She notes that these blurry lines are meant to uphold white structural power. The lines of Asian-American privilege can be quite blurry, considering that South Asians and South Asian Muslims face intense discrimination as well. To white America, brown means “exotic” or “other.” To the people who speak to me in Spanish, it means “one of us.” To some groups, this means hanging in the middle.

I’ve come across a lot of little micro-aggressions while being brown in this country—not just questions about my race, but implications that the color of my skin led to where I was in my career, or pre-determined my personality, or gave me only one type of life to lead. Most particularly, I’m scared of how my skin can be politicized. Among brown people who take me for part of their clan, I feel temporarily exempt from the anxieties of race. I like blending in a bit more, especially since my living spaces have been diverse outside of the suburbs. In cities like Los Angeles and New York, and abroad, many people assume I’m one of them.

I wonder how concepts of race will change in the future. Will Asian-Americans be considered “white”? Will American blacks again use markers of foreignness to escape discrimination? (At any rate, in an increasingly Muslim-hostile political context, they probably won’t return to turbans.) Will the American racial complex transcend “black or white,” and will brown be a (pardon me) grey area between? Perhaps our race will become dependent on how we talk, or what we do, or how our stories are framed.

Maybe someday, like the brown people who immediately assume I’m family, white America will be more interested in human kinship than preserving privilege. I think that’s a very long way off, though.

If nothing else, white America will have to look at us—the “ambiguously brown” and increasingly, the specifically brown as well. I grew up with white people on TV and in movies and white people in politics and white people in novels. I grew up believing that while I was born and brought up in the United States, I was still an outsider. American culture is still pretty white, but there are more brown people in all these areas than I remember even thinking possible in my lifetime.


Even my high school, where students and teachers alike grilled me about being Indian, has changed; when my brother went to the same school seven years later, he had several more brown classmates and much less ennui about being one of only a few brown kids in school. When cartoon shows I loved as a kid had Indian characters, they were caricatures of foreignness—like Sanjay in Fairly Odd Parents, whose white voiceover actor used a heavily exaggerated accent to play the character. So I was delightfully surprised to find the recent show Sanjay & Craig, with an Indian American actor (a long-time favorite of mine) voicing the lead.

Perhaps—in fact, quite likely—we will someday all be brown. But it might take more than that for us to effortlessly treat one another as if we all belong. Earlier this year, National Geographic celebrated the light-brown human of the present and future, and PolicyMic congratulated us all on how multiculturally beautiful we’re going to be. Jia Tolentino deconstructed—or, more accurately, eviscerated—this idea in the Hairpin, when she analyzed the PolicyMic piece:

“It’s the rhetoric that matters here, the unplumbed fetish for these faces and what they can be forced to represent. Demographics are changing, attitudes about race are changing, yes; and I am glad for it. And maybe it’s good that people keep writing pieces like this, so impossibly shallow and shortcut-minded that the subtext is clear as anything: look how nice we look, as a people, when white gets to be more interesting and minorities get to look white.”

TV Tropes has a page for that, too. Films, literature, and TV shows harp on the idea that In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race—despite the fact that, you know, we already are.

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