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Breaking Out Of The ‘Brown Box’

Being brown is finally something I am proud of

I was called "brown" for the first time in elementary school. It was a period of acute self-awareness — suddenly we realized we were all different: boys and girls, blond and brunette, tall and short, white and black. But in my especially suburban private school, this is where the clear dichotomies ended.

Very few people in my school looked similar to me, and even fewer shared my actual Indian heritage. My 8-year-old classmates didn’t really consider the intricacies or nuances of our different heritages and cultures. Instead, all students of color were stuffed into one tight, brown box.

"Brown" is a word commonly used to refer to anyone from one of the dozens of countries scattered across the Middle East and South Asia. It’s a blanket term to help people in the United States make sense of what are actually immensely diverse populations. Without knowing any specific details about my life, people can associate me with strict parents, traditional beliefs, unusual religions, and spicy food.

Growing up, I struggled to fit into this brown box. Since my parents emigrated from India before I was born, my connection to the motherland has always been weak, and I have often struggled to negotiate my Indian and American identities. I traded my stuffy Indian clothes for hoodies and Nike shorts, fantastical Bollywood movies for slick Hollywood features, and pungent meals for Lunchables. I resented stereotypes that limited me to the narrow models of what it means to be Indian in the United States: The socially inept brown nerds on TV embarrassed me, and the bumbling foreign taxi drivers in movies did not represent me. I couldn't relate to these tropes, so I repressed this part of my identity.

As I grew up, I realized I was not alone.

First-generation brown kids (the children of immigrants) raised in the United States have begun to actively express their experiences. Internet personalities like Jasmeet Singh and Lilly Singh are popular for satirizing the nuances of brown culture, integrating the shared immigrant experience into the mainstream online world. Actors like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are the stars of their own television series, shows which purposefully and effectively portray brown people outside of media stereotypes, defying societal expectations of us in the process. Countless others have begun to tell their stories and share their perspectives, forming a distinct immigrant identity that has allowed kids like me to find a comfortable place in American society. Finally we have people to look up to who look like us.

This visibility has not only given brown youth a platform to be free from inhibiting connotations about our respective cultures, but has also connected us. "Brown" has become a reverent, revolutionary term that represents our unity and solidarity in a new immigrant culture. Identifying with this brown culture gave me the courage to express my heritage in a new, accessible way — especially on social media.

The growing conscience of brown youth on social media has allowed us to speak up for ourselves. Trends like the #ReclaimTheBindi movement, which saw hundreds of brown youth asserting ownership over their heritage, and proud, defiant reactions to Azealia Banks’s racially charged insults toward Zayn Malik, have encouraged many brown people to emerge and express their cultural identity. The magnitude of support, activism, and pride that has surfaced continues to shape a new collective identity based on solidarity.

But there are certainly still problems among the brown immigrant community in the United States. Many are still forced into arranged marriages, a huge number of brown women are victims of domestic violence, and South Asian women face some of the highest suicide rates in the United States. Islamophobia and anti-blackness are still present within immigrant communities.

However, I think there is a growing awareness of the distinct issues brown people face in the United States. Brown activists have propelled discussions about commonplace racial discrimination, growing Islamophobia, and homophobia within our community. We have created a movement through which brown is no longer just the color of our skin, but a modern phenomenon that continues to transform and shape the racial identities of millions of immigrants today. Being brown is a statement. Being brown is finally something I am proud of.

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