Pan-brown? Or just not-white?

Interesting article by Jeff Yang in the Chronicle today about the political and cultural significance of brown.  Due to the rambling nature of his writing I haven't yet been able to identify his thesis.  But his argument is that brown is increasingly important, and increasingly prevalent, in America.  Looking at census data, he points out that by 2050 Latinos will make up 52% of the population of California, and the Asian Indian population is the fastest growing ethnic population in America.  (Not quite sure about the term "Asian Indian," but they didn't ask me when they wrote the census).  What Yang ends up arguing for is a pan-brownism.  He's looking for a solidarity of brown skin, regardless of the ancestry of that skin.  But is pan-brown a useful idea?  Or is it just rooted in an identification, often by others, as not-white?

Yang interviews Razib Khan and Zachary Latif, the founders of the blog Brown Pundits.  The two identify their sense of brown as primarily South Asian, although they admit some resonance with the idea of pan-brown through the experience of being misidentified as Latino.  It seems, actually, that the only commonality that Yang can find between South Asian and Latino communities is that they're misidentified by whites into a "brown blur."  It would have been helpful if he'd interviewed at least a couple of Latinos to round out his article a bit, but we'll work with what we've got.  South Asians in the US are misidentified as Latino and subject to anti-immigrant prejudice.  And post-9/11 anyone who isn't easily identified as white or black is subject to prejudice against Middle Eastern Arabs (with sometimes violent consequences).  With the killing of Osama bin Laden, that hatred and ignorance has again boiled to the surface.

So: brown.  Useful political category?  If minority populations in the US banded together politically, the political world would certainly be tipped in their favor.  But is it really feasible? I don't think so.  When I walk in Mi Tierra Foods in my neighborhood, I'm don't feel that I'm in some sort of "brown" place.  I know I don't understand the lyrics of the music they're playing and couldn't hope to speak intelligently with someone who works there about what I want.  Do I have the same sense of "brown" when I walk into BombayMusic.com down the block?  No.  I can find the Bollywood movie I'm looking for and pick up a Hindi language newspaper (and I'll ask for Stardust Magazine, and know they probably won't have it).  The only way you could categorize these places a block apart as "brown" is if you're unable to tell them apart in any way, shape, or form.

But brown, in the sense of not-white, certainly exists.  Perhaps there is a sense of community as South Asian Americans and Latino Americans walk by each other on the streets of Berkeley.  I'm not any shade or ancestry of brown, so I honestly can't say.  But a deep cultural affinity?  I don't think so.  Jared and I were discussing this over breakfast.   He pointed out that in West Berkeley there are certainly Latino American and South Asian Americans living next to each other; wouldn't that create a sense of community?  But I'm not sure.  There's a shared sense of the  experience of immigration (although how, when, and under what circumstances that immigration happened varies widely) and a shared sense of not looking white.  But is that enough?

I always find the blog Sepia Mutiny interesting, not just because the topic of brown is explored in a million different ways, but when it does the comments are overwhelmingly geared to determining where in that determination of brown someone's background fits.  In a recent post by Khan on the subject, the comments ranged from concerns over whether Afghanis can be legitimately considered desis to why most white folks have no idea where Bangladesh is.  I personally see so much variation in how the South Asian American community defines themselves (Bengali?  Punjabi?  Pakistani?  Muslim?  Hindu?  Sikh?  Gujarati-speaking?  Marathi-speaking?  And weren't not even broaching the subject of caste...) that it seems the collective category of South Asian American itself is a bit of a stretch.  And to throw everyone from Central and South American ancestry in as well... the only unifying element is skin color. And the experience of prejudice.

Perhaps it's enough.  Skin color affects how you're perceived, how you're treated, what opportunities you have, and what opportunities you don't have.  There is power in taking a definition given to you by others and appropriating and re-defining it for yourself.  But at what point is a definition so inclusive that it ceases to be relevant to the people it describes?