Appropriation of “black and brown”

Household income of Asian American groups, 2015 (non-Hispanic white that year was $60,000)

Language evolves, and social media has made certain phrases mainstream where they were relatively unknown. The fragment “black and brown”, often used in conjunction with “folks,” connotes certain issues and politics in 2019. It probably emerged as a term because there are 35% more Latinos than black Americans and the two form a minority social and political block.

But sometimes terms made can be remade and refashioned. An Indian American friend in Silicon Valley noticed a few weeks ago that some Indian American activists and public intellectuals are using the term “black and brown” to include Indian Americans. This is rather easy because Indian Americans are literally brown. And in fact, they are browner on the whole than most Latinos.

A plain reading of language suggests that including Indian Americans into this catchall category is perfectly reasonable. They are brown people who have been subject to racism and are marginal to the narrative of America. On the other hand, on various social metrics, Indian Americans do quite well. If the term “black and brown” exists to mobilize economically, socially, and racially, marginalized people, then Indian Americans, along with white Latinos, are edge cases of note. They are racially marginal, but economically and socially far less so.

To a great extent, the utilization of the term “black and brown” by progressive Indian American intellectuals and activists inclusive of their own identity strikes me as an appropriation of the term away from its intended ends.  I can’t imagine that this won’t be noticed at some point. That being said, this is exclusively a matter of the Left, where intersection/racial coalitions are a major dynamic.

But, that means it is relevant to Indian Americans, who align themselves with the Democratic party on the whole (even if they are mostly moderately engaged immigrants, the Indian Americans born or raised in the United States are highly engaged and vocal).

20 thoughts on “Appropriation of “black and brown””

  1. You hyperlinked to:

    This thread is insane.

    Asians commit violent crime, are incarcerated, and are subject to police violence at a fraction the rate of caucasians. The vast majority of violent crime against Asians are not committed by Asians.

    Latino Americans commit violent crime, are incarcerated, and are subject to police violence at only a modestly higher rate than caucasians.

    Black Lives Matter in large part was about dissociating with Latinos and Asians. Arguably Black Lives Matter was bigger in Latin America than in the USA, Canada, Europe, Africa or Asia.

    Latinos and Asians need to stop calling themselves “POC”, “Black and Brown”, “minority”, “marginalized” and all the rest. Or there will be an even bigger backlash against Latinos and Asians than the 2014-2016 relatively short-lived Black Lives Matter Movement.



    Do any Americans buy the claim that Asian Americans are “marginalized” in America? The vast majority of Americans are not that gullible.

    1. A percentage definitely do, look at all the wailing over white-washing when Hollywood adapts East Asian movies and TV shows.

    2. So I meant to reply to you earlier.

      Indian Americans are in a weird place in terms of identity politics.

      A dark skin, immigrant, non-native english speaking, 3rd world, muslim presenting (is that a thing?), culturally underrepresented, non-Christian minority group has one of the highest incomes on America.

      The right doesn’t really have a problem with this. However it goes against the left identitarian narrative of barriers to financial sucess in America.

      So there are 4 possible solutions for Indian Americans in the era of identity politics, if they wish to ally with the left:

      1. Follow standard identitarian narratives, “black and brown”, hope no one notices. Has been historical status quo, as Indisn americans weren’t not as prominent

      2. Maybe racism against dark skin people isnt a barrier to financial success in America. Good luck convincing a left wing person of this particularly a left wing POC. Political suicide for a left politician.

      3. Maybe racism against dark skin people is a barrier but South Asian brown folk are somehow exempt from said racism. Logic behind racial discrimination in college admissions.

      4. Maybe racism is a barrier, but Indian Americans are able to overcome it due being highly selected, Asian cultural factors etc.

      I think #1, #2, and #4 are all political wins or reasonably fair towards Indian Americans. #3 is a loss.

      Pick your poison.

      1. Want to second sbarrkum’s link to data on specific ethnic groups in America:

        Several of the ethnic group data points are surprising. Note the small sample sizes however. Some of the estimates of ethnic income are clearly wrong.

        Here is the high level data:

        Rank Race Median household income (2016 US$)
        1 Asian 80,720[1]
        2 White 61,349[1]
        5 Hispanic or Latino (of any race) 46,882[1]
        6 American Indian and Alaska Native 39,719[1]
        7 Black or African American 38,555[1]

        Indians are at $120,000 per year.

    1. Why do Filipinos have such a high median income in the US?

      May have something to do with them being proficient in English.

    2. Skilled immigration. Same reason Indians have such a high income level. Filipinos come and work in the US as nurses.

  2. Makes sense that some South Asians would identify as black, considering many are in fact much darker than Beyonce. Known quite a few south Indians and srilankans that felt their experiences were distinct because of this. Moreover, during the colonial period, Indians were often called black, darkie, and the n-word by the English, so there is heritage. The arbiters of blackness may have an interest however in preserving it as a capacitor for moral debt, in which case we will be lucky to consider ourselves brown at all.

  3. Just so you know Sambo was originally South Indian. Sambo like Sambanathan etc ?

    Sambo is a South Indian boy who lives with his father and mother, named Black Jumbo and Black Mumbo, respectively.

    Critics of the time observed that Bannerman presents one of the first black heroes in children’s literature and regarded the book as positively portraying black characters in both the text and pictures, especially in comparison to the more negative books of that era that depicted blacks as simple and uncivilised.[1] However, it would become an object of allegations of racism in the mid-20th century, due to the names of the characters being racial slurs for dark-skinned people, and the fact the illustrations were, as Langston Hughes put it, in the pickaninny style

  4. As some on this blog, who I have friended on social media, are aware, I am the most neutral brown of the browns. I have faced some isolated incidents of racism and I think the lack of meritocracy in education in America is a bit unnerving, but outside of that, I do not feel marginalized. Stuff like media portrayals heavily affecting perception evaporates within 5 minutes of me meeting someone. It would probably be worse though, if I wasn’t born in America and a recent S Asian immigrant. I also have only been around relatively high SES circles and lived mostly in those areas my entire life, so there may be some bias there.

    1. I went to the US as a grad student in my early 20s and stayed for a decade before moving back to India. Now I may have a thick skin, and I’m generally of a nerdy and introverted disposition, but I never encountered any discernible racism or bias against me. In fact, I was selected for extra screening at an airport exactly once in that decade, which is far fewer than I would have expected.

      As far as I can tell, my cohort of Indian students or Indians who came to the US to work, had very similar experiences to me. The few people who I have heard complain about the odd case of bias either had very leftist politics (and were liable to blame the US for everything wrong in the world) or had a personal setback at work for which they needed a scapegoat (racism being a convenient one to latch on to.)

      1. Numinous,

        Now I may have a thick skin, and I’m generally of a nerdy and introverted disposition, but I never encountered any discernible racism or bias against me.

        Can second that. I lived for 25 years.
        Other than when going to work I dont dress yuppie. On my own time I dont look like I have decent job/education. Very ethnic presentation, though almost never use words like yo, bro and four letter curse words. My girl friend says I look a shady character.

        Yes, never encountered any discernible racism or bias against me.

  5. This greater “woke” engagement in the political space by the desis will eventually boomerang. After flying under the radar for so many years and being successful in that, don’t know why desis cannot become a bit more like the Chinese diaspora. We need more social capital before being “woke”. Or else after Hispanics now I feel desis are painting a bullseye on their back.

    1. Aren’t desis just emulating the woke whites in the milieus they inhabit? As an ethnicity, we seem to have a very sharp radar for what is high or low status behaviour.

  6. “Brown” has long been used as a term alongside black, white etc. for South Asians in the UK and Canada, and in these countries there’s still a sizeable working class South Asian population that lives alongside Black or Caribbean populations in places like London, Toronto etc.

    In the US, South Asians are more likely to be living with whites in white neighborhoods unlike in Canada or the UK, where they live with “other” minorities.

  7. There was a time when some South Asians were considered ‘white’ in the US.

    As such I think there is nothing called ‘white’, may be pink but NOT white.

    1. @Dravjdarya

      S Asians have a very interesting distribution of looks in America. Both Mindy Kalings/Senthil Ramamurthy and Nikki Hayleys/Preet Bharara are relatively proportionally more prevalent in comparison to the subcontinent.

      However, people like Kal Penn/Nitya Vidyasagar are still definitely there (I fall into this medium brown camp).

      The intial Punjabi immigrants to America that settled in California tended to be of rural non dalit background, aka among the more morphologically conventionally caucasoid and lighter skinned populations, congruent with their on average moderately lower proportion of the famed ASI (AASI more recently)- like 10 to 15 percent less compared to standard middle caste N Indian. So in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind vs. USA, a supreme court case where a Punjabi farmer sued to get citizenship. From wiki:

      “was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decided that Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man who identified himself as a “high caste aryan, of full Indian blood,” was racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship in the United States. In 1919, Thind filed a petition for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1906 which allowed only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” to become United States citizens by naturalization….

      The court rejected this argument, holding that while Hindi-speaking high-caste Indians were indeed akin to white European peoples, they had intermarried too freely with the non-white pre-Indo-European populace of India, hence their present skin color. Because of the uncertainty this caused for scientific classification, the court decided to use a “common sense” definition of ‘White’ that did not allow for the scientific arguments Thind made and did not classify Indians as white.”

      Even back then, the whole “white thing” was extremely tenuous. Also, in the South I read somewhere that a light skinned S Korean women during Jim Crowe was stopped from drinking from a black fountain and redirected to a white one. I think, for Indians, only the lightest of the light aka Nuristani types or some of the 1SD above the mean skin lightness type light NW types might have been treated the same.

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