Why brown Americans find ethnic and national factionalism amusing sometimes

What do they call a light-skinned Punjabi? “The brown guy.”

What do they call the Pakistani Muslim? “The guy who worships cows.”

What do they call the sharp-featured Khatri? “The Indian looking girl.”

What do they call the black-skinned Tamil? “The brown guy.”

What do they call the pale Pandit? “The brown guy.”

What do they call the Brahmin? “Curry smelling guy.”

All this is not to say that you have to be what other people call you. Just because most of my life people have assumed I’m Hindu, and that I speak Hindu, doesn’t mean I should identify as Hindu and embrace he nonexistent Hindu language. But, the “important” differences between North Indians and South Indians, dark and light, even Muslim and Hindu, can seem a bit marginal to some people from the American perspective…

The converse of this is that liberal socially progressive Indian Americans should not think that people in India are just versions of themselves in the past. People in India are a different “fork” and have their own identity.

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30 Replies to “Why brown Americans find ethnic and national factionalism amusing sometimes”

  1. Well, it’s like some other American subcultural identities, which seem to shift from Old World divisions into divisions based on how people see them, typically physical appearance (e.g. black, white, brown, east Asian etc. etc.) which is a lowest common denominator identity since people can make judgements on looks without hearing one’s accent or life story, with some exception for more lasting cultural/linguistic/religious identities that are not as tied to physical appearance per se (e.g. Jewish, Hispanics or Spanish-speakers of all races, or Muslims of all races).
    For example, Silicians or Bavarians not seeing themselves as “white” until they move stateside, whether they even had an Italian-ness or German-ness in outlook to begin with before they lost their distinct Old World identity to become Midwesterners or East coasters. Asian Americans only forming a pan-Asian identity post 1960s with the California/Berkeley area critical in developing race consciousness among the individual Asian groups. African Americans long lost connections to individual West African cultures (setting aside a small minority who do engage in more pan-Africanism or “back to Africa” identities) but even today, Nigerians, Somalians etc. find themselves negotiating the fact that people see them as “black” first rather than nationality first, once they step foot in the US.
    The question is, as time goes on, and cultural groups “assimilate”, will “race” (as in physical appearance, color etc.) be still the markers Americans (and the world in general) use to categorize individuals or not, over the generations absent language/old world culture distinctions?

    Will it be the salience of physical appearance that continues to haunt American (or perhaps other places’) identity in the near future (no doubt there will be some complexity as intermarriage increases but old ways of seeing and categorizing “race” die hard) and decides who belongs in what “group”?

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  2. In some ways, I see your point. A few thoughts:

    – The message that your internal differences are rather small to the majority community is sometimes used with the intention of bringing about some minority solidarity by elevating the importance of external differences. I feel like this is a bit of a leftist thing, and the pressure to conform is annoying. If you’re a minority and you take a certain view on some issues, & break away from the majority of minorities, you take a lot of flak for not conforming to expectations. That’s never a great feeling, and it also has real world consequences.

    – By pressuring conformity, the liberals within minority communities get undermined by majority liberals (see: Triple Talaq stuff in India, burqa bans in the West). If a Dalit in the diaspora wants to let America know how they feel about Brahmins in the diaspora, they should be encouraged to speak up. Likewise for a Desi woman in the diaspora wrt men, or Muslims wrt Hindus, etc. The majority man might not consider it of any significance or importance, but to the extent we still carry these issues with us in our diaspora communities, it should be addressed transparently so we can evolve, not broomed under the carpet.

    – The other aspect is that yes maybe there’s some White people trying to sow divisions into minorities to break that solidarity by propagating ideas like model minority (the right is accused of this), elevating some at the expense of others to divide and rule. But a lot of that sounds like some of the postmodern postcolonial BS where only white people have agency and responsibilities, and their colonial subjects were just their pawns (e.g., when it comes to Hindu vs Muslim tensions). I don’t really buy that. Minorities have issues with other minorities, and it’s not because of others. Most of all, we’re all individuals.

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      1. Who are you asking this to?

        I’ve found that despite the stereotype of Americans as being the ones that tell other (minority) Americans that white people are the archetypal American (e.g. the “go back to where you came from” taunt), ironically those that cling on to the American = white image are old worlders — Chinese, Indians, many Africans (in Africa) really do look up to the white American ideal and will catch any glimpse of a blonde tourist and think “American”, even denying American-ness to tourists of other complexions (unless something is very clear such as dress, accent, and even so, some questioning is often in order as to their American-ness, much to the annoyance of many a non-white American tourist).

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  3. // What do they call the Brahmin? “Curry smelling guy.” //

    This cracked me up so bad. Haven’t been able to stop laughing for the last couple of minutes…

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    1. yeah I notice this too. Most of my S Asian friends in NJ are told by their parents and close relatives something along the lines of

      “It’s okay, if you marry anyone who is Hindu/Muslim (Hindus say Hindu and Muslims say Muslim) from India/Pak/Bangla/SriLanka/Nepal.”

      Religion and just being generally brown trumps everything and is actually the norm among even conservative households of my generation, as to what parents generally tell their children about they can and cannot date/marry.

      The distinction between S Asian Muslims and Hindus occurs at one place though.

      S Asian Muslims parents who are more open will say: “It is okay if you marry someone, but they just have to be Muslim.”

      S Asian Hindu parents who are more open will say:” It is okay if you marry someone, but they cannot be Muslim.”

      S Asian Hindu parents will prefer their son/daughter marry a White or even a Black non-Muslim than a Muslim.

      And both groups of course prefer Whites to Blacks as partners for their children, so that isn’t unique. Both groups are horrified at the possibility of LGBT children.

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    2. Yep. The religious divide is paramount.

      Region sort of matters. There’s a North/South divide in some places, but not as much in places with smaller diasporas.

      In my West Coast hometown, “what side of town your family settled in” matters a lot when it comes to social circle!

      But nothing else really matters. Americans don’t care about color, and many people here don’t know *what* their caste is until they are well into their teens…which tells you all you need to know about how salient it is.

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  4. A while back American troops were sent to Haiti for disaster relief. Black troops were rather annoyed when Haitians called them “blans” (whites). From a Haitian perspective, the differences between American races apparently seemed less significant than the differences between Americans and Haitians.

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  5. i have a light-skinned friend who is half-jaimaican and half-english. one day he was walking on the beach and some guys yelled “white man” at him. it took him a while to realize they were talking about him

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    1. A few years back downtown NYC. Rainy day and was trying to hail a cab for me and friends, mixed lot.

      None of the cabs stopped. Then somebody yelled get that black guy off the street.

      Then someone else from our group stepped outside and very first cab stopped to pick us up.

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  6. In Europe, Greeks, who came from Africa (before Mesopotamia), did not consider themselves white. When they met Serbs Goths, they gave them a name Celts, what means – whites. Also, their language was not ‘Indo-European’ but over time and, in interactions with indigenous Pelasgians, their language ‘became’ IE and their olive tan is now considered – white. From locals they also received their name – Greeks, which was not a compliment but, it remained and spread globally. Interestingly, their gods were presented blondes from the beginning – the question is – why and how?

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  7. I see your guys’ points about the American and non-American distinction overriding the color line (e.g. the black American troops in Haiti being called “white”), but on the other hand, I often hear stories of the reverse — non-white Americans traveling overseas being shocked to find that they aren’t received as “Americans” because the residents of the countries they’re traveling in think American = white. Say perfectly American English-speaking Chinese Americans or Desi Americans, even African Americans being seen as “Africans” or “Asians” abroad and the locals ignoring them and approaching the blonde, blue-eyed European-descent fellow expecting them to be the “real American” Some Old Worlders are so naive they even think “native” American = white American. I literally had to explain to some Indian international students studying in the US itself that East-Asian -looking people are what indigenous Americans were, before blonde-looking settlers even stepped foot on the continent, and a tan, black-haired fellow stateside isn’t “foreign-looking” but actually looks more like what the original Americans were like.
    Perhaps the Haitians were able to tell the black Americans apart because they were in uniform, but I’ve heard my fair share of stories about how frustrated black American or Asian American tourists try to convince others that they share the “same nationality” as their lighter-complexioned fellow travelers.

    So many non-Americans just swallow the Hollywood portrayals of “all-American” looks hook, line and sinker, without critically thinking.
    Even famous people sometimes have gotten the treatment — Samuel L Jackson and Magic Johnson mistaken for “migrants” in Italy some time back. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/samuel-l-jackson-magic-johnson-lazy-migrants-italy-tuscany-forte-dei-marmi-louis-vuitton-a7905026.html
    So many people lump white Europeans and white Americans together as “white culture”. Even in college-educated circles, people will lump African and African-Americans, Hispanics and Hispanic Americans together as people of color with their varied brethren and sistren overseas (and yes, I know that’s part of what self-declared diasporic identity is about, but even the host country sometimes sees them that way), and even try to call for instance Asian American literature, or African aspects of African-American music non-western literature or non-western culture (e.g. think of Africana studies or departments of African AND African American studies). Sometimes, African and Asian descent folks who are clearly born-and-bred citizens of western countries want to be called westerners, see themselves as westerners and yet are still lumped with non-westerners they’ve never met or socialized with (even Razib on his blog has talked about this, where desis born and raised in the west are asked about “brown” stuff no matter how distant it may be to their experience, for instance a 3rd generation Brit Desi or Guyanese visits Ohio and gets asked about Bollywood).

    While Americans and others in the world continue to associate racial appearance, ancestral lineage with culture unquestioningly (the link between culture and race is already broken for some groups but not others — think about how evangelical Christians could be South Koreans in Korea itself, Ugandans, Texans or Brazilians of any race, but some people still think brown= Muslim, though Muslims, like Christians can be of any race), I can see why diasporas identify a lot with their co-racials abroad at least symbolically vs. their majority compatriots.
    I’d love it if people thought more critically, and didn’t think so sloppily about identity — and were better at identifying the difference between diasporan groups and groups that are in the homeland, identifying the difference between the different sub-groups in diaspora and homeland alike, identifying the difference between a racial group (black in the sense of sub-Saharan descent in general), a cultural group (e.g. African Americans), a religious group, linguistic group etc. and realize how multifaceted and multi-dimensional identities are, but it seems that not everyone is like us that way.

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  8. From online experience,it seems that americans have very stupid and incorrect ideas about race. Media propaganda are also responsible for such ideas. According to many Americans,humans belong to following races:
    1 white
    2 black
    3 Hispanic
    4 native American(who they call “Indian”)
    5 Indian/Arab
    6 Arab
    7 Asian

    To some, jews are also a race.
    To many,muslims are a race often associated with being brown,arab( though many arabs are white) or indian which is a result of Hollywood stereotypes and the images of “terrorist” faces intentionally published by popular media(i.e. indian looking “islamist terrorist” faces)

    It also seems that they focus a lot on skin colour and not on facial features while racializing people. Many probably intentionally keep themselves in lies bcz it pleases them.

    Also, neither Arabs nor Indians are exactly races and they may belong to different race types. East Asians may have a lot of diversity also.

    In my opinion,many middle eastern people despite being very similar to europeans are not getting the full white pass mainly because of religious difference.

    Some see a “white” person as a person of ideally west European descent. Historically, south Europeans and east Europeans were considered racially inferior to west Europeans. Most probably,it was west Europeans who started BS like white nationalism and white supremacy.

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    1. “Historically, south Europeans and east Europeans were considered racially inferior to west Europeans.”

      >>>> Stani, are you using warlock’s identity crisis to push to be the top BP joker? Btw, I kindly offered him to remain in a family as a black (or brown or whatever he chooses) sheep but, we will have to wait the outcome of his consultations with his numerous dates across all applications. In meantime, let me tell you a thing or two about Eu…

      South Europeans consider themselves as the world champions in lifestyles and street-smarting. It doesn’t matter if they are shortleggy and chubby Greeks or a meter&half Neapolitanese&Calabrese, not speaking about tall Lombardians (from Serbian tribe Lombards, capital city, Milan) or Spanish. They consider northerners (e.g. Germans) dumb and gluttonous. But all of them, including Germans, consider English as moronic&eccentric [Hoju, 2019] what probably is coming from wasting time on cricket.

      Who are western Eu? French? Artificial nation with artificial language, consists from several nations (including Serbs Burgundians – famous musketeers and Galls=Celts, Britons and Normans, Africans and Arabs) which are held by force to leave impression of unity while theatrically are listening Marseilles.

      It should be considered that indigenous Europeans with strong genes are the most vital parts of western Eu countries and often have given the name to these countries – Prussians in Germany, Belga tribe in Belgium, Suebi in Sweden, Helveti in Helvetia (Suisse), Celts in British Isles, Dacians in Denmark, France, Italy. There is a good observation by Diasporian about Sicily and Bavaria. The whole East Germany consists of germanised indigenous people. Do you remember the sporting powerhouse which conquered the most of medals on Olympics and world champions? Plus, all other East European countries including Russia. What about IQs? One small Serbia conquered hundreds of medals on mathematical and similar Olympiads, others (Russia) even more. I don’t know for any French or English or so medal. What about arts, music, ballet…? What about physically beautiful people, girls (Polish, Prussian, Danish, Russian, Serbian, Czechs, etc). Any so nice French or English girls?

      After all, the above assertion (racially inferior? give me a break) is even not a joke, I think that warlock is safe in his top position.

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  9. Re Arabs et al, I thought people from W Asia are considered “White”. CIA Factbook calls natives of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria etc as of Mediterranean type whites. My personal rule is that if a person chooses to be a certain race (as W Asians generally opt white), one ought to respect that.

    OTOH Indians clearly are way brown-to-black and no Indian would ordinarily call her/himself white. Even had a Nigerian acquaintance comment to me once in Cambridge that he spotted some Indians at the local supermarket and they were darker than him 🙂 Which is true. Many of the chaps that pass off as “black” in the US are barely even brown like us. But their race is more of a choice for them, which is fine!

    I can personally attest to American skin-tone blindness in my own extended family. Two of my second-cousins (Kashmiri Pandit women – US raised) have married African-American (more like mixed race) people. And I was at a wedding recently of my wife’s side of the family, where the guy married a Keralite Christian lady (of significantly darker skin tone) and nobody raised as much an eyebrow. They were all happy she’s a Harvard medic.

    Marrying Muslims though is extremely unlikely. And I know of only two instances in my wider family, and in both cases the girl was a Pakistani Shia brought up in the UK.

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    1. No. Those west asian people might be officially “white”. But common americans(and europeans ) consider them brown. Some cannot even differentiate between south asians and west asians. Popular media intentionally make west asians look like south asians

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      1. the issue is religoin. christian and jewish middle easterners are allowed to pass. no one considered ralph nader nonwhite when he ran for president, but he’s 100% lebanese. similarly there are many arab celebrities from nonmuslim backgrounds who pass.

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        1. I tend to disagree. not withstanding extremely distinctive religious garb, the issue is phenotype more so than religion. phenotype matters a ton.

          Med looking levantines and other similar groups that can pass as some form of Euro get a pass. If someone is dark enough or has a distinctively gulf arab appearance, they do not get a pass.

          One example is the many many dark coptics in my area get called Muslim and treated as non whites. The lighter ones among them don’t.

          S Asians are facially distinctive enough with ultra divergent AASI in the mix, that very very few can get a White pass ie. Niki Hayley

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          1. Med looking levantines and other similar groups that can pass as some form of Euro get a pass.

            if you are visibly muslim you are nonwhite. this is well known. it’s the phenomenon of arab women going from white to nonwhite just by putting on a hijab.

            i agree if you are brown enough (copt) you are coded nonwhite. the key issue is what white people become nonwhite through culture shift.

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        2. I feel like though it depends on what one means by passing — if it’s at first glance rather than actually getting to know the person, hear them talk and describe their views etc., then phenotype matters and only visible voluntarily chosen markers that override phenotype (hijab, kippa etc., perhaps even choice of dress style, say distinguishing Americans from Europeans) can be used for signalling — after all, a racially prejudiced person often isn’t going to stop to ask one’s religion, wait to talk to hear one’s accent etc.

          Even dress signals don’t always work — I think an Ethiopian Jewish person wearing Jewish dress will still be seen as “black” first by most people uneducated or unaware about the existence of that particular ethno-religious group.

          I suppose that’s why, though the term is not really favored by many, the Canadian term for racial minority is “visible” minority, implying the person is “visibly” non-white, as opposed to another type of minority such as religious minority, or linguistic minority that doesn’t look different from the majority on that dimension.
          People still use the eye to judge first. Judging a book by its cover is what we’re not supposed to do, but we do it anyways.
          Racial appearance is such a sticking point because it can be used to make judgements before getting any cultural knowledge about the person (if someone is visibly black, people start to make assumptions even if they can’t see their passport, their religious views etc. and start to pattern-match to whatever their local perception of blacks is, such as an African American being mistaken for African immigrant in Italy, or a Nigerian immigrant being mistaken for African American in the US south).

          Racial stereotyping based on looks alone is the lazy person’s heuristic, who doesn’t wait for individual additional info to make a judgement.

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          1. “visible minority” is a great term and our discussion in the US suffers from its lack. e.g., a blue-eyed blonde person with the last name ‘sanchez’ is an ‘underrepresented minority’, but i’m visible 🙂

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      2. From what I seem to hear and read, the more narrow definition of brown = South Asian, seems to be more common in the UK and Canada, than the US, where brown seems to be ambiguously applied to people who aren’t black, white or light-skinned (north) East Asian in various ways — thus, you hear brown used for South Asians, darker skinned Arabs and Middle Easterners, darker skinned or mixed race Hispanics.
        I’m not sure if it’s the more familiar or larger/ longer history of South Asians in the UK and Canada that makes brown = South Asian more salient there than in the US, where the black-white binary is stronger and thus “brown” is more liminal.
        I think brown South Asians are also the major non-white group in many British and Canadian cities and towns but is rarely the case stateside.

        In my perception East Asians and South Asians, though rarely, are still grouped together often in the US (as a pan-Asian grouping, in cases when people want to add another type of Asian to East Asian or Southeast Asian for aggregation) in a “Harold and Kumar” style combo, while very rarely in either the UK or Canada, where brown people are seen as much more their own group.

        For instance, Asian fraternities and sororities, clubs etc. while mostly East Asian stateside, occasionally will have South Asians as members.

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        1. a lot of this is due to numbers. also, ‘brown’ communites in the UK and canada have sub-ethnic cohesion. punjabis in UK and canada are more punjabi and less ‘brown’ in a lot of ways. in the USA the numbers don’t work (for south asians and muslims) to create these narrower identities.

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          1. Would be curious to know when the earliest usage of brown = South Asian specifically was (is it a post 1960s thing in any Anglophone country’s usage, or much more recent), and when desis first called themselves proudly brown (whether or not it was chosen or imposed as a label and then claimed). Indeed, some identities are quite new (e.g. Hispanic/Latino being a US census category in the 1970, “Asian Ameican”, not “Oriental” being preferred post 1960s). Given that South Asians did not immigrate to the US in as large numbers as these two other groups until a generation or two ago, my guess is brown for South Asians is fairly new (but I have no idea of whether the label of brown for South Asian in the UK and US are parallel developments or influenced one another, but the brown for dark-skinned Latin America as “between black and white” does seem a New World influence).
            Apparently, the non-black, non-white usage of “brown” has been super common throughout western history — refering to both (recently) mixed race people (e.g. “colored” in S. Africa, mixed in Brazil but between African and European in appearance) and also a wide swath of people native from North Africa to Southeast Asia (inclusive of South Asian).
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_(racial_classification)

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    2. “Marrying Muslims though is extremely unlikely. ”

      Wouldn’t it be less controversial, considering you share a bit culturally with Kashmiri muslims. Out of all my acquaintance, the few folks who have inter married are folks like Bengalis or Mallus (where muslims/ christians share the same ethnic and cultural space)

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    3. Lol, marrying a Muslim would get me written out of the will!

      I’d imagine the reaction would be the same if I dated an Evangelical.

      But not for dating a lukewarm, secularized pseudo-Christian.

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  10. Thais group both MENA,South Asians, and Malays under the term “Khaek”.
    Many Desis don’t even fully get (or even care about) cultural differences between various South Asian groups, insane to expect outsiders to so.

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  11. Would be curious to know when the earliest usage of brown = South Asian specifically was (is it a post 1960s thing in any Anglophone country’s usage, or much more recent)

    if u were born and raised in ind/pak/bdesh i doubt u would use ‘brown.’ i think it only applies to ppl who are brown american. subnational identity is a thing for a lot of ppl (e.g., ‘i’m indian american and proud!’), but for those of us who are not nationalistic about a country that we’re not living in, south asian or brown or desi seems more natural. i like brown simple it is analogous to black and white.

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  12. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.quora.com/Do-people-correctly-assume-what-your-ethnicity-is-based-on-your-appearance&ved=2ahUKEwjm1OSWndjlAhUPVN8KHfTSCtYQjjgwAHoECAQQAQ&usg=AOvVaw2mNvHrT7cnUZADFz0oNaKe

    First answer is interesting. Eyes threw a ton of people off, but I had a strong hunch from the start. Interestingly, the Brits answering claimed to know. Americans just assume Indians are all brown like me or Razib. Black is acceptable too. But very light and light eyes confuses people.

    I have some very light blood relatives. A few have green eyes. My gf too. Americans confuse them for all sorts of shit. But my identity is secure. I have strong curry muncher vibes.

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