Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 31, 2010

The union of being brown

Filed under: Brown,Category,Desi,Identity,South Asian — Razib Khan @ 3:56 pm

Something which having this blog allows is to elaborate on theories/positions I’ve exposited for years on the Sepia Mutiny weblog. One of those ideas is an inclusive model of being brown (Desi). In set theory basically I’m suggesting that the set of those who are defined or self-define as brown/Desi can be reasonably modeled as the union of various other sets. In contrast, an exclusive model would posit that a brown person is an intersection of various other sets. Arguably some proponents of Hindutva explicitly adhere to this exclusive model, where only Hindu South Asians who are resident in South Asia are real browns. In contrast, in my model Bobby Jindal remains brown, despite him being American, and being a convert to an Abrahamic religion. Evangelical Protestant Gypsies in France are arguably brown; they may have some residual South Asian ancestry, and often retain many South Asian customs as well as Indo-Aryan language. People of European descent born and raised in India are also brown. They may not be typical in appearance, or even religion, but their upbringing in a South Asian milieu makes them at least as brown in my opinion, if not more so, than Diasporic browns. Adopted children who are of South Asian origin are also brown because of their indubitable ancestry through their appearance. It doesn’t matter if they have a Minnesota accent and are involved in the Lutheran youth group, and couldn’t tell Kolkota from Karachi from Kodaikanal.

But this inclusive model doesn’t deny that there are some brown people who are more prototypically brown. Hinduism is the South Asian religion par excellence. Islam is not, despite the largest numbers of Muslims in the world being resident in South Asia. All things equal being a Hindu gives one more of a brown stamp than being a Muslim. Similarly, being a Syrian Christian and not an evangelical Protestant in Kerala roots one in South Asia as opposed to a world wide Protestant community. There are white skinned pale brown people, but the reality is that the typical brown person is…brown-skinned.

This doesn’t mean that I’m the pope of brown people. You’re brown/Desi if you say you are in my book. But terms and categories need to have some utility. And this sort of way of classification and identification is I think instrumentally useful. It allows us to make comparisons. I would say, for example, that Zach is arguably more brown than I am despite his mixed ancestral heritage because of his manifestly clearer association with a South Asian nation, Pakistan, and his identification with many aspects of South Asian civilization. Myself, I admit frankly that I’m very alienated from South Asian high culture, and am drawn more to China and the West. But because of my ancestry it would be foolish for me to deny that I am South Asian.

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