Is It OK to be Down with Brown?

Pratyush Rastogi, Full-Time MBA Class of 2015

Pratyush Rastogi, Full-Time MBA Class of 2015

“Ohhh that came out kinda rough…” That was the simultaneous thought of all the writers, actors, and producers of The Recruiter upon watching the business card ceremony in the final episode. For those who don’t recall or didn’t attend Follies, this is the scene in which the recruiter selects my character for an internship by referring to him as “the brown one.”

Throughout writing and production, we all (I especially) thought the line was funny. But upon watching it, the line elicited a negative reaction. I wondered why. After some reflection I feel it was because I had given license to the group to use a line, which was inadvertently a bit racist. We certainly couldn’t have used the line “the black one” if the actor had been black or “the yellow one” if the actor had been Chinese. So why did I think it was OK for us to use “the brown one” because I was South Asian?

It was a strange realization for me, as we South Asians refer to ourselves as brown, have a self-deprecating humor, and laugh when people refer to the more comedic of us as “Aziz Ansari.” But perhaps using the word brown perpetuates certain stereotypes and gives tacit approval to non-South Asians to adopt the same stereotypes. You definitely couldn’t go to a black person who made a joke and tell them that they reminded you of Chris Rock.

For a lot of us South Asians, the word brown can be one of endearment, friendship, and a way to assign a group term to Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans alike. However, I wondered why we use it, as it does seem to perpetuate some stereotypes. You may have heard generalizations such as “brown people are good at IT”, “brown people are nerds,” or “all brown people know how to dance bhangra” (that last one’s true though… check us out on the dance floor). So should we really be using the “b” word?

On further thought and conversation, I think the answer to that question was pretty aptly stated when one of my “brown” friends said, “People feel empowered by taking ownership of expressions or phrases that mean to demean them.” This notion is further reflected by Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones when he says, “Would you rather be called the Imp? Let them see that their words can cut you and you’ll never be free of the mockery. If they want to give you a name, take it, make it your own. Then they can’t hurt you with it anymore.”

So maybe by using the word, and making it our own, we “brown” people are both poking fun at ourselves and making it so that non-brown people can’t. Whether this is a good enough reason to use the word, I’ll leave that up to you. But perhaps it’s not so bad to be down with brown.