In 2013, my journalist/writer cousin, Shadi, wrote a story titled Brown is not an Ethnicity. For the story, she posed to me the questions: Do you consider yourself brown? Do people call you brown? How do you feel when they do? If you’re not brown then what are you?
Below was my response.
I will just tell you some of my own personal experience.
I generally don’t like being called brown. I don’t like being called anything, except maybe Torontonian or Canadian. I prefer Torontonian over anything else, because I don’t generally relate much to other places in Canada outside Toronto — except possibly Vancouver.
When I was travelling over the summer, people would of course often ask me where I’m from. My answer was always “Toronto” or “Canada”. In Europe, that was usually sufficient. In Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, they wouldn’t even ask — everyone assumed I was Indian or Pakistani. (Merchants would yell “hindi!” to get my attention, as if that were my name.) When I told them I was Canadian, the response was always, almost word for word, “no no no, originally.” People were unable to fathom the possibility that I was from Canada, even after I told them. If I obliged and told them my parents are Iranian, that came with its own preconceptions: I’m muslim, I hate America and Israel, I know that 9/11 was a conspiracy to invade Iraq. I am none of these things. People can say otherwise, but you really are treated differently because of “where you’re from”, even if you’re not from there!
A few years ago, I was dating an “Indian” girl. I use quotes because I would describe her as a cultural mix between Torontonian, Indian and international (she grew up mostly in Libya before coming to Canada, but in one of those isolated oil compounds for foreign workers and their families). Anyway, our relationship was rocky from the start because I wasn’t Indian and she could never marry a non-Indian. Nonetheless, we fell deeply in love. For a time it seemed like there could be an exception for us, but that didn’t happen and we eventually broke up. She was engaged 3 months later. That sucked, and ever since, I especially don’t like it when people call me brown. It’s terrible, I know, but I can’t help it. I’m actually surprised by my own reaction because while we were together, we used to talk about how similar Iranian and Indian cultures are (there are so many similarities), and we’d find words that are the same/similar in Farsi and Hindi. It was actually a lot of fun and brought us closer together.
Just YESTERDAY, I was chatting with an Indian friend. I was telling her that the last 3 girls I’ve dated weren’t allowed to marry me for “cultural reasons” (in order: north Indian, Tamil, Sikh) and that that is why we broke up in each case. She said Indian culture is crazy like that and “you should know that, you’re brown.” Sigh. I honestly don’t understand how I would know that. I don’t understand what it means to be brown. I don’t understand anything.