Brown: What White Feminists Need

Brown isn’t just a color. Brown, when used by a woman in the know i.e. a Brown woman, means belief, ideology, culture, norms, rules, self-concept. It means family ties knotted and entangled and complex; linked to rules and obligations and a hierarchy of nuanced mores, both spoken and unspoken. Some rules are so complex and long-held, they are absorbed, almost like osmosis, through the skin. And on reflection, there is little recollection of how they permeated the consciousness.

Brown means being vigilant about these convoluted rules guiding conduct, deportment (discrete, mannered, controlled), speech (again, discrete mannered, controlled) and even body language (yes, also discrete, mannered, controlled). A small example of one of the ‘rules’ I seemed to have absorbed was ‘small yourself‘. Nothing direct was taught or said, but I recall the first time I stretched in public outside of Pakistan. I was in Australia on some sidewalk in some town. And I felt the urge to stretch; I stretched long and wide, chest out, back arched. And I felt a thrill-like I was doing something illicit. It was then that I realized Brown women from the sub-continent do not stretch like that in public.

Rules extend to dress and around engaging with men and women at different ages in different spaces. There are obvious and implied rules around sexuality and how it is/isn’t expressed.

Brown means an awareness of shade and how much the degree of brownness impacts whether a woman likes what she sees in the mirror or not. It means a culture where women breathe in misogyny day in and day out in the smallest and biggest of ways, from the closest and most distant of sources. It means experiencing so many varied forms of misogyny from so many varied sources (including other women-mothers, aunts, grandmothers and friends) in so many ways that she doesn’t even see it any more. Because it has stopped being misogyny to her and is just life. And the desensitization becoming protective, almost necessary, for her to function in that environment. The fall-out of that desensitization is then feeling confronted by the word ‘feminism’ because it presents as unrelatable or aggressive. As a result there are Brown women, who outright reject the word, much like a form of Stockholm syndrome.

However, I’ve noticed when used by many White women, Brown is used as just brown. Taking the word from Brown to brown is not just an oversimplification, it is dismissive and minimizing of the context of the Brown woman. And no, it’s not #allwomenmatter. Colorblindness is racist; exclusive and prejudiced.

I am not suggesting that White women do this consciously.  But I find it is becoming more difficult to ignore the White-washing and resultant tunnel-vision of feminism.  There are certain things the White feminist needs to know about the various aspects of the Brown woman’s lived experience.

Such as, for a Brown woman, every action and disclosure outside the norms of culturally appropriate is an act of rebellion. Like refusing to put her tampons in the brown bag handily placed on the shelf next to the sanitary products-because she is denying the shame that is being foisted on her for having her period. Like yelling back at the man who catcalled her, instead of lowering her head and quickening her pace-because she’s had enough even though she’s nerve-tingling-ly aware the man may turn around and assault her for doing it. Like telling her father she wants: wants to study, doesn’t want to marry, wants to go out, wants to marry someone she loves, doesn’t want to pray to a god she doesn’t believe in but he does. Like telling the boyfriend’s mother that she doesn’t care if she’s dark, she’ll wear whatever color she damn well pleases. Yes, even red -because she’s tired of being told dark is ugly,tired of being told to restrict her color choices to those that don’t highlight this ugliness and has chosen to stop fighting against her own skin. Like appearing on a current affairs show while in her third trimester, despite the hate mail-because she’s exhausted of fighting convoluted ways in which society sees her (the convoluted way being ‘pregnancy=sex=bad’, but ‘reproduction=good’ and the only way to make the opposing arguments coalesce is ‘pregnant women=hide’).

White women can’t know this, because they have the privilege of freedom of expression, the privilege of independence and the right to choose. And that privilege creates an exclusive and isolating echo-chamber of all-White voices.

It is important for White women to know the context of the Brown woman. Without knowing the context of the person you are trying to include and, ostensibly, help, the inclusion is meaningless. Except as a sop to the conscience of the includer.

What White women need to do is stop extending a one-size-fits-all brand of feminism. White women need to develop the imagination and ability to extrapolate enough to ask…or even Google. And once they know some of the context of being Brown, they can come to inclusion and support from a place of understanding. And they don’t have to look far to learn of examples of the Brown woman’s experience. The fact the Aboriginal women face not only more severe but more complex forms of misogyny require more nuanced and complex forms of inclusion and support.

Another thing White women need to stop doing is assuming the Brown woman’s experience from exposure to Brown, whether through friends, colleagues, travel or even her own shade of tan. None of these gives the White woman the lived experience, only the insight from that Brown woman’s context and only the parts of her context the Brown woman is willing to share or that is observable. However well-meaning these assumptions are, however much it may be lead by a genuine desire to integrate and understand and show solidarity, all it does is creates a feeling of being unheard, as assumption is not knowledge. Which leads back to the first point; without knowledge the inclusion and support of Brown women cannot be needs-tailored and so will not fit and then will not be useful.

Just so that this article doesn’t descend into some vague vitriol with the sole purpose of venting my spleen, I’ve created a little checklist to help White women, particularly White feminists, to be more inclusive:

Listen- No, I mean really listen to the Brown feminist and not just track the cadence of her voice to see where you can interject with your own observations. Sit with the discomfort of not knowing, without having to prove/defend/validate your knowledge base and recognize that the act of listening is not about you but about developing an understanding that can have an applied function.

See Shades- Brown means different things depending on context. Middle-Eastern Brown is different from Pakistani Brown which is different (yes, it is, even though many of you assume otherwise) from Indian Brown. We may all look the same to you, but we are not.

Read- Actively use the magic of Google and educate yourself about what it might feel like to be a Brown woman, particularly a Brown feminist. Read the works  of Brown feminists and what they’ve achieved within their context of feminism: From Pakistan, there is Nighat Said Khan, Afiya Shehrbano Zia and Mahnaz Rehman. From India Kirron Kher,  Indira Jaising and Meenakshi Arora. From America Winona Laduke, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Cherrie Moraga.  From Iran, Atena Farghadani and Masih Ali Nejad. From Australia Barbara Tanne, Rose Pihei and Celeste Liddle. And the millions more, across the vast spectrum that is the Brown feminist.

Ask- If you are driven by a) a genuine intent to inform yourself + b) a desire to put that information to effective use and +c) are able to frame your questions mindfully, please ask. Most Brown women would be happy to clarify and inform. Not all, though, I have to say. Because some are tired of Brown Feminist 101-ing.

Challenge- Challenge your own belief systems and mindsets regarding Brown cultures. You may have seen, heard, read something about Brown culture but recognize that the article you read, the podcast you listened to or the person you spoke with all represent information for a) that time, b) that context and c) that Brown person only, and is not always generalization to the entire context of the huge spectrum that is the Brown woman.

Once we’ve crossed the bridge to actual inclusion of FOC (feminists of color), maybe then we can say with some validity #allwomenmatter.





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