In previous writings I’ve mentioned being “ambiguously brown” and it occurred to me that that term probably isn’t particularly self-descriptive for many readers. Thus I am writing about what I mean when I say it.
You’re in Kindergarten and people assume you’re adopted because your skin is a different color than your mom’s.
You’re in first grade playing at the tether ball courts before walking to your babysitter’s house with her two kids. The kids carefully point out that you are a N***o because of your darker skin, but they aren’t because they’re white. At that age, you had never heard the word before so don’t understand its implications. In later years, you realize that for first and second graders to say that to you, they must have heard it from their parents--your babysitter.
You’re in second grade and your classmates tell you a boy named Shawn should be your boyfriend because you both have brown skin.
At some point in your childhood you come across a Got Milk? ad featuring Tyra Banks and are excited because you’ve never really seen another brown person in a magazine.
Disney’s Pocahontas is released and you’re thrilled to see a brown character, especially because you feel tied to your own Native American ancestry. As you grow older, you realize how historically inaccurate and culturally appropriative that movie is. You still have conflicted feelings about it.
You’re in third grade. It’s your first day at a brand new school. You don’t know anyone except the girl you met at the orientation for the program you’re entering. You wait by the door for the bell to ring because you’re a shy pipsqueak who is scared to make friends with strangers. A sixth grader walks by--he’s white. He looks at you and says, “Get out of here, n****r.” He walks away. By that age, you know what it means. You’re too scared and unsure to report it so you don’t do anything--you just keep standing by the door. Later in the year, you discover this kid is one of the “Recess Monitors” and wonder what other bullying he does in his position of power.
You’re in fourth grade and are assigned a group project to create a “commercial” in which each student pretends to be a celebrity sponsoring whatever product you decide to “sell.” You’re torn between choosing Tyra Banks and Jennifer Lopez for yourself--they’re the only brown celebrities you know of, and neither really looks like you.
You’re in junior high. You make a friend who later tells you when she first saw you she didn’t like you because she thought you were a gypsy--a type of racism most Americans don’t understand because the Roma people primarily dwell in Europe.
You’re minding your own business when people (often strangers) come up to you and say, “Can I touch your hair?” as they reach their hands into your hair without waiting for an answer.
You’re sitting in art class when a kid comes up to you and asks, “Have you ever thought about making dreadlocks?”
You’re interested in dating various guys at different times. As you grow older and gain more experience, you discover many of them think of you less as a real person and more as an exotic creature they can acquire and try to tame.
You’re driving to the library one summer in high school. A cop starts following you and follows you for over a mile before pulling you over. He says he pulled you over because he suspects you don’t have car insurance and you know that’s a big, warm pile of BS.
You take for granted that because you are brown, you’re free from possessing any racism yourself. You realize that’s not how it works and labor to identify your own racial biases and shut them down.
You work in retail. Whenever Latinx customers visit the store, they speak to you in Spanish but you don’t speak Spanish, so you feel kind of like an idiot (monolingualism is one of America’s shames).
You’re at the bus stop in a snowstorm when a woman asks you if you’re from Spain.
You’re in a paleoanthropology class discussing genetic variation within species when your professor gestures to you and guesses you are Middle Eastern.
You do a study abroad in Italy and discover you blend in seamlessly--until your Italian language skills reach their limit.
You’re at the gym waiting for a protein shake when you notice a guy at the other end of the counter staring at you. You assume it’s because men at gyms seem to think women are theirs for the ogling. He approaches you and asks, “Are you American?”
You’re in the middle of a sentence--any topic will do, as this happens frequently--when someone interrupts you and asks, “What are you?”
People ask you where you’re from and aren’t satisfied when you say, “I’m born and raised a Utahn.”
People ask where your parents are from. You say Alaska and Arizona/Missouri, respectively. They reply, “But where are they really from?”
You sometimes wonder if the reason you didn’t get a call back after that great job interview is because of your skin color.
You’re at a swing dance session when a teacher is going around to each couple telling the women to “jump like a black woman” in order to help them do a move correctly. You say to your partner, “That’s racist.” The teacher gets to you and doesn’t say the same thing. You’re glad she stopped saying the racist comment, but are also aware your skin tone is the reason she doesn’t say it to you.
You try to fill out the “Race” and “Ethnicity” portions of job applications, HR forms, etc. but have never seen a checkbox that seems totally correct.
Sometimes when people ask you “what are you” you say, “Danish” and they respond with, “No, but where do you get your brown skin?”
As election season 2016 gets into full swing, you start spending an inordinate amount of time wondering what it means to be ambiguously brown.
As election season 2016 continues and Trump gains support, you wonder what that will mean for you in your brown-ness. And you recognize that if you have to wonder and worry, black people, Latinx people, indigenous people, and others who are more concrete in how they look or identify are in a much scarier place than you.
You wonder if had you grown up in a less homogenous place, if this whole “ambiguously brown” thing would even exist. You also realize that even if that were the case, it doesn’t matter because you did grow up in a homogenous place.
You long for a “people,” recognizing that white people don’t think of you as white--you’ve never thought of yourself as white either--but you don’t have a clear ethnicity to which you belong.
You develop the term Ambiguously Brown Privilege. You recognize that being ambiguous protects you from certain discriminations, but also know you don’t have white privilege.