Meditations on Brownness

I cannot bear the color brown. I dislike the murkiness of a spent teabag staining the sink, of walls painted North Creek or Middlebury. The hue of sparrows fluffing their feathers in a pool of sandy dirt outside my kitchen window is disagreeable. Clothes in earthy tones depress me. They blur where the garment stops and my dark skin begins. I don’t want to be lost in it, don’t want to wear what I am.

When faced with checking a box to declare my color — on an airplane form, say, or my son’s school “race validation” — I have two options: black or white. The choices do not include tan, chocolate, café au lait, a little-sallow-today, ashy-when-unmoisturized, or brick-red after sun exposure.

I do not desire brown. I have never loved it or hoarded it, the way some people crave scarlet or jade, collecting cherry scarves or green ceramic bowls. Maggie Nelson writes: “And so I fell in love with a color — in this case, the color blue — as if falling under a spell.” But while I am under a spell of sorts, I am not in love. Yellow offers optimism. Celestial blue, hope. Gray signifies melancholy. But brown offers no such clarity. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it color. A color I step around.

I wonder if my loathing disguises a denial of self, an objection to my own skin and hair and eyes. So I begin to confront the color, seek it out, watch out for it in trees and stones and bodies around my city. I meditate on it, and me. I ponder its aesthetic and the baggage carried alongside. Of course, brown objects are different than brown people — and most of the world’s people are some shade of brown. We do not fit well with the binary of black/white.

If I peer through the streaming shower into the fogged up mirror, my reflected skin is rich amber. Translucent honey when I turn to catch the light filtering through the opaque bathroom window, stippled darkly where water flecks and splatters. My belly is pooled vanilla, my arms cinnamon, bruising into damson at the wrists, my hair freshly brewed espresso. I admire myself, turning in the flow, appreciating the shine of skin, the gleam and warmth of my brown body. I like my hues.

Outside of my own skin, beyond it, I’m uncertain how my brownness is perceived by others. The rules are not spelled out. Wading into the pool of ethnicity and race, I cannot decipher the meaning ripples and eddies there. What indicates danger? What distrust? What kinship? In unfamiliar social settings, I navigate the shoals of etiquette cautiously, taking care not to run aground. One must be polite, but language games have indistinct parameters. “There is no such thing as race,” I’m told. “Race is a social construct.” “Ethnicity is more important.” “I don’t see color.” “What are you?” I am bewildered by brown.

When I was a child, I wore the color once: an umber twill skirt crafted by my sister, seven years older than me. I had nothing to wear for a third-grade field trip to hunt for tadpoles at a local farm. My mother, a widow, had no spare cash to buy me pants, so my sister cut down her own skirt to fit me. She stayed up into the night, pushing the knee control of our ancient Elna sewing machine. On my way to school, I twirled proudly before my friend Janet, but her blond coiffed mother said all the girls would be wearing pants. My heart slunk into a petulant sulk of non-belonging, my differences falling in brown folds around my shins. Janet’s mother saved me; she loaned me a pair of Janet’s pants. I crammed the skirt into my school bag and stalked tadpoles in dirty ponds, secure in the conformity of borrowed blue stretch pants. When I arrived home, buoyant with belonging, my mother glared. “Never tell your sister,” she made me promise. Never was her amulet against hurt and exclusion. I felt the weight of that betrayal for years, a denial of sisterhood, of origin, of difference, of family.

When we were young, my siblings and I joked around about our different shades, telling my freckly white sister that she was adopted, while she insisted I’d been dropped in the coal bucket when I was a baby. I hear the echo of five-year-olds on the asphalt playground, calling to me: “Brownie, hey, Brownie.” I was caramel to their pink and white marshmallow-ness. Our teacher saw the differences too, and reinforced a color divide in the classroom. The only other brown child there was Edward, who smelt musty and spoke in halting, fractured vowels and blurred consonants. Blackboards lined the classroom, and Edward and I practiced our wavering cursive shoulder to shoulder, conjoined by color. We were the only two children in the class who had to share a blackboard; we finished our practice coated in finely powdered chalk dust, ghosted replicas of our classmates.

I grew up in New Zealand as a post-colonial child in all but my imagination. In my child’s mind, I was blonde. I was Guinevere, riding down Fitzroy Avenue on the back of Lancelot’s white steed, my golden tresses rippling behind me like a victory pennant, my violet eyes flashing with the passion of an Arthurian legend. My internal mirror reflected the pale complexions of the heroines in the books I read and the movies I saw, reflected the fair face of my beloved French teacher, who had eyes the color of oceans and corn silk hair down past her hips; I wanted to be her. I never had a teacher that looked like me. The only dark dolls I ever saw were touristy caricatures, plastic Māori maidens wearing flax skirts.

At university and as I began my career, I saw few people who looked like me. I rarely thought about my brownness, unless someone made me think of it. A boyfriend’s mother prohibited him from being with me because of my “background,” but I wasn’t clear what she meant. A national television news editor said he already had two “darkies” on the staff and didn’t need any more. I let implications slide off me, as if I had a sleek carapace that would not, could not be pierced. I didn’t examine color, my color. I was young, tumbling on into my future, protected by confidence and optimism.

I struggled to explain to friends, who insisted you’re just like us, that somehow I wasn’t quite, even though I also was. I listened to the same music, watched the same movies, fumbled through first loves, met similar milestones in work and relationships, but I didn’t look the same.

Strangers sometimes treat me differently, depending where I am. Sometimes I’ve been mistaken for kin — a member of the Love family from Taranaki in New Zealand — or for a member of the same tribe — a friend from Salamanca in Spain, an Indian cousin, an affable Columbian providing directions to tourists on a train. On the steps of the Old Marylebone Town Hall in London, a man with black hair and olive skin stopped me, his eyes alight. Was I from Iran? I was not, and his eyes dulled. I was sorry to disappoint him. Occasionally people look at me with suspicion, as if I might steal something, or raise their voices when they speak to me, as if I am slow to understand. I have been mistaken for a waitress, a retail assistant, the nanny of my own blond child. Once, when a courier delivered a package to my office, his German shepherd dog barked ferociously at me through the van window. The dog had previously belonged to a security firm and was trained to bark at dark-skinned people walking near building sites.

Another unease is in deflecting the disquieting label exotic. People intend it as a compliment, but it makes me squirm like a specimen about to be pinned under glass. If I am the exotic, then they are the usual, the standard, the rule.

In my twenties, while walking on a beach in Thailand, I was approached by a German man, who asked of me: “How much?” I saw myself through his eyes, a slender woman in a sarong, of a generic brown which he interpreted as a right to an exchange, body for cash, subservience for power. I felt grubby, soiled by his view. I understood very directly then that whiteness could see, often did see brown as less than.

Now I recognize it more frequently, more obviously. I live in America, but I was raised in New Zealand, which has its own layering of colonizer and colonized, migrants and people of the land, indigenous Māori, whites from England, Ireland, continental Europe, South Africa, Pacific peoples from Samoa, Tonga and Niue, Asians from India, Fiji, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In America, I haven’t yet absorbed the local code whereby one knows one’s place, but I’ve been here long enough to notice that it exists and that I sometimes tangle myself up in the semaphore. Unspoken and subtle markers manifest in body language, crossed arms, flickering eye contact, and a particular tone of voice, a light condescension — signaling that the speaker makes assumptions about status and intelligence. It is hard to prove prejudice or discrimination. How do I know? Do I imagine it?

Voices trail off when you join a group griping about Asians or Mexicans or Samoans or Māori or Indians, depending on the country you are in. These animals, these cockroaches are pushy / driving badly / not speaking English / living all together / writing signs in a foreign language / littering / shoplifting / mugging / breaching the border / taking our jobs / fucking our women. Nothing is said directly to you, unless you challenge a prevailing view and then you can’t take a joke / are too P.C / don’t know that behind every stereotype is a truth.

Scrolling down the comments section of a blog or news article, I see what some folk say anonymously. I feel clammy and churny. They could be talking about me. I could be that animal.

It helps when I speak, because I have a New Zealand accent, and that is regarded as charming, and possibly English or South African or Australian. There is a pecking order of accents. In America, New Zealanders rank highly in this hierarchy, because we are a rare species, usually educated, employed and affluent, and most that live in the U.S. are white. Some people think New Zealand is situated next to England, or possibly attached to Australia; it clearly is not part of Latin America or Asia or any swath of lands imagined to produce only house cleaners and drug dealers. The status of accent hauls me back up the social rungs, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I prefer my perch.

Brown is often conflated with class: working class, poor, the color of waiters, landscape gardeners, dishwashers, janitors, security guards. Of course there are brown pop stars, sports people, politicians, actors, and investment bankers — just not so many. At the college where I teach, some students tell me they have only had white teachers previously. The other brown and black teachers are, like me, likely to be adjuncts, or to work in areas where their darkness is related to the subject they teach. I don’t know what to make of it when my friends and colleagues are kind and fair-minded people who despise racism, but seem powerless to change it.

I want to be seen for what is inside, rather than being seen as my color. When trying to capture ideas about race, color, ethnicity, I am like my dog chasing his tail. Tomorrow I may think differently. Forgive me if my ideas shift as I grasp for the quicksilver of brown. Mutable brown.

I have two sons, one fair, one dark. When the older boy was very young, we took baths together. His skin was satiny pale, his eyes cornflower, his ringlets strawberry blond. “What color are we?” I asked. “You are purple with green stripes and I am blue with orange spots,” he responded. When he was a newborn, women asked how I knew he hadn’t been swapped in the hospital. My heart swooped. “He was born at home,” I replied. “He was the only baby there.” We moved to Chicago when he was seven. He learned to introduce me to his friends in this way: “This is my mom. I know she doesn’t look like me, but she is my real mother.”

When my second son was born, black-haired and olive-skinned, our midwife offered family counseling, as if there was something aberrant in the genetic deck. I was bemused, as my own family of origin resembled the bloom from a packet of wildflower seed, full of dazzling surprises in various shapes and colors. The wife of a colleague recently offered me a card for an organization catering to biracial families; I have heard it said that I have a biracial marriage. I have no idea which bits are bi- and which bits are multi-, and am floored that anyone outside my marriage is interested.

A student in my class said, vehemently, that he opposed biracial marriages. My mouth felt stuffed with cotton swabs. In the 1970s, when my white sister planned her marriage, her future in-laws were reluctant, because their grandchildren might “have a touch of the tar brush.” But that was then. I thought we were beyond those fears.

A memory: my husband nicknamed our boys The Milky Bar Kid and Pixie Caramel, after candy bars popular in New Zealand. One is cream, the other brown. Both sweet.

My youngest son looks like me when I was a child, slim as a reed, lustrous chestnut hair glinting with red and gold from our Scottish forebears, rich brown eyes and long lashes, and silky golden skin. I have fallen in love with my son’s topaz glow, his nuggety tan in summer.

I worry about his brownness. He is lovely, funny, and sharp as tack. It pains me that he may be categorized, diminished or even hurt because of his tawny-ness. I am watchful, alert to teachers passing him over, parents speaking carelessly, shopkeepers scrutinizing him as if he has stolen candy in his pocket, police seeing a criminality in him that isn’t there. When a dark boy wearing a hoodie was shot dead, I warned my dark son not to wear his hood up. My pale son admonished me. Kids should wear what they want without fear, he said. I should ignore the stupidity, not reinforce it, he said. He doesn’t understand my fear. I never warn him. I have told him to work hard, but I have never told him he needs to work harder in case he is perceived as less than.

The color and shine of wood. Mahogany doors glowing in late afternoon sunlight. Boy’s slender feet sliding across oak floors. Husband’s guitars in ash, maple, spruce, and rosewood. Sycamore next to my bedroom, with its vitiligo-patched trunk, birches unfurling tan bark. Metal and earth. Rust peeling out from under old steel. Train tracks, Chicago brick warehouses, Frank Lloyd Wright terracotta, freshly worked soil in my spring garden. Birch wicker wrapped around a chrome chair. Old book spines in chestnut cabinet. Dappled pony skin chaise. Matching brindle hound dog lying next to the chaise. So much beauty.

I may not want to be defined by brown, by my brownness, but I appreciate its nuance, its depth, the complexity. I don’t want to wear it, but I have warmed to it. I am not color-blind, nor do I wish to be. I like how I look, how my sons look. This is a part of who we are.

A memory: my boys and I, our summer legs curled together on the porch chaise, looking out into the sycamore tree, our skin warm against one another’s, dark tan, golden tan, pale clover honey.

Face: Me

On Glenn Ligon’s Palindrome #1

Post-Magical Thinking America

My friend said people are afraid of saying the wrong thing around me. “Good,” I said. “I don’t want them to say the wrong thing around me.”

I Just Want To See The Sea

“The world has always been broken, and it is exactly because the world is broken that this city is not just my city, nor yours, nor theirs, but is everybody’s image mirrored on the shards.”