"Brown People" Don't Need You Defending Them Like That May 8, 2015 3:20 PM   Subscribe

We've all seen it -- "brown people" used as an ironic way of saying "X is racist": whether it's accusing anyone in the U.S. military of "[doing] horrible things to foreign brown people" or an academic "getting a disproportionate amount of crap because he's siding with brown people over white people" or even about how "The 'aliens built the pyramids' notion is a recent iteration of an long-term ongoing narrative stating that 'Those brown people couldn't possibly have done this'."

I have no issue with calling someone or something racist. Hell, I agree with half of those examples.* But using "brown people" as a shorthand that way is no different from "Here's what people I disagree with say: HURF DURF I'M A MORON!", which gets rightly modhammered. It's a rhetorical cudgel that doesn't make its user look any more enlightened and immediately drags the conversation into an ugly place.

* -- The last and half of the second, for the record.
posted by Etrigan to Etiquette/Policy at 3:20 PM (82 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

As a brown ( well butterscotch really) person, I don't have a problem with the usage and am mystified why you're objecting to it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:27 PM on May 8, 2015 [26 favorites]


It is kind of a simplification, but I'm not sure it rises to offensive level. I can see some situations where I would not think it was cool, like if it was a paraphrase of a comment a Mefite here made that was really more complex and made in good faith. Ussually though it's aimed at dumb stuff in offsite links, where I think people deserve a little more leeway to be somewhat dismissive.

Just be careful with the usage though. "Brown People" is kind of a mocking description of how racist white people see anybody with darker skin than them. I would avoid using it outside of that context though. Don't refer to Iraqis as brown people unless you are framing it in terms of how racist people dismissively see them, because people darker than white people is an infinitely diverse group of people from every corner of the world.

So, keep in mind how you use it but generally it's fine in the right context imo.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:39 PM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Brown People" is kind of a mocking description of how racist white people see anybody with darker skin than them.

Yes, that would be why I said But using "brown people" as a shorthand that way is no different from "Here's what people I disagree with say: HURF DURF I'M A MORON!", which gets rightly modhammered.
posted by Etrigan at 3:54 PM on May 8, 2015


Well, I think it's mocking and accurate when aimed at racist people. I think "hurf durf" is pretty rarely accurate because even wrong viewpoints tend to have more complexity than that in my experience. I don't think your point is entirely off base here though, it's definitely a topic worthy of some more discussion.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:03 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Are you objecting out of personal offense or on behalf of, ahem, brown people? Serious question-- I'm not sure if you're saying that this is an offensive thing done by "well meaning" people, or if you're saying it's just a shitty thing to say because it's a mini pyramid-building godwin.
posted by easter queen at 4:07 PM on May 8, 2015


Yeah, I could live without ironic racism. I thought we were actually trying to move away from that?
posted by corb at 4:12 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's a little bit stupid and certainly overused, but if we start trying to enforce rules to prevent people from being a bit stupid and artlessly wielding dull rhetorical tools, we're never going to get to the end of it.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:20 PM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]






Well, I'm not quite comfortable with being called "white". I'm PINK, dammit.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:27 PM on May 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


Racism is stupid, though, is the problem. When you say "brown people," you're being about as discriminating (no pun intended) as the racist impulse itself, which I always thought was kind of the point.

If someone uses that locution, others can judge for themselves if it's meritorious or not. We don't need to protect metafilter users from sophistry like that, I don't think.
posted by clockzero at 4:32 PM on May 8, 2015


As a brown ( well butterscotch really) person, I don't have a problem with the usage and am mystified why you're objecting to it.

Agreed. As a brown person, I don't need this post to defend me like this. What I would like (and I am not speaking for all brown people) is for people to stop saying "we" when what they mean is "me and other white people like me." Not everyone here is white.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:35 PM on May 8, 2015 [44 favorites]


For the record, because apparently it's important: I'm a "brown person" who passes for Caucasian.
posted by Etrigan at 4:49 PM on May 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


The thing about the pyramids is fairly specious too. I've heard the same things about Stonehenge, and they weren't brown. Not that far north.
posted by Grangousier at 4:55 PM on May 8, 2015


First, I want to state that "brown" can be a very legitimate self-identity. I frequently see it used by Indian/Pacific Islanders/Middle Eastern/etc people to differentiate the racism and colorism that they encounter from that of black people - it is a word that challenges the literal black-and-white thinking on racism, in addition to acknowledging that the struggles that non-black PoC will encounter are different from that of black people.

That isn't always the context in which it is used in, mind, so now I'll address the other side - ironic racism by white people, which needs to die in a fire alongside defenses of ironic racism by white people.

White people need to get that what ironic racism signals to other white people versus people of color is completely different. For both, you're nudging people to recognize that you aren't a racist and you're only saying it to make fun of racists, true, but consider that the implications and pressure it puts on PoC is completely different from what it puts on white people. You are essentially asking us to reaffirm your own ego and fragility around racism by nodding along with you about how you're one of the "good ones" and "not a racist". How can we not, especially if we're in a majority-white space like Metafilter? We are browbeaten into submission by the threat that we'll be treated as an outsider - a threat that you will make good of if we dare make you uncomfortable by pointing out your blind spots in terms of racism. So we keep our heads down, nervously laugh, and assimilate and then you use us as a story of how your PoC friend is okay with that joke to oust the one PoC you tell it to who has the courage to say they don't find it funny while every other white person in the room nods and goes "why is that Asian guy so angry?"

Speaking of racist blind spots, consider that a great deal of us have forms of PTSD from the racism we encounter daily. So when we laugh nervously and keep our heads down in uncomfortable silence, it's an uncomfortable silence indeed.

Go on. Tell me how it's okay to socially force me to reassure it's not racist when you make a fucking racist joke.
posted by Conspire at 4:56 PM on May 8, 2015 [57 favorites]


Um. As a Canadian, in my social circle (including both "brown" and "black" people"), "brown" is 100% an accepted racial identifier when needed or convenient. I have never heard of any brown person objecting to its use.
posted by 256 at 5:52 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Conspire: "Go on. Tell me how it's okay to socially force me to reassure it's not racist when you make a fucking racist joke."

There's also the Poe's Law problem. If I, as a white person, were to make ironic racist jokes, how the hell is anyone supposed to know that I'm "just being ironic" and not a horrible racist? Being clear to others that I abhor racism isn't something I want to leave up to chance.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:54 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, I forgot my response: it's not OK, of course.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:55 PM on May 8, 2015


It seems like a simple enough signifier. It's one of probably a hundred shorthand phrases used on Metafilter and I'm not seeing a particular reason to call it out.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:45 PM on May 8, 2015


Pretty sure that there's no reason ever to make an ironic racist joke but maybe that's just me.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:46 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


I am confused--I don't see "ironic racism" in those phrases, I see... well, "that guy is racist" phrased in an ironic way. Can someone please explain this for the clueless white woman in the corner?
posted by sciatrix at 6:49 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the distinction here is between the idea of brown as intended neutral group/racial signifier (analogous to e.g. the common neutral use of "black" in the US to refer to African Americans), and the idea of "brown people" as an invocation of decidedly non-neutral exclusionary racist perception/labeling (as in, from a US perspective, various generally foreign non-white groups or populations).

So there are to my eye, generally agreeing with the thrust of Etrigan's post, a couple of very different use cases to contrast. (These aren't the only possible cases, but the difference between them is the meaningful thing here). So some notional mefite says one of the two following sorts of things:

1. "I'm brown, I'm a person, my family are brown people" from the perspective of someone who self-identifies culturally/ethnically/racially using that label. This is just self-identification stuff and not something really anyone else even has a say in, and not what Etrigan is talking about I don't think.

2. "They don't care what happens, it's only gonna affect brown people" as an insertion of racist animus or dismissiveness into the mouth of a third party by someone who doesn't themself endorse the racist grouping and dismissal of groups of people by skin tone or racial/ethnic/cultural cohort, but instead wants to rhetorically condemn that sort of racism by example.

The problem with (2) is not that the the speaker is racist for saying "brown people", or doesn't understand that using "brown people" in a dismissive racist fashion is bad—in fact, their whole point in rolling it out like that is generally that they think it's bad and racism is bad. The problem is that the speaker is making a point about racism by intentionally introducing racist rhetoric to the conversation. It's holding up something ugly just to establish that the ugly thing exists and that you disapprove. Which is an understandable rhetorical instinct which is why it happens, but it's still at its heart an intentional showcasing of racist rhetoric.

And people can get understandably tired of that sort of thing, especially if they're in the group targeted by the language when it's in earnest, but even if they're just tired of seeing any kind of invocation-of-prejudice-as-performative-rebuke-of-prejudice sort of stuff happening on the regular.

And one of the wrinkles with the "brown people" thing is that because it's less charged on the face of it than nuclear grade slurs, it's a lot easier to trot out. And so it gets trotted out more often, and it gets normalized, and what might have at first been a bit of ironic racism-by-proxy with a frisson of tension to it becomes just a really rote ironic racism-by-proxy that people don't even think about because they've become so accustomed to it. It gets easier, not harder, to inject that bit of racist rhetoric into a well-meaning conversation because it just keeps happening and nobody pushes back on it because, hey, we all know we're all not racists, we're just making a point.

That's my take on it. And it's not exactly flattering to me to say so, but for me as a super white dude in a super white city with a bunch of liberal friends my personal annoyance about this is as much one of bad conversation as it is having any direct personal resonance with the experience of being on the shitty end of that sort of thing. I get tired of seeing conversations about hard subjects be lazily bad, and I think carelessly throwing "brown people" into unlikeable absent third parties' mouths is an example of something that makes for bad, lazy discussions of race and racism and geopolitics and so on.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:11 PM on May 8, 2015 [72 favorites]


For the record, I am brown and I don't really care for it either (outside of some social justice contexts where people us it as a self-identifier). When people use it in an ironic racism kinda way, it points that you are *other*, even if the undertow is meant well.

I'd also like to encourage people responding to this to remember that the question is deeply personal to some posters and to be aware of the imbalance when you are arguing something that remains mostly theoretical to you.
posted by dame at 7:12 PM on May 8, 2015 [15 favorites]


Meantime cortex puts it a million times better.
posted by dame at 7:14 PM on May 8, 2015


I'm not brown, but I try to avoid it; I don't think it's a term that ever really illuminates and I'm always a bit meh on paraphrasing or saying things that could be taken as serious. There's nothing I've ever said, that can't be said as well without it.
posted by smoke at 7:45 PM on May 8, 2015


I'm not brown, but I try to avoid it

That's my feeling, regardless of what I might mean by it it's not a clear signifier and thus is probably too inexact for me and has the capacity to be misunderstood. People wanting to use it to self-identify, AOK with me.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 8:15 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if I've used the term here (and I'm not going to search to either exonerate or justify myself), and the times I've heard it from friends have been from people who self-identify as "brown" (usually latin@s). I hadn't realized it was an in-group out-group issue, and I appreciate the reminder that it's likely not welcome from out-group members in a public space. I'll refrain from it in the future.
posted by jaguar at 8:37 PM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


When people use it in an ironic racism kinda way, it points that you are *other*, even if the undertow is meant well.

Even if its used by brown people? 'Cause that sounds off.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:51 PM on May 8, 2015


I could imagine myself using it ironically and will avoid it ... it is a flawed choice of words to put in an unabashed racist's mouth because modern day racists don't tend to think about "brown people" in a literal sense, they think of blacks, and then nationalities, and conflate things like "Spanish" and "Mexican" and "Latino" and "Hispanic," which can be a problem when you run into someone who isn't overtly racist but doesn't quite get the distinctions.

It's just not a term that gets used literally all that much by anyone except self-identified brown people, or people using the phrase as a more rhetorically snippy shorthand for "non-white" people. When you think about it, you can't avoid pointing out that "other people other people" without othering people, but is particularly "othering" in that it's often used in an international context, to refer to non-Americans "across the globe" or in the third world (and perhaps non-Brits, Germans, etc, I don't know).
posted by aydeejones at 9:07 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Considers scare quotes on "third world" while we're at it
posted by aydeejones at 9:08 PM on May 8, 2015


what? So many of my south asian friends call themselves brown people.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 9:11 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have only used it to incorporate situations that affect African-heritage, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian people, taking my cue from feminists and legal scholars from those groups. The issue of "driving while brown" for example, which is often a 4th amendment (search and seizure) issue for anyone who isn't white being pulled over for "seatbelt" violations.

I've never used it ironically, though I have been called out once here by someone who had apparently never heard it before (and so, I concluded, has never spent a second focused on intersectional racism). I think it is a term that is still fully in play in discussions of intersectional racism, and I will continue to use it until people in those circles indicate otherwise, though I will try to use the term non-white or uncaucasian or whatever if I can make it work instead.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:44 PM on May 8, 2015


"The problem with (2) is not that the the speaker is racist for saying "brown people", or doesn't understand that using "brown people" in a dismissive racist fashion is bad—in fact, their whole point in rolling it out like that is generally that they think it's bad and racism is bad. The problem is that the speaker is making a point about racism by intentionally introducing racist rhetoric to the conversation. It's holding up something ugly just to establish that the ugly thing exists and that you disapprove. Which is an understandable rhetorical instinct which is why it happens, but it's still at its heart an intentional showcasing of racist rhetoric."

The other side of that is that it's a really effective way of cutting through disingenuous dogwhistle bullshit.

But it's not something I tend to say here (aside from quoting) because there are too many relative strangers here and very few metatextual cues that it's not just me being obliviously racist.
posted by klangklangston at 10:06 PM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


The other side of that is that it's a really effective way of cutting through disingenuous dogwhistle bullshit.

To what end? Are you gonna save me from racism by making me uncomfortable? Thanks? I mean, yeah I guess people have different kinds of humor, but that's how I feel at least.

I also think it sometimes masks a real ignorance of the subject of the joke. I have a friend who's very informed about politics and will make a dark joke referencing, say, Buddhists from Myanmar or something. But he'll be precise and the joke will reflect his understanding and so it works. All I'm saying is that that ironic joke better cut through a shitton of dogwhistles.
posted by yaymukund at 11:16 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sorry, klangklangston, didn't mean to write my comment to target you specifically. You seem quite nice!
posted by yaymukund at 11:27 PM on May 8, 2015


As a Canadian, in my social circle (including both "brown" and "black" people"), "brown" is 100% an accepted racial identifier when needed or convenient. I have never heard of any brown person objecting to its use.

Same here, except it's almost always people who identify themselves as "brown" who use it - usually when discussing often personal racialized experience - and rarely people who don't. And when non-"brown" people use it, it's tolerated (because people have and recognize goodwill), but I think I see backs sometimes stiffen, just a little.

All I know is, I'm I20 on Shiseido's palette, and I don't feel comfortable using the term, because I haven't lived with its consequences, and those consequences include real pain. There's inescapable asymmetry, no getting away from the fact that this is not an experience I've lived in any way. I'll never spend hours being grilled at customs (for that reason, anyway) or be scrutinized in shops. Most people I know who do or could call themselves "brown" are within one generation of immigration anyway, it's no more effort to talk about nation or ethnicity - I can draw from my own experience there, a bit more. When race, specifically, matters, I'm not sure I have a lot to say about it. A white person using the phrase "brown people" is a slightly cheap bid for kudos and unearned familiarity, imo.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:03 AM on May 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


The other side of that is that it's a really effective way of cutting through disingenuous dogwhistle bullshit.

I wouldn't say it's effective. More it's an efficient i.e. shorthand for the critiquer(s). Internal language, if you will. The problem of effectiveness arises at the point of whether the ideas it represents are successfully conveyed.

Which is an understandable rhetorical instinct which is why it happens...

Makes me think the obvious exercise is to unpack this piece of instinctive signalling, identify what it's trying to say, and search for a way to express it differently.

As a contrasting example, the phrase "Yellow Peril" to me has a similar function, but the Use v.s. Mention distinction is much less ambiguous.
posted by polymodus at 12:14 AM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think etrigan objects to the use of crackers calling people of color "brown" when it would be more appropriate to term them Iraqis, Bangladeshi, Libyan, Mesopotamian, or other people living somewhere nearby.

Don't call them "brown" because you are lazy or me and etrigan are going to talk about wwii in terms of the whites and whites fighting each other.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:01 AM on May 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


"To what end? Are you gonna save me from racism by making me uncomfortable? Thanks? I mean, yeah I guess people have different kinds of humor, but that's how I feel at least."

I don't really think that any comment that was only justified by attempting to save you from racism would be worth writing here.

"Sorry, klangklangston, didn't mean to write my comment to target you specifically. You seem quite nice!"

Oh, don't sweat it at all — not only have I met you, I think I've used the phrase three times when I wasn't quoting in the whole decade I've been here.

"The problem of effectiveness arises at the point of whether the ideas it represents are successfully conveyed."

Well, yeah. The content and the context both matter, and people may disagree on whether it was worth it. That's true of pretty much any dark humor.

"Don't call them "brown" because you are lazy or me and etrigan are going to talk about wwii in terms of the whites and whites fighting each other."

Here in Cali, "brown people" also frequently denotes Latinos. But describing either World War as indicative of a culture of white-on-white violence would be totally jake.
posted by klangklangston at 1:14 AM on May 9, 2015


I don't understand this callout.

I think that the term "brown person" is being called-out as a lazy way to reference "the other" which is problematic because it conflates all non-white (and non-black?) ethnic groupings into one homogenous entity when the reality is that we are not -- as jessamyn says above, that it is "an unclear signifier".

Nevertheless, I as well as many of my fellow persons of South Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, as well as some Latinos, have used and will continue to use this term as a neutral-to-positive, somewhat jocular self-identifier and I'm not sure that I have ever heard this term, as such, used in a way that I found problematic. The examples given in the OP are clearly using the term "brown people" in the racist homogenizing way that Americans Often Do but I think the commenters' intent in all three cases is very clear -- to skewer that view -- and I do not have any issues with the comments in question.

Yes, it is true that the lived experience of, for lack of a better word, brown people is different depending on many factors not least of which is what actual ethnic group we are a part of. However I think there are particular commonalities that justify our being referred to in one grouping of "brown people" -- namely our shared history of having been colonized by white people. In the American context, I think it is also a way to remind people that there are not just white people and black people in this country.

If anything, I have a bigger problem with the alternatives offered such as "people of color" or "non-white". "People of color", to me, indicates quite strongly that white people are being considered the normative Way Of Being Human, that they alone are colorless; and "non-white" similarly is defining me in a negative way, establishing my racial identity in terms of my relation to the dominant racial group in my country and on my planet.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:43 AM on May 9, 2015 [17 favorites]


Nah.

So the objection here is basically "it's dickheaded".

A lot of the other stuff added on further in to the thread is, quite a lot, assumptions and stuff people brought with them about how this has probably got to be problematic somehow. Because it just sounds like it.

And i mean, before i go on i guess, lightly toasted guy here with a brown mom who uses it exactly as described here pretty often.

And just to be clear here, the type of thing you're objecting to would be a post to the effect of "Great, and this will just be used as another excuse to drop more bombs on brown people".

I have rarely seen it drag the discussion in to a bad place, but i can think of more than one time where it was used to call out a weasel-wordy wall of text post that managed to tapdance right around really saying anything out and out bad.

It's a descriptor that can be used as a cudgel. There can definitely be more than a bit of snark easily attached to it. But it's not just a cudgel.

And sorry, it's also pretty hard to make a case for it being racist. Could it be used in a racist way? Yea. But it isn't on its own.

This isn't one of the ones like neckbeard or butthurt where you're going to get a clear case of it being Bad Because Reasons. Just because someone pops off a tired zinger with it once in a while doesn't mean it's some evil that needs to be squashed out.

And really, i agree with the way it's used the vast majority of the time.
posted by emptythought at 3:51 AM on May 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


I don't understand the description of the use of this phrase as "ironic racism." That part has me really confused, and makes me think that different people are discussing different things in this thread, because I don't see it used in an ironically racist way.
posted by OmieWise at 5:48 AM on May 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


assumptions and stuff people brought with them about how this has probably got to be problematic somehow

This is an awful lot like the wrong-headed approach we've seen in the various Charlie Hebdo threads where the commenter thinks it's racist, so it absolutely must be, evidence be damned. That's not a good way to have a productive discussion.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:03 AM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


As a white dude I avoid using it, because it's very obviously a bit awkward and could easily make people uncomfortable, be taken the wrong way, etc. I've never seen it used to be directly awful, but it's usually deployed to add a little edge to whatever to speaker is saying. Whether or not that's an OK tradeoff to make is something you could argue out, I guess, but I don't feel like I'm really losing out by not using it?
posted by ominous_paws at 6:54 AM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't understand the description of the use of this phrase as "ironic racism."

On MetaFilter I see it used in sentences like "Oh noes the brown people will move into our neighborhood!" or something when someone is using a put-on voice to indicate how wrong-thinking people may be thinking about a topic. So it's awkward because the voice people are putting on is just doing that annoying all-look-same thing about any non-white person which is not great and the point is that the person who is saying the thing is ignorant.

At the same time, I have friends who use that term as a self-identifier where it really isn't a weird thing to say, it's just them talking about the casual racism that they and other people of color encounter.

And then there are people who are not using a put-on voice but using the term as a placeholder for (presumably) people who are not white. Which is the thing that I think becomes clumsy because it's not the first type of us (the ungreat one) or the second type (the okay one). I think it's one of those things that works better in person when you are certain that you know your audience and less well in a mixed group where you don't. I have a general idea of the racial background of MeFites who have self-identified as having any particular racial background but I'm sure that is not the norm.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 7:27 AM on May 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's holding up something ugly just to establish that the ugly thing exists and that you disapprove. Which is an understandable rhetorical instinct which is why it happens, but it's still at its heart an intentional showcasing of racist rhetoric.

And people can get understandably tired of that sort of thing


because, when it comes right down to it, Stewart Lee owns that schtick and nobody respects people who rip off other comedians' material.
posted by flabdablet at 7:46 AM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


So... we're basically being asked not to use ironic racism? If that's it, I'm cool with that.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:52 AM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


On MetaFilter I see it used in sentences like "Oh noes the brown people will move into our neighborhood!" or something when someone is using a put-on voice to indicate how wrong-thinking people may be thinking about a topic.

I'm tempted to call it ventriloquasiracism, but that's hard to pronounce and sounds more like a dinosaur than like presumptive verbal puppetry putting word balloons into the mouth of a cartoon opponent. (Sometimes the reductive guess is right, but it can also be wrong or way oversimplified.)
posted by puddledork at 9:25 AM on May 9, 2015 [17 favorites]


puddledork I think calling it ventriloquasiracism is genius.

I don't understand why people are arguing about this post as if it's about asking people who self-identify as brown not to call themselves brown. Etrigan is quite clearly asking that people not use 'brown people' as a lazy shorthand (usually used by white people) for expressing the perceived viewpoint of racist people.

I've done it myself before so I'm culpable; it's a shitty thing to do and I'm sorry and will be more mindful in future.
posted by winna at 9:50 AM on May 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hispanic, have often used this myself. As shorthand. Because I don't see any possible other categorization that includes all the necessary groups aside from "nonwhite", and "nonwhite" is more of a personal identifier than something that accurately talks about the way that policy, politics and culture impact those who are visibly different in a way that's seen as less-than-human. It also encompasses the fact that nobody ever intends for those things to impact people like me, which is to say people who can pass for white, and such problems will disproportionately impact darker-skinned communities over lighter ones.

Like, nobody's afraid of Guillermo del Toro moving into their neighborhood. People usually aren't afraid of Hispanics categorically living in their neighborhood. If you're talking about the problem of how white people perceive brown people moving into their neighborhoods, it isn't just white-versus-nonwhite. It's white-versus-people-who-are-perceived-as-lesser-because-of-darker-skin-tone.

I don't think that's a fundamental problem. I do think that people doing the ironic racism thing can go too far and be a problem generally, and that it's certainly possible for "brown people" to get overused in that context. But in the context of saying that people's problem with ancient Egyptians in Africa doing something scientifically complicated is motivated by how they feel about modern people in Africa and the Middle East based in large part on skin color, I don't see that as "ironically racist", I think it's an entirely accurate statement.
posted by Sequence at 10:42 AM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


When my friends use it for themselves (and they do) it's a synonym for "non-white", no more, no less. Obviously it usually comes up in the context of the casual racism they experience. I think it's a useful term in that it's intentionally non-specific. The Filipino guy doesn't believe that people are anti-Filipino specifically. In fact, they probably don't even know what he is, just that he isn't white. So why not just "non-white"? That's defining people by what they're NOT instead of by what they ARE.

That said, as a white guy, I don't have much useful to say about my friends' experiences on these subjects, and so don't have much need to use the term myself. It would kind of come off like a white guy adopting the casual use of the n-word, I think. When a Korean friend jokes to a Filipino friend "It's because you're brown," that's one thing. If I were to make the same joke, it's not entirely clear I'm joking even though they know me well. Or maybe it is, but it still hits a little too close. There's nothing I can do about that.
posted by ctmf at 11:39 AM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Etrigan is quite clearly asking that people not use 'brown people' as a lazy shorthand (usually used by white people) for expressing the perceived viewpoint of racist people.

And, having ruminated on this more, what is the end game here?

All we're going to get is "this sounds like something a backwards asshole would say, like *insert the same sentence minus the brown people part".

Is that really an improvement? We're not going to remove snarking about what those flyover state morons or tea partiers or whatever are/would/will be saying.

This phrase comes off like an easily identifiable figurehead, but not really actually the behavior. You aren't going to stop people from snarking.

But of course, i'm coming at this from the angle of this phrase itself and almost all of it's deployment being generally inoffensive. And the way this post was framed, it sure seems like the problem is snark and being an ass, not the phrase itself.
posted by emptythought at 12:31 PM on May 9, 2015


but I don't feel like I'm really losing out by not using it

Well OK, maybe in this case it is no big loss for you, but it seems there is no end to the restrictions that someone or other wants us to do to limit our speech in the name of sensitivity and inclusion.

I am not against these things in principle, but let's try to examine carefully every phrase every time, and the nature of the request and who it is coming from, and let's collect extensive feedback from all of the stakeholders. Because really, it seems we can't go a day in here without someone calling out another phrase or term or way of thinking.

I am glad to hear that on balance there are quite a few brown people that are not feeling hard done by with this term in every and all contexts. Excellent!
posted by Meatbomb at 2:57 PM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


There are a couple of things going on here, and, as usual, they have gotten wrapped up together as people read what they want to read based on their own concerns.

First, there is what I think is Etrigan's central point, which is "making up strawphrases to stick in the mouth of people you disagree with" is not a good tactic, especially when it leads you to write out racist comments "for effect." This practice is something that the mods have called out in trheads before, and I think it's a good idea to avoid it, at least most of the time. It's often not even snark, it's just sort of lazy baiting of people who probably aren't reading the site anyway.

Then that shades into the idea of ironic racism, which is a definite problem, although maybe less on MetaFilter than other entertainment venues. On the other hand, what Etrigan is calling out isn't really "ironic racism" so much as "lazy sideways racism" -- if you want to condemn racism (and similar oppressions), it's best to just condemn it rather than get coy. Largely because, as has been pointed out a bunch upthread, oppression often gets cloaked in euphemisms and coy references, which makes parsing the "I am speaking in the voice of the racist for effect" maneuver often rebound (more on some readers than others).

Lastly, there is the idea of using "brown people" as a descriptor, which is a complex issue, since it's so broad and non-specific. In this thread we have had self-described brown people say it's OK, it's OK for them to use but not for outsiders, it's not OK, that it refers specifically to this group or that, and I (as a member of none of the groups) would be very leery of using it without a lot of thought before hand.

So, I guess my synopsis is a) yes, Etrigan is right, and this seems to already be mod policy, b) yes, ironic racism or lazy racism is still racism, and c) use "brown people" with care (if at all).
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:30 PM on May 9, 2015 [16 favorites]


Well OK, maybe in this case it is no big loss for you, but it seems there is no end to the restrictions that someone or other wants us to do to limit our speech in the name of sensitivity and inclusion.

I never felt particularly that I was being limited by other people, I felt that I was choosing my words based on what effect I wanted, and whether or not I would be hurting or excluding other people was something I wanted to consider.
posted by jeather at 3:37 PM on May 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


"I am not against these things in principle, but let's try to examine carefully every phrase every time, and the nature of the request and who it is coming from, and let's collect extensive feedback from all of the stakeholders. Because really, it seems we can't go a day in here without someone calling out another phrase or term or way of thinking."

Which, honestly, is fine. I kinda think that if you are only communicating through words then you should be thinking about what you're writing every time. That's not to say that I haven't made some lazy, stupid comments, but that's not my ideal. So even if I might choose to still write something that I know will step on toes, it helps me to have more context to inform that decision.
posted by klangklangston at 3:44 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Brown People Don't Need You Defending Them Like That

My Lords, I would take you back to the three comments quoted in my learned friend Etrigan's skeleton argument:

1.  [Accusing anyone in the U.S. military of doing] "horrible things to foreign brown people";
2.  [An academic] "getting a disproportionate amount of crap because he's siding with brown people over white people"; and
3.  [How] "the 'aliens built the pyramids' notion is a recent iteration of an long-term ongoing narrative stating that 'Those brown people couldn't possibly have done this'."


I submit to you that none of those instances of the phrase brown people are ironic.

The first phrase is to say, quite directly, that members of the US Military or the institution itself functions in a way that is racist. The second is to say that a certain academic is a victim of racism (by association). The third is directly saying that a particular narrative is racist. The rhetorical trope being employed is not irony. The commentators are saying exactly what they mean. The fact that not every person on the planet with browner skin that you, my Lords, may be suffering in the same way from the racism being alleged does not make the statements "ironic", only potentially inaccurate as to the class of victims.

As such, I submit that there is no "ironic racism" in those comments. The objection to the comments is - and here I'll use a little polysemy, may it please the MetaCourt - a tone argument. It is suggested that the use of "brown people" here is "a rhetorical cudgel that doesn't make its user look any more enlightened and immediately drags the conversation into an ugly place." The way that the racism is being pointed out is, apparently, the true crime.

But my Lords, what ugly place does this comment drag us into: the 'aliens built the pyramids' notion is a recent iteration of an long-term ongoing narrative stating that 'Those brown people couldn't possibly have done this' - ?

I respectfully submit that the "ugly place" that the words brown people bring us to is their implication that the racism being criticised is that of non-brown, i.e. white people. And thus the suggestion that the words "brown people" are being used as ironic racism, is a suggestion that the commentator, who is criticising the racism of white people, is the real racist.

With the greatest possible respect to my learned friend, this thread has the appearance of being for the benefit of us brown people. But is it, my Lords? The title of the thread uses the term "brown people" in the very way it criticises, which is presumably a "rhetorical cudgel that ... drags the conversation into an ugly place". If that is OK, in the title of the thread, it is because this thread is not really about brown people; it's about white people, and how - when making allegations of racism involving them - one must be careful not to use the incorrect "tone".
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:07 PM on May 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


We're not going to remove snarking about what those flyover state morons or tea partiers or whatever are/would/will be saying.

Actually, it would be fucking great if nobody on MeFi ever again referred to the places many of us live as "flyover states," but this is not the MetaTalk post where we talk about that.
posted by escabeche at 6:13 PM on May 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


Flyover was discussed here back in aught nine.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:18 PM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


1. [Accusing anyone in the U.S. military of doing] "horrible things to foreign brown people";
2. [An academic] "getting a disproportionate amount of crap because he's siding with brown people over white people"; and
3. [How] "the 'aliens built the pyramids' notion is a recent iteration of an long-term ongoing narrative stating that 'Those brown people couldn't possibly have done this'."


Way up above, Jessamyn described the term as "not a clear signifier" and all three of those examples illustrate that.

Just to take the first one, to really tease that apart you need to think about the US military's history with race from segregation to what is now one of the more integrated institutions, at the same time as understanding the selective allusion to specific military campaigns (Vietnam and Iraq, but not WWII, and good luck figuring out where the Libyan bombing campaign fits into that), and at the same time relying on a simplistic image of the US as "white" and vast swaths of the world as "brown." It's a sloppy shorthand and like all sloppy communication it lends itself to misunderstanding and insult.

I would never call for banning those phrases (and I'm sure I've used them myself), but there are better ways to express the same thoughts in more careful and meaningful ways.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:26 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I agree with this callout. Even when well intentioned it really rankles me when white people use the ironic "oh no the brown people" type rhetoric, and it's even more annoying when it's continually explained to me that I don't really understand how it's being used (I am a brown person).

It also reminds me of the "I'm just a nice sweet innocent white lady" that people use in police brutality threads. It's just another way of reinforcing that dark people are not trustworthy or dangerous.
posted by zutalors! at 8:18 PM on May 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


My skin is sometimes dry and flaky. At times you can accurately describe me as flaky.
posted by Oyéah at 8:35 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


What about this type of usage? (Not trying to pick on dejah420, just curious.)

Whole foods won't come out where I live, what with all the brown people and the blue collar workers, but Kroger did just build a big flagship store, so that's awesome. It's also forced the other chains nearby to up their game, so win win all around.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:13 AM on May 10, 2015


As a brown ( well butterscotch really) person....

I love this self-description Brandon Blatcher. A sweet solution would be for all of us to find a candy to describe ourselves.

In the traditional sense, I am white and as such somewhat privileged just by being in that group - it has nothing to do with me. In the candy sense, however, I have the potential to be a lovely rich creamy filling but have rather let myself go and as a result am more necco-wafer-ish. (I am anti-discrimination but necco wafers kind of deserve their bad rap ... and that gives me incentive to change candies). The beauty of candy-clans is that you can change yours - true social mobility.
posted by headnsouth at 4:36 AM on May 10, 2015


Not everyone here is white. Otoh, Everyone needs a hug.

and yes, "third world" definitely needs scare quotes. Most of those economies are averaging at least 5% growth, if not more, these days. "third world" still sounds like they're mired in their quicksand of death, disease, destruction and poverty.
posted by infini at 7:25 AM on May 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


"What about this type of usage? (Not trying to pick on dejah420, just curious.)"

In-group slang.
posted by klangklangston at 1:04 PM on May 10, 2015


Jesus, why is it so hard to say that people can self-describe their own race, but white people probably shouldn't be all "lol look at those other racists who hate BROWN PEOPLE amirite? Let me just say the phrase 'brown people' five more times because it's totes hilarious and I can get away with saying it because I'm putting it in OTHER people's mouths.."
posted by corb at 6:28 PM on May 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Two hundred comments later, I'll clarify that my original question was based on the distinction that jessamyn drew-- is it that the phrase itself is offensive, or is it that it's used in an annoying rhetorical way. My confusion was based on a lot of people I know using it as a way to positively identify "non-white" people when discussing racism (since "non-white" leaves white as a default state). I've used this term frequently since it caught on, but typically as a more POC-positive and adept way to refer to racial injustice in broad strokes, not so much for the purpose of making sarcastic jokes. So I am still a little curious if it is not something a white person really needs to say at all (i.e. am I missing some context that makes it kind of tone-deaf to be saying this) or is it just that ironic "hurf durf" jokes about "brown people" have become particularly ubiquitous and annoying on MeFi?
posted by easter queen at 10:13 PM on May 10, 2015


And sorry corb, just read your post, but that's also my question-- do people here consider it a term of self-description that doesn't really need to be used by white people, because it's shitty to hear them say it? Is it grating to hear the phrase used at all? Or just grating when it's used in that kind of "har har HORRIFIC THINGS" way?
posted by easter queen at 10:16 PM on May 10, 2015


I can say "brown people" because goddammit, I'm brown, and I am going to OWN THAT SHIT. But if a white person (and I understand that "white" is different than "white-passing" but you can usually tell if someone is including themselves in the "brown person" category) says it? Even if they're an ally, and they're being sardonic?* It sets off the nope bells in my head.

* By the way, where is the line between sardonic and hipster racism (also known as...racism)?
posted by Ragini at 10:58 PM on May 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


I just want to say thanks for this thread.

Having grown up in a rural and completely white area, I'm still learning about this stuff. One of my first close friends who was a woman of colour, used to identify as brown because she was a magical mix of genes and heritage and she felt that was just the right word for her. So I guess it just kind of became normal in my vocabulary and I had no idea til now that it could be really uncool. I've also definitely used it in the ironic sense a few times so that's going on my list of Stuff to Stop Doing Because You're an Adult Now.

So tipping my hat to all those who have contributed to this thread and by doing so helped educate people like me.
posted by greenish at 5:31 AM on May 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


My confusion was based on a lot of people I know using it as a way to positively identify "non-white" people when discussing racism (since "non-white" leaves white as a default state). I've used this term frequently since it caught on, but typically as a more POC-positive and adept way to refer to racial injustice in broad strokes, not so much for the purpose of making sarcastic jokes.

I think there are several issues to discuss here. The term "POC" implicitly designates "white" as not a color. It fails to recognize that every ethnic group is its own normal (or "not a color", so to speak), and non-members are other to every group. Talking in terms like these can be OK in some contexts, but it's a messed up way to try to frame a discussion between people of different ethnic backgrounds. It bothers me when white people insist on trying to impose this sort of framing on the conversations that involve people who aren't them.

"Non-white" is one of gazillion phrases of the form "non-X", where X can be any group or ethnicity. So we can have "non-white" people, but also "non-Chinese" people, "non-Malaysians", "non-Scandinavians" and "non-programmers". Unlike "white" vs. "POC" framing, this phrasing doesn't insist that white people, or white Americans, are any way objectively the default, or not an ethnic group. I think it's fine if you're talking about attitudes white people have towards people from different ethnic backgrounds, and that's the context where most people use it.
posted by nangar at 6:28 AM on May 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


that's also my question-- do people here consider it a term of self-description that doesn't really need to be used by white people, because it's shitty to hear them say it? Is it grating to hear the phrase used at all? Or just grating when it's used in that kind of "har har HORRIFIC THINGS" way?

I find it slightly grating every time people who consider themselves white say it, but it's especially grating when it feels like they are using it for humor or to flag as 'I'm one of you, guys! I'm so one of you I'm going to use the bitter framing you use for yourselves man I am so great hahaha!"
posted by corb at 7:03 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


I guess its convoluted but natural - I can bitch about my mom but WHAT DID YOU SAY ABOUT MY MOTHER? is something we can all easily understand.
posted by infini at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


Even if they're an ally, and they're being sardonic?

Not to belabor the point, but if they're not being sarcastic-- that's my question. corb says that it bothers her even when used non-sardonically, so that is helpful. I don't know if there is any kind of broad feeling or consensus about it. (And maybe the mass-sarcasm of it has made it unusable in any context now.)

As for "POC," I acknowledge that it's not a perfect term, but that's specifically why I think I noticed a lot of people using "brown" instead, as a way of saying not-white that isn't white-centric. White people, brown people. Instead of white people and non-white people.

Anyway, I don't want to make this all about me, but if it's relevant then I would like to know if this is not a term that should be used in a neutral context. An example (say from me, a white person):

"White Hollywood executives claim that white audiences don't want to watch films featuring brown protagonists-- however, in recent years, this has been shown to be untrue." (Totally made up.)

Is this a shitty use of the term, or would it pretty much go unremarked on? And is it preferable to "non-white" or "POC"? Or weirder/more confusing/borderline offensive?

Basically I am wondering if this post is an objection to the term itself, or to "sarcastic racism" that tends to feature this term, to the degree that it's become a bit of an idiom. (Or both.)
posted by easter queen at 9:53 AM on May 11, 2015


nangar, I think I completely misread your post-- so you're saying that to you, "non-white" is pretty much the most neutral / least problematic framing?
posted by easter queen at 9:54 AM on May 11, 2015


I describe myself as brown. Because I am literally brown, like the colour of milk chocolate. It's just a fact. If other people want to call me brown also, that's fine with me, and I would prefer that than people making blind and invariably incorrect stabs at guessing my ethnic heritage and cultural background.

It seems to me that 'brown' is a much better description of my skin colour than 'white' is of caucasians. Seriously guys, you're kind of pinkish. But that's by the by. If we can describe people as 'white' and 'black', then why not 'brown'? YMMV, of course.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:58 PM on May 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm really confused here. A lot of the more recent comments seem to be conflating ironic racism in the form of "i'm going to snarkily say something a shitty person would say but in 1st person", which is sort of Ironic Racism Classic™ with "someone said some shitty things, and i'm going to translate their viewpoint in a snarky way".

The initial post seemed to be taking issue with category 2, of "this person said this shitty thing which is actually pretty racist and i'm going to tl;dr it using the phrase brown people" with just "i'm going to say a racist thing because it's a funnay joek lol".

These two things are not the same. Saying something as a rhetorical gambit to call out someone elses shitty statement(s) or defenses of opinions is not the same as just saying shitty things.

I'm all for calling out ironic racism, but i don't think that's the right way to describe what's being discussed here.

I absolutely get that it grates on some people more than others, but i think lumping those two things together is kind of shitty.
posted by emptythought at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


I keep writing and erasing comments, because I'm actually not sure how I feel about any of this (as a brown person). I guess I do kind of cringe these days when people use "brown people" in the manner described. I'm realizing, not really to my credit, that I have a basic distrust of white people referring to skin color at all. In my experience, a white person talking about "brown people" is about five seconds away from saying something really stupid. That isn't fair, of course, but it's a learned wariness. I think that because there isn't a shared cultural "brown" experience in US, the way that there is more of an understood cultural experience of being, for instance, "black" in America, the term "brown people" feels unnecessarily broad. When you're talking about bombing brown people in brown countries, you're basically never talking about my people (Indians), but I don't know if you know that there are different brown peoples.

I think another thing is that when I refer to myself as a brown person or of a brown people, it's with a certain amount of wry bitterness. In a vacuum, that isn't an appellation I would prefer, but I know that it's what people see, so it's usually better if I say it first and, as Ragini says, own it. So when I hear things like "they're trying to bomb all the brown people", I feel like maybe people don't understand that this isn't really flattering. In my experience (which is not everyone's experience), I and others call ourselves "brown people" because that's so often all that people care about, so we just get it out there and make kind of a joke about it. But then when you say "brown people", it makes me wonder if that's all you see or care about, or if you're joking, or if you know what the joke actually is.

Mostly, I'm discovering that I have a lot more pain around this topic than I realized and that this is a lot harder for me to talk about than I expected, so that's interesting. Is it the end of the world when people talk about "brown people"? No. Am I going to think you're an asshole or say to you "hey, you shouldn't say that"? Very likely not. Is it even really an issue for me? No, it probably isn't. But somehow it still hurts to think about. I'm having trouble explaining or even understanding why, but maybe there's something buried in all this rambling that's useful to someone.
posted by Errant at 11:16 PM on May 11, 2015 [13 favorites]


When you're talking about bombing brown people in brown countries, you're basically never talking about my people (Indians), but I don't know if you know that there are different brown peoples.

Its the exhausting burden of being the other in a world where there is non stop media generated fear and demonization of the other.

In the case of brown, there's teh additional weight of yeah but i'm not that kind of brown you know though my ancestors and theirs probably intermingled genetically

or

just plan tired of the burden of never stepping wrong in case some unhinged watcher decides you're a bad brown

tl;dr I'm tired being teflon to your paranoia
posted by infini at 12:46 AM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thanks guys, I realize that it's not particularly fun to pick over this stuff in public, but it was clarifying.

I'm not going to use the term (non-ironically). I may have misinterpreting its "new usage," but regardless it seems not to be a helpful term and I get where y'all are coming from.
posted by easter queen at 9:32 AM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem Etrigan is raising isn't that using the phrase "brown people" like this is bad because it might be racist. The problem with the phrase is that it is used as shorthand for "the position I'm disagreeing with is racist so it's inherently invalid and no part of it is worth considering". If you read the post, Etrigan is directly comparing it with the more obviously unacceptable "HURF DURF", which is the same type of invalid rhetorical maneuver used to silence people rather than engaging with their point.
posted by IAmUnaware at 3:32 PM on May 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


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