Policing My "Browness"

Growing up in a Western society where inclusivity and diversity are slowly being embraced, we are at a pivotal point where people of various ethnic backgrounds, religion, sexuality and political views are starting to speak up and make their voices heard.


Born in Italy, raised in Canada, and of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, I’ve had to craft an identity embodying the various cultures that have influenced me. I absolutely love Italian food, identify as a proud and avid Canadian Tim Hortons coffee drinker (the medium double-double is my go to). I have grown up embracing the classical art of Bharatanatyam, as well as playing the Veena. I am fiercely proud of all the various cultures that have molded me into the person who I am today. Amidst all this diversity, I have had to listen to various people, both Tamil and non-Tamil ‘police my browness’.


What exactly do I mean by the term ‘police my browness’? I’ve had to listen to Tamil acquaintances whom I’ve just met say that I am not Tamil enough because I don’t speak the language. I have been told by non-Tamil folks that I only use my ‘browness’ when it is convenient for me, and otherwise pretend as if it doesn’t exist. This particular conversation that I had with a White British friend of mine made me realize that she did not understand the cultural complexities that ethnic minorities face when constructing their identities in the West. She accused me of ‘acting white’ (whatever that means) in general and said that I only bring up by ‘browness’ when minor issues of discrimination and prejudice surfaced.


Firstly, I believe that it is important to assimilate into a society in order to truly feel like you are part of it, in order to reap the benefits. Just because one has acclimated and is culturally well adjusted to the dominant society, does not mean that they forego their roots and heritage. Not to mention that people from the West vehemently criticize those who haven’t assimilated into society. Once again, this is based on their own standards and preferences of what it means to be Western. A person can be both Westernized and equally proud of their heritage by embracing both sides in their own way. Secondly, when I see discrimination against ethnic minorities, I will definitely point it out and voice my opinion. This has nothing to do with the fact that I myself am an ethnic minority, but simply as a person who believes that oppressing anybody based on race, ethnicity and other forms of discrimination is inherently wrong.


What all these people fail to realize is that by growing up in the West, we create our own identity and meaning of what it means to be an ethnic person, which is vastly different from someone who was born, raised and grew up in say Sri Lanka or India. My ‘browness’ and cultural identity is also different from those of my friends, family, and acquaintances who were also raised in the West. We each have a unique perspective on what it means to be brown, which is tailored depending on our experiences in society. To shame our Western born/raised non-white sisters and brothers for not being 'white enough' to fit in or not being 'ethnic enough' according to some invisible cultural standard, only further alienates us.


It is important to get these stories across, because for most of my life, I was forced to think that I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t white enough for the West, but I wasn't Tamil enough either. I know that there are many people who still struggle with their self-identity and I want to let them know that the way they are is enough! Nobody has the right to tell you that because you don’t check certain boxes based on their own standards that you aren’t Tamil enough. You don’t need to fit into a neat little box based on other people’s cultural expectations and be put down because of what they deem is Tamil or Western.


It has taken me many years to understand that crafting a cultural identity in the West means embodying various things from various places, customs, and traditions. It means we are generally more open-minded individuals who understand the importance of how different cultures have come to mould us as people.


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