Brown (racial classification)

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Brown or brown people is a racial and ethnic term. Like black people and white people, it is a term for race based on human skin color.

In the age of scientific racism[edit]

In the 18th and 19th century, European and American writers proposed geographically based "scientific" differences among "the races." Many of these racial models assigned colors to the groups described, and some included a "brown race" as in the following:

These and other race theories have been dismissed scientifically. As a 2012 human biology textbook observes, "These claims of race-based taxonomy, including [Carleton] Coon's claims for homo-sapienation, have been discredited by paleontological and genomic research showing the antiquity of modern human origins, as well as the essential genomic African nature of all living human beings."[9]


In the 19th century, the notion of a single "brown people" was sometimes superseded by multiple "brown peoples." Cust mentions Grammar in 1852 denying that there was one single "brown race", but in fact, several races speaking distinct languages.[10] The 1858 Cyclopaedia of India and of eastern and southern Asia[11] notes that Keane was dividing the "brown people" into quaternion: a western branch that he termed the Malay, a north-western group that he termed the Micronesian, and the peoples of the eastern archipelagos that he termed the Maori and the Polynesian.

Ethnic and racial identifier[edit]

The appellation "brown people" has been applied in the 20th and 21st centuries to several groups. Edward Telles, a sociologist of race and ethnicity, and Jack Forbes[12] both argue that this classification is biologically invalid. However, as Telles notes, it is still of sociological significance. Irrespective of the actual biological differences amongst humans, and of the actual complexities of human skin coloration, people nonetheless self-identify as "brown" and identify other groups of people as "brown", using characteristics that include skin color, hair strength, language, and culture, in order to classify them.

Forbes remarks upon a process of "lumping", whereby characteristics other than skin color, such as hair color or curliness, act as "triggers" for color categories "even when it may not be appropriate."[12][13]

Ethnicity in South Africa[edit]

In 1950s (and later) South Africa, the "brown people" were the Coloureds, referring to those born of multiracial sexual unions out of wedlock. They were distinct from the Reheboth Basters inhabiting Namibia, who were primarily of Khoisan and European parentage. The Afrikaans terms, which incorporate many subtleties of heritage, political agenda, and identity, are "bruin" ("brown"), "bruines" ("browns"), and "bruinmense" ("brown people"). Some South Africans prefer the appellation "bruinmense" to "Coloured".[14][15]

The South African pencil test was one example of a characteristic other than skin color being used as a determiner. The pencil test, which distinguished either "black" from "Coloured" or "Coloured" from "white", relied upon curliness and strength of hair (i.e. whether it was capable of retaining a pencil under its own strength) rather than upon any color factor at all. The pencil test could "trump skin color".[16][17]

Steve Biko, in his trial in 1976, rejected the appellation "brown people" when it was put to him incorrectly by Judge Boshoff:[18]

Boshoff: But now why do you refer to you people as blacks? Why not brown people? I mean you people are more brown than black.
Biko: In the same way as I think white people are more pink and yellow and pale than white.
Boshoff: Quite ... but now why do you not use the word brown then?
Biko: No, I think really, historically, we have been defined as black people, and when we reject the term non-white and take upon ourselves the right to call ourselves what we think we are, we have got available in front of us a whole number of alternatives ... and we choose this one precisely because we feel it is most accommodating.

Penelope Oakes[18] characterizes Biko's argument as picking "black" over "brown" because for Biko it is "the most valid, meaningful and appropriate representation, even though in an individualistic decontextualized sense it might appear wrong" (Oakes's emphasis).

This contrasts with Piet Uithalder, the fictional protagonist of the satirical column "Straatpraatjes" (whose actual author was never revealed but who is believed to have been Abdullah Abdurahman) that appeared in the Dutch-Afrikaans section of the newspaper APO between May 1909 and February 1922. Uithalder would self-identify as a Coloured person, with the column targeted at a Coloured readership, introducing himself as "een van de ras" ("a member of the race") and characterizing himself as a "bruine mens".[14]

Pardos in Brazil[edit]

In popular use, Brazilians also use a category of moreno m. [moˈɾenu], morena f. [moˈɾenɐ], lit. 'swarthy', from mouro, Portuguese for 'Moor', which were perceived as those with darker phenotypes than European peoples, so a moreno or morena is a person with a "Moorish" phenotype), which is extremely ambiguous, as it can mean "dark-haired people", but is also used as a euphemism for pardo, and even "black". In a 1995 survey, 32% of the population self-identified as moreno, with a further 6% self-identifying as moreno claro ("light moreno"). 7% self-identified as "pardo".[13]

A comprehensive study presented by the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research found that on average, 'white' Brazilians have >50% European genomic ancestry, whereas 'black' Brazilians have 17.1% European genomic ancestry. It concluded that "The high ancestral variability observed in Whites and Blacks suggests that each Brazilian has a singular and quite individual proportion of European, African and Amerindian ancestry in their mosaic genomes. Thus, the only possible basis to deal with genetic variation in Brazilians is not by considering them as members of color groups, but on a person-by-person basis, as 190 million human beings, with singular genome and life histories".[19]

Use in Canada[edit]

Relating to brown identity, the popular usage of the term in Canada generally refers to individuals of South Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry.[20][21][22][23][24][25]

Use in the United States[edit]

"Brown" has been used as a term in popular culture for some South Asian Americans, Middle Eastern Americans and some Latino Americans either as a pejorative term or sometimes for self-identification, as with brown identity. Judith Ortiz Cofer notes that appellation varies according to geographical location, observing that in Puerto Rico she is considered to be a white person, but in the United States mainland, she is considered to be a "brown person."[26] Moustafa Bayoumi, an Egyptian-American professor of English at Brooklyn College, identified himself as a "brown Arab-American" in an opinion piece criticizing the United States Census for forcing self-identified brown persons to identify as white.[27]

The term "Brown American" has been used both as a term of insult and as self-identification in referring to Filipino Americans.[28] Furthermore, some Americans of Southeast Asian or South Asian descent have used the terms "Brown Asian" or "Brown South Asian" to separate themselves from East Asian Americans, who are largely synonymous with the United States view of Asian Americans.[29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jane Desmond (2001). Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display from Waikiki to Sea World. University of Chicago Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-226-14376-7.
  2. ^ John G. Jackson (1938). Ethiopia and the Origin of Civilization: A Critical Review of the Evidence of Archaeology,... New York, N.Y.: The Blyden Society.
  3. ^ Bernasconi, Robert. Race Blackwell Publishing: Boston, 2001. ISBN 0-631-20783-X
  4. ^ Joseph-Anténor Firmin and Antenor Firmin (2002). The Equality of the Human Races. Asselin Charles (translator) and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (contributor). University of Illinois Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-252-07102-6.
  5. ^ Mackenzie, Donald A. Myths of Babylonia and Assyria Montana:Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-4179-7643-8
  6. ^ "Early Classification of Nature". Understanding Archived from the original on 18 June 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2018.
  7. ^ Stoddard, Lothrop (1920). The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Charles Scribner's Sons. Brown Man’s Land is the Near and Middle East. The brown world stretches in an immense belt clear across southern Asia and northern Africa, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans
  8. ^ A. H. Keane, A. Hingston Quiggin, A. C. Haddon (2011). Man: Past and Present. Cambridge University Press. p. 478. ISBN 978-0521234108.
  9. ^ Cameron, Noel; Barry Bogin (2012-06-08). Human Growth and Development. Academic Press. ISBN 9780123838827.
  10. ^ Robert Needham Cust (1878). A Sketch of the Modern Languages of the East Indies. Trübner & co. p. 13.
  11. ^ Edward Balfour (1976). The Encyclopaedia Asiatica, Comprising Indian Subcontinent, Eastern and Southern Asia. Cosmo Publications. p. 315.
  12. ^ a b Forbes, Jack D. (March 2, 1993). Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252063213 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ a b Edward Eric Telles (2004). "Racial Classification". Race in Another America: the significance of skin color in Brazil. Princeton University Press. pp. 81–84. ISBN 0-691-11866-3.
  14. ^ a b Mohamed Adhikari (2005). Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African Coloured Community. Ohio University Press. pp. 26, 163–169. ISBN 0-89680-244-2.
  15. ^ Gerald L. Stone (2002). "The lexicon and sociolinguistic codes of the working-class Afrikaans-speaking Cape Peninsula coloured community". In Rajend Mesthrie (ed.). Language in South Africa. Cambridge University Press. p. 394. ISBN 0-521-53383-X.
  16. ^ David Houze (2006). Twilight People: From Mississippi to South Africa and Back. University of California Press. p. 134. ISBN 0-520-24398-6.
  17. ^ Birgit Brander Rasmussen (2001). The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Duke University Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-8223-2740-6.
  18. ^ a b Penelope Oakes (1996). "The Categorization Process: Cognition and the Group in the Social Psychology of Stereotyping". In W. P. (William Peter) Robinson and Henri Tajfel (ed.). Social Groups and Identities: developing the legacy of Henri Tajfe. Routledge. ISBN 0-7506-3083-3.
  19. ^ Pena, S.D.J.; Bastos-Rodrigues, L.; Pimenta, J.R.; Bydlowski, S.P. (11 September 2009). "DNA tests probe the genomic ancestry of Brazilians". Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research. 42 (10): 870–876. doi:10.1590/S0100-879X2009005000026. PMID 19738982.
  20. ^ Sumartojo, Widyarini. "My kind of Brown": Indo-Canadian youth identity and belonging in Greater Vancouver (PhD thesis) (Archived 2014-10-19 at the Wayback Machine).
  21. ^ Sundar, Purnima (2008). "To "Brown It Up" or to "Bring Down the Brown": Identity and Strategy in Second-Generation, South Asian-Canadian Youth". Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 17 (3): 251–278. doi:10.1080/15313200802258166. S2CID 143356411.
  22. ^ Frost, Heather. Being “Brown” in a Canadian Suburb
  23. ^ Sandhu, Danielle. Theorizing Brown Identity
  24. ^ Patel, Sharmi. The Politics of Belonging: Cultural Identity Formation among Second Generation Canadians
  25. ^ "What does it mean to be brown-skinned in Canada?". July 14, 2016.
  26. ^ Pauline T. Newton (2005). "An Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer". Transcultural Women Of Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. American Literature. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 161. ISBN 0-7546-5212-2.
  27. ^ Bayoumi, Moustafa (14 February 2019). "I'm a brown Arab-American, and the US census refuses to recognize me". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2020.
  28. ^ Reyes, Bobby M. (May 14, 2007). "How Filipinos Came to Be Called the "Brown Americans" - MabuhayRadio". Mabuhay Radio. Retrieved March 13, 2020.
  29. ^ Schiavenza, Matt (October 19, 2016). "Why Some 'Brown Asians' Feel Left Out of the Asian American Conversation". Asia Society. Retrieved June 14, 2022. And that, unfortunately, did not include any South Asians and only one Filipino. That caused a bit of an outcry. It raises a legitimate issue, of course, one about how 'brown Asians' often feel excluded from the Asian American conversation.
  30. ^ Kulkarni, Saili S. (June 14, 2022). "South Asians Are Asians Too. When Will Our Racial Reckoning Be?". Ms. Retrieved March 24, 2022. Yet we didn’t similarly rally to support the instances of Anti-Asian hate pre-COVID-19 and certainly not for Brown, South Asians.

Further reading[edit]