In the Dominican Republic, I’m everything from White to prieto to cocolo, referring to my non-Hispanic African descendants, or mulatto, referring to my mixed African and European ancestry. In Colombia, I am trigueño — light Brown or coffee-colored, or possibly mestizo — of mixed race, with Spanish and Indigenous descent. When Black people want to claim me as their own, I am Afro Latino. In many a cab, I am South Asian. I’ve been told I look like someone’s Armenian, Indian, or Greek cousin more than a dozen times. In some malls where they have those Dead Sea beauty products that they sell very aggressively, I am Israeli. In Hollywood, I am just enough of a mutt that they call me “ethnically ambiguous,” meaning I can dance, hang, and hide in multiple spaces and circles, yet never truly have a safe place to call home.
In America, I am Brown.
What is Brownness? The vague but large gap in the middle where things are forgotten, don’t exist, don’t matter, or don’t belong.
What is Brownness? A concept. Everything between Black and White. The global majority.
W. E. B. Du Bois said the problem of his time was the problem of the color line, a line of societal and/or legal barriers that segregated people of color from White people. That line of separation was drawn fat and thick, and if we are being honest (which is hard for some of us, I get it) it’s still here. It permeates the air with every shooting, every Fox News broadcast, every debate, every highway, every city, every march, every protest, every historically Black college or university, every hood, every clan, every secret meeting, every movie, every suburb, everything you love.
This is the line that separates Black people from White people, and it seems to also determine a lot of other aspects of American cultural identity, like where a person lives and the politics they ascribe to publicly or privately. But I, and many of the Brown people I know, are stuck, floating somewhere in the middle, between Black and White, seen and unseen, acknowledged and not recognized.
The language of identity fails many Brown people like myself: “Hispanic,” “Latino,” or “Latino/a/x/e,” as if a single term could represent the two-dozen countries of origin in which we come from and the generations of intermingling preceding that. Latinos come in all races, every shape, color, size, and ethnicity; there isn’t a single box that can contain all our stories and our abundance of shades, ideals, values, hips, hair, histories, and flavors. Latinos are the second-largest demographic in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America is becoming Browner: In about 25 years, the U.S. population will become “majority minority,” according to the U.S. Census.
When I say Brownness, I am not just talking Latino, Hispanic, Latinx, etc. This includes and goes beyond that Latinidad spectrum. I am talking about anyone who feels marginalized and left out; anyone who struggles to identify with White or Black; anyone who feels stuck in the in-between, questioning where and if they belong, and whether or not they are doing Brownness right. Wondering, as police offers continue to shoot unarmed Black men without consequences, and young White boys tote around assault rifles with ease: Where does my Brownness stand and how can my Brown body help?
The color brown has always played an important role in the United States and abroad. The world is more Brown than anything else, because Brownness transcends race, ethnicity, and nationality. Brownness is a much more nuanced and colorful world than Black and White. This is what makes Brownness so slippery and hard to grasp because it is not a clean line, or a fixed end point, and it never will be.
So globally, systematically, effectively, we find and create ways to make the Brown body identify with the body that will accept it most or the group that will allow it the most social mobility. If you’re lucky, if your hair can be calmed, your skin just light enough, your features Eurocentric enough, your presence more acceptable than threatening, then maybe you don’t have to live inside the uncomfortable space of in-between, and where you fall on the color line is a survival tactic you can maybe make on your own.
But what about those Brown people who don’t have that option to “pass” or who don’t want to do it? We wouldn’t have a world where “passing” occurred if there were no incentives associated with “Whiteness.” It’s all about belonging and being seen. Belonging is hardwired in us. We are tribal. Each and every one of us wants to be a part of something. We want to walk into a room and know, I am safe here. In his book “Black Skin, White Masks,” psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote:
“Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions. His human worth and reality depend on this other and on his recognition by the other. It is in this other that the meaning of his life is condensed.”
Our current checkerboard of Black versus White isn’t working because it doesn’t describe our rich histories and complex realities. It’s time for a new game, with new pieces and new colors, starting with the many many shades, ideas, and people that Brownness embraces.
During a talkback of a performance I was giving of my one-man show, “The Real James Bond … Was Dominican!,” a White woman raised her hand and said to the group, “Do you also know how many shades of White there are?” Her tone was defensive, like she was about to be erased.
I said, “Do you know how many shades of everything there are? The Inuit have 50 words for snow. But how can we expect to talk about race, pain, humanness, colonization, systemic oppression, desire, skin, trauma, Eurocentric beauty standards, slavery, and inequality with just two words, with just two colors?”
Side note: My favorite fact about the Inuit is that “Inuit” means “human.” They never wanted to forget the fact that they are human. It’s never so simple as Black and White, where your ancestors are from, and the singular word for “snow.”
I don’t believe the solution lies in erasing the line, or pretending it isn’t there. A lot of well-meaning people will say, “I don’t see color.” Colors are what make us. Cultural heritage is not and never will be a clean line. Because of this, we all need our own lines, and then a thousand more lines identifying and seeing more shades, more colors, more shadows, more. If there are 50 ways to lose your lover and the Inuit have 50 words for snow, I need at least 50 labels and words that contain the universe and all its nuances inside of me.
My shade as a cisgendered, Dominican, Afro Latino, Colombian New Yorker, with a history of displacement, violence, love, sex, fear, fake-it-till-you-make-it, ancestral trauma, bad Spanish, color, code-switching, Hollywood, salsa (the dance and the food), and White-washing is unique. As is yours. Let it all in. Celebrate it. Own it all.
My story is a simple one, even though it often feels radical: My story is about choosing to love my Brownness. It’s about thriving in a world not made for me because Brownness taking up space should not be a radical act. Brownness should not be seen as an in-between state between Blackness and Whiteness. Our current checkerboard of Black versus White isn’t working because it doesn’t describe our rich histories and complex realities. It’s time for a new game, with new pieces and new colors, starting with the many many shades, ideas, and people that Brownness embraces.
This essay was adapted from Christopher Rivas’ new book, “Brown Enough: True Stories About Love, Violence, the Student Loan Crisis, Hollywood, Race, Familia, and Making It in America.” Rivas is known for his role of Oscar on “Call Me Kat,” his solo play, “The Real James Bond … Was Dominican!” and his podcast “Rubirosa.”