“We are lured to do the work in good times—until the economic bubble bursts. Then we turn into the job stealers, the welfare scammers, and the undocumented.”
North American thinking about race is often sharply divided along the black-white line. In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee examines what it means to be neither white nor black, but to occupy the vast cultural space in-between. From the exploitation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States to the demonization of Muslims in Canadian political discourse, Al-Solaylee considers how the arrival of visibly different immigrants gives rise to hierarchies, and exposes nascent xenophobic tendencies. Expanding beyond just North America, Al-Solaylee visits France, the United Kingdom, Trinidad, and Qatar, among other countries, to explore the tensions and crises that have arisen as the result of migrant brown labour in a globalized economy.
Al-Solaylee centres much of his idea of brownness on movement, specifically migration and immigration for economic purposes. Al-Solaylee spent nearly two years visiting ten countries to gather the various stories and perspectives that appear in Brown. In doing so he sets particular limits on the scope of the book, and makes exclusions. He does not, for example, talk about aboriginal people who have, by definition, been here all along. Al-Solaylee is looking particularly at “who does the work locals spurn,” and seeking immigrant groups that have “reached a crisis point in the host country.” Al-Solaylee specifically excludes East Asians, even though there are certainly places where they meet the stated criteria, the affordable housing controversy in Vancouver being a prime example.
While the third section of the book deals with brown immigrants to predominantly white countries, the middle section visits places that involve examining prejudices within and between brown communities. Al-Solaylee cites colourism, where lighter brown people enjoy social and professional advantages significant enough that skin-lightening products and procedures are a booming industry. Al-Solaylee also pays a visit to Trinidad, where he looks at the tension that exists between Trindadians of African and Indian descent. Both groups arrived in the Caribbean under duress, either as slaves or as indentured labour, but continue to experience fairly rigid cultural separation based on stereotypes of their communities.
Among the case studies presented in Brown are many South-Asian domestic and hospitality workers, most of whom are deployed to Hong Kong and the Middle East. Most female migrant workers are involved in domestic labour, from nursing to child care to cleaning. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at Filipina migrant workers, following them to Hong Kong, where foreign workers make up five percent of the population. The women work long hours for small pay, far away from their families, extremely vulnerable to physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse by their employers. By contrast, many of the male migrant workers are involved in construction. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at the Middle East, where entire camps have been built to house the South-Asian workers who come to build sky-scrapers and stadiums in dangerous conditions that see an average of one worker per day die on the job. The flip-side, of course, is the lack of remunerative work back home in saturated or stagnant job markets.
After briefly discussing the concepts race and colourism and their history in the first two chapters, Al-Solaylee begins the series of case studies that examine the idea of brownness from various angles, creating more breadth than depth. Al-Solaylee is exposing the surface of many complicated issues and situations, succeeding in providing a sense of the scope, but not a deep understanding. Nevertheless, he provides an entry point to a variety of situations that shine a light on our thinking about race and colour, and how we use these concepts to define classes within our cultures. Each chapter could merit a book of its own, but Al-Solaylee is focused on the picture they provide when presented alongside one another.
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