A Review of Brown, by Kamal Al-Solaylee (HarperCollins, 2016)

The subtitle for Kamal Al-Solaylee’s 2016 book is “What Being Brown in the World Means Today (to Everyone).” I picked it up because I couldn’t recall hearing much if anything about people with brown skin over the years. The book description on the flap reflected my own experiences:

Brown is not white. Brown is not black. Brown is an experience, a state of mind, a world hiding in plain sight. Historically speaking, issues of race and skin colour have been interpreted along black and white lines, leaving out millions of people whose experiences have shaped our modern world. 

In school, my friends were a fairly heterogenous group, but we never talked about skin colour. We were taught that skin colour didn’t matter, as a kid I watched Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, and even the Holograms on Jem were a mix of skin colours (though a white woman was the protagonist, of course).

I’d grown up not realizing that skin colour did indeed still matter, and not just to a handful of people, but to several billion.

In this book, journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee travels the world and investigates the meaning of brown skin. He discusses skin colour in his birth country, Egypt, as well as in Canada, where he immigrated to. He travels to Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the US. He shows the reader a culture that truly is hidden in plain sight.

For example, in the introduction, Al-Solaylee shares this anecdote:

Around 1979, when I was in high school and trying (and failing dismally) to experiment with heterosexuality, a beautiful young Egyptian girl made it clear that we couldn’t date—and I use that very North American term loosely and anachronistically—because her mother would find me too dark. My skin tones would pollute the gene pool of a bourgeois Egyptian family that took pride in its lighter skin, its biggest asset in the marriage and social markets. 

Brown was the first time I’d encountered skin-whitening creams and blatant prejudice in the career market, where higher level careers were open only to those with light brown skin. (Hence the need for these dangerous creams.)

As someone with white skin, the only concern has ever been if it’s acceptable or not to tan. These days, tanning connotes beauty, whereas in earlier generations, it meant you worked the fields and were therefore of lower class. Today, if you burn, your family, friends, and colleagues laugh at you. If you have inconvenient tan lines, they’ll laugh at that, too. If you burn a lot, you get skin cancer. That’s the extent of white skin culture.

I never faced a world where the level of my whiteness was an issue. To read a book like this showed me what kind of bubble I really live in. This book is an excellent read, especially for anyone trying to learn more about the culture, prejudices, and meanings that follow those with brown skin.

This book was a finalist for the Govern General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, and received Best Book of the Year awards from the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Toronto Life, Walrus, CBC Books, Chatelaine, Hill Times, 49th Shelf, and Writers’ Trust.

Al-Solaylee opened my eyes to an entire culture that I’ve always seen but not seen. I’m sure he can do the same for you.

Cover of "Brown," by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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