When I was growing up in rural Long Island in the 70s, my Brownness confused people. While there were hardly any Blacks in Suffolk County, there were still fewer Brown people. For the denizens of the area there were really only two options –namely Black and White. Brown people like me, we did not fit into such a simplistic taxonomic dichotomy. We were the troublemakers.
When I mentioned that I was Indian to my confused comrades, this was deemed acceptable, but only because the confusion was that I was a “Red” Indian (not even a Brown one) and these types of Indians had a distinct and distinctive place in Stony Brook and the surrounding areas, where so many towns and schools were named after the native Americans. But the follow up question, “What tribe are you from?,” became tiresome very quickly, about as tiresome as “Ok, but where are you really from?” and the futility in correcting the interrogators triumphed.
But when asked further about who I really was, and when the proper phrenological and racial comparisons were completed, instigators/ investigators concluded –“So you are basically white” and blessed me with approximate identity, potential play-dates, and the safety of a category, a proximate place in their bi-racial universe.
So are Brown Indian-Americans “basically white” ?
Am I “basically white?”
What does it mean to be “basically white?”
What does it mean to be white in a complicated way?
( Aren’t I more that (complicated) than basic?)
(Is being basically anything basically a veiled insult?)
I left such conversations with a fragile sense of security and belonging, membership, albeit in its simplest and no-frills form, to the tribe of the pigmentation privileged.
Unless, of course, I tanned too much and lost my temporary membership.
Was I better or more convincing as a member in the winter? I blanched with fear when I spent too much time in the sun. Would I get caught at the end of August when elementary school began again?
Or, should I lay out in the sun to be able to display a tan line, the paradigmatic (and ironic) proof of privilege and privileged pleasure? (I did indeed lay out on the vinyl chase lounge of my suburban Levittown lodgings and wore proudly my badge of membership, of being “basically white.”)
But now, in 2017, now, even if you entertained the plausible possibility that I could be basically white, prima facie, I am Basically Brown. And being brown eclipses, nay trumps, being basically white. And basic brown people have been deemed a threat by the purportedly powerful.
So when you first see me, as I board the plane, or walk into the gym, you might think for an instance that I am your medical doctor (or at least I look like one), or that I just sold you a stick of gum at my convenience store, or that I drove you to the airport in my taxi, but you are more likely to think that I am basically a brown person bearing a bomb. And that I am out bombing.
And that I do not belong.
And that is basically it, in black and white.