Q In your book Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone), you write about how you’ve had to make peace with the idea that you were never going to be white. How do you currently feel about being brown?
A That statement refers to childhood experiences of watching both western and Egyptian media and seeing images of light-skinned people as the ones who are rewarded in life with love, happiness, success. I always associated a certain kind of refinement with lightness of skin. And if you grew up in a place like Egypt, as I did, you would notice this [prejudice] immediately in advertising and pop culture and in social interactions. If you’re darker-skinned, then you’re probably what we call falaheen, or farmers. Through writing the book, I began to understand where these ideas came from: the colonial context, the cultural and class assumptions. I came to appreciate brownness not only for what it is, but also for the richness of its culture. I’m really comfortable in the skin I’m in.
Career-wise, skin colour was less an issue as having a very identifiable Muslim name at a time when anti-Muslim feelings in the West were at their peak after 9/11. It made people question my authority as a theatre critic [for the Globe and Mail]. I remember somebody sending a note saying, “Most of the Canadian theatre that you’re reviewing happened before you arrived in the country, so what gives you that position?” Two of my other colleagues who came from England were never asked, “What do you know about Canadian theatre?” That was only pointed at me.
Q Who is classified as brown? Is it based on skin colour, or is it more about geography?
A Brown is both literal and metaphorical. It is associated with the Global South, with colonized countries that have been decolonized, with mass migrations of people from so-called Third World countries into First World countries and within Asia. I wanted a book that is not literal about brownness, knowing very well that a lot of people I would describe as brown may not necessarily see themselves as brown. A larger collective, whether through their religion or their ethnicity or the place where they were born, have become part of the brown continuum. For the longest time, Syrians, like the Lebanese, were thought of as white because they are very light-skinned on the whole. Yet when you see images of Syrian refugees on boats crossing the Mediterranean, do you see a group of white people trying to get to Europe, or do you see a group of brown, swarthy Muslims? They have become part of this refugee community that is colourized.
Q What would you say is the most common racial experience for brown people around the world?
A An aspiration to whiteness is one thing I noticed; there was a certain premium put on lighter skin. People from each community talked about either their privilege, if they happened to be light-skinned, or the prejudice they experienced, if they happened to be dark-skinned. In all of these communities, there was another common experience. No matter how long they lived in a place, they were still the Other. Whether you’re South Asian in the United Kingdom or North African in France or Mexican in the United States, you are always seen as this hyphenated identity. You’re not just an American; you’re a Mexican-American. Even though you could have been born and raised in that country, you’re always an outsider.
Q In Canada, how do we dispel stereotypes about brown people?
A I think the onus is on the media, politicians and mainstream society to stop “othering” them, to stop thinking of them as people who have fallen behind somehow on this Canadian identity project. Arab Canadians — because I can speak about that community with some confidence — are in business, in government, in the media: we are out there. Having said that, I also know that if you’re a struggling working-class immigrant from these communities, you’re too busy making a living to take up conversations about integration and Canadian identity. I remember doing interviews in Thorncliffe Park, a largely migrant Muslim neighbourhood in Toronto, and most of the women I spoke to were highly qualified, either doctors or engineers from Pakistan or Bangladesh, and they were doing minimum wage jobs just to survive. They were not thinking of bigger-picture questions yet.
Q How do your findings relate to U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban travellers from certain Muslim-majority countries?
A It’s not just the travel ban but his entire campaign. Look at the groups he targeted: Muslims and Mexicans, two of the brown communities. He knew he would get mileage if he set these two communities apart and told everyone else they’re the problem.
I would not even call it a travel ban; I would call it a Muslim ban. The fact that [the original ban called for] revoking visas and not readmitting green-card holders from these countries suggests to me that they’re trying to ethnically reorder society. You don’t want certain groups to participate in democracy, so you’re cutting off their path to citizenship.
My worst-case scenario is that this is the beginning of a legitimate white supremacy movement in the United States. And I think brown people will be at the receiving end of it, because you can’t deport African Americans, but you can deport migrants, especially those who are still working their way to citizenship. You can create laws that strip citizenship if someone is even merely suspected of doing terrorist acts.
Q Do you think the kind of scenario we’re seeing in the United States is something we should be worried about in Canada?
A Yes. I have followed the Kellie Leitch campaign [for the federal Conservative leadership], and she has realized there may be political gain in putting the Muslim community — she never says Muslims, but it’s always clear — outside of Canadian values. And it already happened to some extent under former prime minister Stephen Harper. He demonized my community and was rewarded with three consecutive governments. So, can it happen here? You bet it can happen.
Q What can religious groups do in times like these?
A I see hope in progressive churches and synagogues and other communities of faith that stood up to this bullying and supported the Muslim community. I think what will save us are people who stand up for marginalized and viciously targeted communities.
This interview has been condensed and edited.