Kamal Al-Solaylee’s new book explores the complexities of having brown skin
BY: ALLISON RIDGWAY
When Kamal Al-Solaylee saw a group of Filipina maids enjoying a picnic in a Hong Kong park during their time off work one Sunday afternoon in 2011, the concept for his next book began to form. That idea solidified when, back home and riding the subway in Toronto, he again saw a large group of Filipina workers talking together and realized that both groups, though an ocean apart, shared two things in common: their work and their skin colour.
“I started thinking about the connection between skin colour and work,” explained Al-Solaylee, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “I decided to try to write a book about skin colour, but it’s not really about skin colour. It’s about where skin colour becomes the gateway into something else.”
Al-Solaylee discussed his latest book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) with The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders last week at an RJRC-hosted Q&A session.
Brown explores the complexities and shared experiences of people with brown skin from around the world. Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries and four continents over two years to talk with people from the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, the United States and Canada about their experiences living as brown-skinned people in the world today. The book examines issues such as immigration, work conditions, economic marginalization, racism, Islamophobia, colourism and self-perception, all the while asking what experiences unite people from vastly different countries, cultures and backgrounds who all share one common trait: their brown skin.
“I wanted to show how similar all of these experiences are,” Al-Solaylee said during the Q&A, “and that’s why it was important for me to go to all of these different countries and try to find out how the same scenario unfolds in different countries.”
He found that brown-skinned people – particularly immigrants – often end up as transient labourers stuck in precarious jobs.
“We have brought in people to do work that we don’t want to do anymore,” he said. “What I find is that there is this mass population of brown people in the service industry, whether they’re in kitchens, supermarkets, driving cabs or cleaning…The one thing that unites all of them is cheap labour”
This is true throughout the world, Al-Solaylee explained. He visited a school in Manila that trains students in housekeeping and the culinary arts so that they can work abroad. He talked with Filipina domestic workers about dealing with racism and segregation in Hong Kong (a country where foreign domestic workers make up five per cent of the population). And he met with foreign construction workers in Qatar, where, on average, one migrant worker per dies per day building the country’s infrastructure.
Al-Solaylee and Saunders discussed how these labour disparities are also found in Canada.
“We bring in a population (of new Canadians) that tend to have university degrees or are professionals, but we end up sacrificing them,” said Saunders, who wrote Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?, both of which explore immigration issues in Canada and elsewhere.
“You are what Canadians assume is the default model,” Saunders said to Al-Solaylee, “which is that it’s okay that the people who clean our floors, drive taxis and so on are economically marginalized because our grandparents all did when they were immigrants and everybody slowly rose up the hierarchy. But I worry, with precarious employment, that maybe this is not working the way it used to.”
Al-Solaylee was born in Aden, Yemen and grew up in Cairo and Beirut before pursuing an education and journalism career in the United Kingdom and Canada. He wrote his first book, the award-winning Intolerable, about his decision to leave his family in the Middle East to seek greater freedom and safety as a gay man in the West.
Al-Solaylee said that writing the book was easy compared to the challenge of finding people who would talk to him, particularly in developing countries.
“You arrive somewhere after people have promised to help you and then they disappear, or when you arrive you realize that they aren’t that much help at all,” he said.
He said he ended up relying on NGOs to introduce him to potential interviewees.
“When you meet just one generous person in every destination who is willing to open doors for you, that’s the most important thing,” he explained.
Nonetheless, he still had difficulty finding people in Qatar willing to talk on-record about the country’s treatment of migrant construction workers, and was unable to find any dermatologists in Canada willing to talk about selling skin-lightening creams and treatments.
In addition to recounting the experiences of brown-skinned people from around the globe, Al-Solaylee also tells his own story in Brown, and discusses identity and intersectionality between race and sexuality. His book begins with a memory of himself as a 10-year-old boy in early 1970s Cairo, excited to watch a premier of the British musical Oliver! on TV. But while watching the show, he noticed that the young, white-skinned actor did not look like him, and felt shame over being brown. He noticed that all of the ads and shows on Egyptian television that always used light-skinned actors and began to wish that he, too, had lighter coloured skin.
“I have an awareness of how darker or lighter my skin is, and sometimes it has an impact on my self-confidence, because the lighter it is, the more confident I feel,” Al-Solaylee said. He was not alone in such experiences of colourism. While talking outside to an Indian woman in Trinidad, he noticed that they both gravitated to a table with the largest canopy so that they would stay out of the sun and not become “darker.”
He also discussed his experience feeling invisible as a person of colour in Toronto’s gay community, but he said that finding a Latino gay bar in the city also gave him a new sense of community.
“It was the one place on Church Street where I felt completely at home because there were about 100 brown people around me and I was just one of them,” he explained.
Al-Solaylee said that he was particularly upset over the shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida earlier this month and how the news media identified the victims. The nightclub, Pulse, was having a Latin night, and the majority of the 49 people killed were Latin, Hispanic and black, but the media has not identified this as an attack against people of colour as well as an attack against LGBT people, he said.
Racism, prejudice and “othering” is also an experience that unites people with brown skin, Al-Solaylee said.
“If I was just walking down the street late at night…nobody would know me as a professor or that I wrote a couple of books or any of that stuff,” he noted. “The first thing you would see is the skin colour and the otherness.”