Brown Study

Beige open plan work space

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

It may seem strange that a columnist should write about his own column and, in particular about a feature as seemingly innocuous as its title. But I feel compelled to do so in the hope that putting a spotlight on the column, pleading guilty to the grievous sin I must reveal and, hopefully, crawling out of the moral swamp in which I wallow, might alleviate the burden I have had to carry for the last few years. I confess to this because it has recently dawned on me that the title of this column, which I had previously thought harmless, is rampantly racist. Brown Study, indeed! I thought it meant a place of quiet reflection. But it is pure racism and the entire column has been contaminated by the foul odour emanating from those vile words, just as fish rots from the top. As Greta Thunburg said the other day with gimlet-like precision: ‘How dare you! You have stolen my dreams of a race–free society and murdered millions of children who want to live in harmony with their black and brown sisters’. Why, brown itself is one short step away from black and by using either word you are denigrating the darker races and invoking the racism, colonialism, slavery and exploitation with which they are synonymous. Brown Study is little more than a miserable dog-whistle to appeal to the worst racist tendencies of the human condition. And I am responsible for it.

There. Having had the cleansing experience of the confessional, you might ask what brought me to this catharsis? How have I been able to trade on my racist credentials for years and only now come to realize that there is no place for them in our society and that I have to make amends? The answer is purely and simply that we are blessed at this hour of history by having in our midst a statesman who can confess his own failings on the question of race, apologize, and inspire us to put our disgraceful past behind us and, arm in arm with his goodwill and good looks, enter into the sunlit uplands of racial equality and mutual respect.

I refer, of course to Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada. Justin (as blood brothers, I have no hesitation in naming him in that fraternal way) has just confessed that, yes, over the years he got up in brown face and then in black face, invoking racial stereotypes, denigrating the darker races and humiliating them even more than has been their dispiriting lot over the years. It all started 18 years ago when Justin was 29 and went to a fancy dress party as a character from the Arabian nights, wearing a turban and, a horror I can scarcely bring myself to repeat, with his face, neck and hands covered in brown make-up! That was bad enough, but it then emerged that when in high school and scarcely into long pants, he wore black make-up with the additional accoutrement of an afro wig and sang the Jamaican folk song ‘Day-O’, evocative of banana boats, slavery, sugar plantations and other concomitants of colonial repression. And black face reared its ugly head yet again when a further photograph of the sainted Justin emerged in which he waves his black arms like a demented banshee.

Justin has thus become my model and, like him, I have come to the painful conclusion that trading on brown or black skin perpetuates the dehumanisation and denigration of African Americans, Caribbeans and all dark-skinned people and evokes the horrors of their former life in chains. Like Justin, I want to cleanse myself of these unsavoury connotations. Nor is the title of this column the only reason for my conversion. I know now that racism took hold of me at an early age. I put on a tantrum when I was denied a golly-wog at the Freemasons’ Christmas party in 1955. In the school play in 1956 I was cast as ‘Shen Lo, an aged Chinese merchant’ with pigtails and a straw hat, spouting demeaning dialogue like ‘Velly solly,’ offering perverted homage to both racism and ageism with that one foul impersonation. Even my demanding role of Othello the following year required me to get into black face and tights like a circus monkey. Then there was the Brown Hand Gang, of which I was the leader, who cruelly tormented the local market gardeners. And the books I read were full of white explorers slashing their way through the jungle and destroying the rain forest, while the blacks carried the baggage, as Greta has pointed out. Of course, some extremist right-wing commentators have said Justin is over-reacting and a hypocrite, that he ought to grow up, that getting into blackface and brown face is nothing more than the product of an earlier age that meant no harm and actually paid homage to a different culture. I simply reject that easy way out. Others have said that at least brown is not as demeaning as black. But the use of these racist epithets is equally bad; as Justin feels guilt about black face, I demand to be equally guilty about Brown Study. From neutral to brown may be one small step for a man, but brown to black is a giant leap backwards for mankind.

Truly, this has been a horrible journey, mired in blood and humiliation. I apologize. Mea culpa. At least I have now acknowledged the past and promised to reform. But what, you ask, will I actually do about it? First, I will work tirelessly for the declaration of a Race Emergency. Then, there must be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the real answer is that this very day I am going on my knees to our editor to change the name of my wretched column. Goodbye Brown Study; hullo Beige Open Plan Working Space. It is so much more inclusive.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments