By: Kitty Cheung, SFU Student


As a means of exploring the brown perspective, Kamal Al-Solaylee presented the 2018 Milton K. Wong Multiculturalism Lecture titled “It’s a Brown New World. Now What?” on Wednesday, July 27 at the BMO Theatre Centre in downtown Vancouver. This event was hosted by SFU Public Square in partnership with the Laurier Institution, CBC Ideas, and the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, with support from Parc Retirement Living.

     Al-Solaylee, a Toronto-based journalist, author and professor of journalism at Ryerson University, began his lecture with chilling cases of anti-brown sentiment.

     “As many as 2500 children, some as young as three months old, separated from their parents, possibly forever, at the Mexico-US border and housed in cages and camps. A young student who spent hours, days perhaps, reading websites and posts by far-right nationalist leaders, storms into a mosque in Quebec City, and fires indiscriminately, killing six men and injuring many others,” he began.

     Al-Solaylee, a Toronto-based journalist, author, and professor of journalism at Ryerson University, recited his definition of brown as “a continuum, a grouping, a metaphor even, for the millions of darker-skinned people who, in broader historical terms, have missed out on the economic and political gains of the post-industrial world, who are now clamouring for their fair share of social nobility, equality, and freedom.”

     This lecture focused on revealing the narrative on how we are living race-wise today, what it means to be brown, and why being brown matters, especially in a world where immigrants and asylum seekers are dehumanized by US and UK political leaders. 

     Al-Solaylee presented research from his book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone), a collection of interviews conducted with brown immigrants and workers, as well as personal accounts of his experience growing up as a gay man in Yemen. He focused on two aspects of anti-brownness in particular: how “brown has become the source of cheap labour,” and “the colourization of Islam as a brown menace in the post-911 world.”

     The lecture was followed by a dialogue moderated by Michelle Eliot, a journalist with CBC Radio One. Audience members had the opportunity to ask questions as volunteers passed microphones around the room.  

     The term “brown” is a racial identity encompassing a plethora of individual cultures and countries. When asked about the value of coming together as brown, Al-Solaylee discussed identifying with brownness as a way of developing solidarity, creating a common narrative of labour and exploitation, and destabilizing the concept of a model minority.

     In response to the question of what the role of white allyship is in supporting brown communities, Al-Solaylee stressed the importance of everyone being vocal.

“Something I’m really tired of doing is — and every person of colour is tired — that they’re the only ones who are vocal about issues of discrimination and race [. . .] I need everyone here [. . .] to be the ones who are vocal about race and racism.” – Kamal Al-Solaylee, journalist and author 

     “My ideal sort of scenario is not to be the person always writing about race. I started as a journalist, as an arts writer [. . .] I was a theatre critic and I sometimes long for those days when all I did was just go and write about a performance, about some one-man show and not have to constantly perform my skin colour, constantly tell you, constantly have to convince you that you need to step up and you need to prevent the kind of violence that might lead to a genocide,” he said.

     The final audience question of the night had to do with being tokenized as a brown-skinned person, with Al-Solaylee responding to “What can we do?”

     Al-Solaylee commented that he didn’t feel his role as an author was “to provide solutions, but [rather] to tell stories, to expose the narrative or to just kind of say this is going on and then I leave it to policy makers and people who are working in the field to strategize.” He continued, ”I have found more recently that I need to be more activist [. . .] I need to lend my voice to issues.

     “The experience of racialization is not necessarily going to change in a generation or two.”


With files from The Star and The Globe and Mail.