Demographic evolution recognizes that ethnic identities are fluid, multi-faceted

Since I first started this column almost two years ago, I am often asked by readers, what’s with the name? Why “In Brown Type?” It was an important question to ask, and the answer I provided initially may have focused overwhelmingly on the word “brown.” Over the years, I’ve begun to see the plethora of possibilities behind that column name and its three words.

I’m a writer telling stories that are rooted in community, of the people I encounter, of the troubles we face, of our successes and of the complications of life as we see it and live it.

Whether through the medium of journalism, fiction, or an expressive art form, a story should not hinge only on the differences we encounter; on the color, race, religion and ideological lines that separate us.

I believe that the responsibility of storytellers must include bringing together our different identities in coherent public dialog. We are who we are in relation to who walks alongside us, who is indifferent to us and who is against us. The color brown has no meaning without understanding what white or black are.

In the last decennial census in 2010, San Francisco had 41 percent Whites, 33 percent Asians, 15 percent Hispanics, 6 percent African Americans, and less than 1 percent Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. If we think about how much we are represented in this mix, it could cause us great angst or deep satisfaction. Because of the migratory patterns of the world, we have now evolved into a mixed bag of race and culture. That’s as energizing as disturbing.

In San Francisco, we are hemorrhaging African Americans from our neighborhoods. In 1970, the Black community was 13.4 percent of our population and in 2010, there were only 50,000 left. No doubt, that number has decreased even further in the last 10 years. The abiding dilemma remains as to why we are driving one community out, as we welcome others in.

Our histories are wrapped up in the colors of our skins, but if you trace history far enough, we were all descendants of that same sun. One part of this demographic evolution is to recognize that our ethnic identities are fluid, multi-faceted and hybrid.

In an Economist profile of Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex and a member of the British royal family, Markle didn’t know which box to tick in a census survey conducted at school because she is bi-racial. Her teacher asked her to pick “Caucasian” because that’s what she looked like, but her father later told her, according to the report, “If that happens again, you draw your own box.”

We’ve reached a point in our demographic and geographic makeup when borders and boxes don’t contain us anymore and definitions and types are too broad.

Diversity, as a concept, is deeply compelling and confounding. Diversity of thought includes difference of opinion unless it is a harmful opinion, but the definition of harm is a spectrum, open to interpretation. Likewise, ethnic diversity negotiates differences of background and history but stops short at recognizing all cultures as equal.

Nikki Haley, the outgoing 29th U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, is reported to have ticked “white” in her voter registration form in 2001. Is Haley not diverse if she doesn’t accept her cultural roots? Is Markle more diverse because she embraced her multicultural heritage?

The value of a column called “In Brown Type” rests on just such a mediated dialog on identity participation and belonging.

Writing about immigration and race is thorny and multi-faceted. When I profile a particular community, am I subsuming lesser represented minorities? As I give voice to one undocumented person, am I taking away the rights of someone else? How do we prioritize certain voices? When do we prioritize certain issues?

For this column, I liberally and regularly crisscross subject and readership borders. It’s possible that my perspectives have relevance not only for the communities I belong to, but also for the populations that I share resources with. I am a journalist, a mother, a wife, a woman of color but also a person of privilege. These identities force me to make sensitivity part of my reporting, especially when I write about the lives of others who are different from me.

Recently, I interviewed an undocumented woman from Nigeria. I started the interview acknowledging that not much is written about the black immigrant experience. The dialog begins and ends with Mexico, she remarked.

That remark stayed with me. Certainly, the woman from Nigeria does not begrudge the attention on immigrants south of our border. However, it was apparent that she felt excluded from the national conversation, even when it reflected her own condition. So, I took her remark home, and churned it around, thinking about what or how I would feel if I was her.

There are no easy answers to any of the societal problems that we confront, and that’s why we try to break down our problems into types and colors, so we can then devise solutions for each category. Perhaps on occasion, it’s better to redraw our own boxes to be inclusive of others.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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