The Colour of Labour

A road trip into the heart of brownness.

Kamal Al-Solaylee believes that there is a “collective experience that unites people of brown skin whatever their particular geographic, ethnic, national and cultural circumstances. We are united (and divided) by the fact that we’re not white. Or black,” he writes. In trying to understand and define that collective experience, Al-Solaylee travels to Trinidad, Philippines, Hong Kong, Sir Lanka, Qatar, the United Kingdom, France, the United States and Canada to ask friends, colleagues, farmhands and migrant oil workers what it means to be a brown-skinned person living right now in the 21st century.

Along the way, Al-Solaylee explains how he himself came to terms with his brown skin. He also explores the notion of a ladder of colourism and its direct effect on economic prospects for brown and black people around the globe.

Al-Solaylee grew up in Egypt, a brown-skinned boy in a country of many brown-skinned people. His awareness of his sexuality and of his skin colour developed around the same time, but it was only his sexuality that seemed transgressive. When he moved to Canada, his dark skin colour suddenly set him apart, especially after September 11: he writes that he “learned to accept racial profiling as part of my everyday reality.”

Al-Solaylee admits to trying to maintain his lighter brown skin, staying out of the sun and avoiding beaches. Nor is he alone in this. Everywhere he travels for the book, whiteness or a lighter complexion is highly coveted. When he embarks on his trip to Southeast Asia, a friend back home asks him to return with some skin-whitening creams, a line of products familiar to South Asian parents, some of whom tell their children—especially girls—to stay out of the sun during summer holidays.

Al-Solaylee highlights the gender component of this phenomenon: to be darker, for girls, could mean being unmarriageable, and matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers are still peppered with references to “fair” young women (and men). In Sri Lanka Al-Solaylee speaks with an American-trained cosmetic surgeon who offers up a “Cosmetic Plan for Bride to Be,” a regimen that includes whitening creams, along with other body modifications such as liposuction and “fat grafting to change the proportions of the face.” The obsession with fair skin in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, is tied deeply to class, and the use of these creams poses a not insignificant health risk to those who work outdoors, as the creams suppress the melanin that protects skin from UVB rays, leading to an elevated risk of skin cancer.

Overwhelmingly, though, the stories that Al-Solaylee presents are those of immigration and migrant work. “Brown labour migration is hardship migration,” he writes. “It’s less about thoughts of self-improvement or return on investment and more about an instinct to escape economic degradation and political chaos.” When in the Philippines, for instance, Al-Solalyee meets young people training at various centres to work in the hospitality and culinary arts or to become domestic workers such as maids or nannies. Many have dreams of travelling and seeing the world by cruise ships, which is the fastest growing labour market within the Philippines. Their accounts recall Crisanta Sampang’s Maid in Singapore: The Serious, Quirky and Sometimes Absurd Life of a Domestic Worker, a rich memoir of her time working as a maid in Singapore and then as a nanny in Canada. Sampang comes to understand her own value, and that of her colleagues, to her home state: “Domestic workers … helped keep the Philippine economy afloat. We clothed, educated and raise our children in absentia, at great cost to ourselves.” The children the domestic worker leaves behind to work in other countries are now part of the same service industry. They want to see the world too, and so join the training centres, which have increasingly become the fabric of the country.

My local Starbucks is staffed by such diasporic workers, and it is not uncommon to hear Tagalog behind the counter. I asked Jan (to give a name to too often invisible workers) if he knew the Magsaysay Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts in the Philippines, and of course he has: “Every family has someone working abroad.”

The Filipino service industry is thriving and, as Al-Solalyee notes, it will continue to grow because the Filipinos themselves are a “fairer shade of brown (compared to the very brown of, say, Bangladeshi, Indian and Sri Lankan workers).” Anyone can see the brown labour moment, just by looking at who is in the kitchens of North America, who cleans our houses and takes care of our elderly, or, in the case of Qatar, who builds the roads and skyscrapers (often in flip-flops).

In Qatar, Al-Solaylee walks down to a part of the city known as the Industrial Area of Doha. “There are no women anywhere to be seen,” he writes. “For miles and miles.” He jokingly calls this area a “homoerotic dreamland,” but any intimacy he sees between the muscular labourers more likely indicates the lives, partners and family they have left behind. How can the “native brown population be so uncaring about the lives of so many fellow brown people?” Al-Solaylee wonders. His conversations with the Nepalese and Sri Lankan construction workers—it is no overstatement to call them victims of a modern-day slave trade—is one of the most engaging moments in the book. That they move to Qatar willingly for work is understandable; that hundreds of them return home in body bags each year, casualties of workplace injuries and heat exhaustion, is not.

As all Qatar’s foreign workers are required to live in one, vast neighbourhood, Al-Solaylee hoped to find an “egalitarian migrant society” in the Industrial Area, where social distinctions are “subsumed into the larger category of a brown worker.” But nationalist rifts and professional jealousies perpetually appear. Even in this microcosm, Al-Solalyee concludes, social and national divisions trump a cohesive “brown power” movement. That this is true everywhere fuels a movement of labour that helps keep global economies afloat.