Communication Currents

Arizona S.B. 1070 and the Brown Immigrant

February 1, 2015
Intercultural Communication

In 2010, Arizona passed S.B. 1070, immigration legislation that criminalized unlawful presence and permitted police to request identification from anyone whom they reasonably suspected of such unlawful presence. Although defenders of the bill have claimed it targets “illegal” immigrants without reference to race, those challenging the legislation have pointed out its racial implications. However, these challenges have often focused exclusively on what the law communicates about the Latino/a community without necessarily recognizing its impact across diverse ethnocultural communities. In my study, I examined blogs written by members of Latino/a and South Asian communities in response to S.B.1070 to explore how they, while contesting the legislation, discuss their shared experiences of discrimination and construct “brownness” as a racial category.

Constructions of Brownness and Illegality 

I found three different explanations of brownness among the bloggers that do not necessarily correlate with specific cultural groups. First, some bloggers use language that loosely associates brownness with the broader Latino/a community. Bloggers from the South Asian blog Sepia Mutiny expand this construction of brownness from just the Latino/a community by including similar experiences of racialized oppression and discrimination. The third construction of brownness ties it to the presumption of one’s illegality. Despite these differences, the bloggers reflect a common theme that their brown racial identity subjects them to oppression, profiling, and/or questioning by the state.

Combined, these constructions demonstrate how brownness is not merely descriptive of skin color but is a process of creating racialized meanings within a particular context, in this case, immigration. Many write about how S.B. 1070 would effectively implement such racialization by legitimating their discrimination and by entitling non-“browns” to view them with suspicion. By claiming to be race-neutral, S.B. 1070 utilizes an easy slippage from brown to Latino/a to Mexican to “illegal” that can be used more freely than an overtly race-based discourse. Consequently, neoliberal “race-neutral” policies allow members of “brown” immigrant communities to legally be U.S. citizens, yet the consequences of brownness render such citizenship incomplete.

Brownness and the Racial Structure 

Bloggers differentiate their experiences from a non-brown American mainstream, both challenging and embracing this distinction. However, this differentiation is not a case of separate but equal; rather, it constructs complex hierarchies in which brown bloggers, speaking from a position of being viewed as potentially “illegal” and deportable, are positioned lower than both whites and blacks. Some even discuss the advantage of performing a black identity to increase their chances of being read as “citizens.” Although the notion of a black/white binary has historically dominated studies of race in the United States, bloggers illustrate that such binaries are too incomplete and simplistic to capture the complexities of people’s racialized experiences.

The position of brownness within this hierarchy is not fixed, but dependent upon intersecting factors that influence how brown bodies are read racially. Because brownness spans multiple nationalities and ethnicities, the level of suspicion to which one is subject then depends upon yet another level of intersecting identities. For example, certain nationalities are privileged over others—for instance, “Mediterranean people” over “Mexicans.” Bloggers seem to argue the bottom end of the color spectrum is a “Mexican brownness,” where moving towards whiteness, blackness, or some other brownness is preferable to brownness that is racialized as Mexican and therefore as “illegal.” In addition, they point to aspects of class and culture, which associate darker skin with lower socioeconomic class, aligning with dominant notions of both colorism and “illegality.”

 Contesting the Racialization of Brownness 

Bloggers contest their brown racialization in three main ways. First, some bloggers directly refute the notion that Mexicans pose any kind of threat or that white Americans have actually experienced the threat imputed to “browns.” Instead, they present brown Americans as immigrants pursuing the American Dream and engaged in family, hard work, and the pursuit of freedom. They argue S.B. 1070 can disrupt their lives and prevent them from performing these qualities.

A second approach is to refute the racialized idea that “illegality” is synonymous with “Mexican” brownness by demonstrating the range of races and nationalities “illegality” can encompass, from white to Chinese to African to Russian. By specifically naming race, they challenge the race-neutrality of S.B. 1070, establishing the law as merely a “cover” or “proxy” for racism and xenophobia. A third related strategy by the bloggers is to shift the associations of otherness away from brown bodies to racist “Americans.” They present the latter as the real threat because their ideological values and beliefs are antithetical to what the United States stands for, demonstrating that otherness is not actually about race.

Conclusions 

This study highlights the unique forms of discrimination and policing that brown Americans experience on the basis of assumed citizenship that have measurable implications for their lives in the United States. Although Latino/a and South Asian American bloggers present slightly varied constructions of “brownness,” their discourses demonstrate shared or overlapping experiences of racial profiling, state oppression, and suspicion effected through their common racialization. Many South Asian bloggers were affected by legislation that ostensibly targeted the Latino/a community of Arizona. The discussion of their racialized experiences illustrates how brownness crosses particular ethnic groups. However, any sense of community or coalition constituted in this discourse is admittedly a loose one. Ultimately, the South Asian and Latino/a bloggers, despite discussing their mutual experiences, have yet to discuss them with each other. At the same time, this study indicates how blogs could be an ideal site for such conversations to occur in order to challenge anti-immigration efforts.

Moreover, the effects of brownness are reinforced in the specific context of immigration and S.B. 1070. By looking at a contextualized form of oppression, this study allows for the constructive complication of the black/white binary without dismissing or falsely comparing other forms of oppression faced by black Americans. This exploration of brownness therefore demonstrates the need to reconsider and adapt frameworks for renewed understandings of race, as well as some of the challenges of doing so.

About the author (s)

Anjana Mudambi

Randolph-Macon College

Assistant Professor