“Brown” is a term from 11th-century Old English (brun) and Middle English (broun) referring to a color, meaning “duskiness, gloom.” With regard to people, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a brown person as “having the skin of a brown or dusky colour: as a racial characteristic.” “Brown”’s work as an adjective (“brown bird”), verb (“to brown”), and noun parallels its references to multiple groups of people, including those from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific, and Latin America. Given that many people have “brown” skin, “Brown” of course refers to much more than skin color and phenotype: like the terms “Black” (used to refer to people of African descent), “Yellow” (often referring to East Asians), and “Red” (indigenous peoples of the Americas), it refers not to a thing or person as much as to the processes through which these are given meaning.

The unsettled and untethered uses …

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