Article Title

To Be White, Black, or Brown? South Asian Americans and the Race-Color Distinction

Publication Title

Washington University Global Studies Law Review


People often use race and color terminology interchangeably in common parlance. Within the United States, color terminology often dominates racial discourse due to common use of color-based racial designations such as “Black” and “White.” Color is thus often used as a synonym for race, but while the two do overlap, color is also distinct from race as colorism is from racism.

The relationship between race and color is complex: the two are intertwined, and it can be difficult to tease apart. However, one group that illuminates the distinction between the two is South Asian Americans—peoples in the United States whose ancestry derives from the Indian subcontinent. South Asian Americans are a group that does not fit neatly within the dominant racial categories of Black and White and have a racially ambiguous identity within the United States. Because South Asian Americans have been classified in various racial categories and vary significantly in skin tone, their experiences can uniquely relay how race is related to color. Part I of this article examines the relationship between race and color more generally, and asserts that skin color is the primary physical feature associated with race. Part II analyzes the role of skin color in the characterization of South Asian Americans as “White.” Part III considers skin color in relation to the characterization of South Asian Americans as “Black.” Similar to Whiteness, this Part concludes that, while skin color can play a role in characterizations of South Asian Americans as Black, other factors are more significant. Part IV considers other color and race-linked identities attributed to South Asian Americans–including “Brown.” This Part illustrates that, for all of these identities, there are facets that are much more significant than skin color.

Finally, the Conclusion discusses implications of the above for understanding race and racism, and also colorism—one of the important aims of the Global Perspectives on Colorism conference.