Words to describe brown

Don’t Call Me Foreign

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Words to describe brown
Image Credit: Firewood by Satoshi Kaya, Coffee by Emily Somple, Caramel by Evan-Amos, Chocolate by Platus. All images public domain

Call me shaded or cinnamon-skinned.
Compare my tone to the fur of a squirrel.
Hell, call me Pantone 18-1160 TPX, I won’t mind.
But please don’t call me foreign.

Say I’m tan,
the hue of a cardboard box,
Tell me I look like a piece of split firewood
or my skin tone resembles a telephone pole
But never call me foreign.

I spent the weekend at a soccer tournament thirty minutes from home, less than five miles from where my husband grew up and graduated high school. It was a lovely weekend, with perfect weather and good company. I wore my red Ohio State sweatshirt (despite it not being football season, this is perfectly acceptable Saturday attire around here, so pbhthth). The fields were in great condition, there was ample parking, and the adjacent building meant indoor plumbing. And, because it was so close to home, I could sleep in my own bed at night. All great perks for weekend-long soccer tournaments.

Anyhow, I decided to purchase one of the team photos the event photographer was selling. Indeed, nine families bought this gigantic team picture (4 ft wide x 2 ft high, or something crazy like that) enclosed in a large plastic sleeve. The pictures were ready before our 3pm game, so in order to avoid a potential crowd at the table after the game, I decided to pick up my picture and put it in my car.

Me: I’m looking for the U9 Boys ~TeamName~ pictures.
Salesperson: What time was the game?
Me: They played this morning at nine, and the next game is at three.
She went through the various stacks of pictures, and I offered more details to help locate the pictures.

In other words, I said a fair number of words, which she understood. We communicated rather well in our similar Ohio accents.

Finally, she found the team’s pictures, and I asked to take mine. Their policy, however, was that they had to release all the team pictures at once. No problem. My car was parked nearby, so I took all nine plastic-sleeved gigantic pictures, put them in the car, and sought out the parents to let them know I’d hand the pictures out after the game.

Meanwhile, as I was letting people know, the team manager and one of the other dads went to the photo table with the same idea, only to be told that someone had already taken the pictures.

Team Manager: Who was it?
Salesperson: It was some woman with long brown hair. She was foreign.

The team manager (Bless her!) could not figure out who the salesperson was talking about. She knew someone of Costa Rican descent, but her kid’s not on our team. One woman is married to a Brazilian, and could theoretically have been speaking in Portuguese, but she grew up in Ohio. It was a few minutes before she realized that the salesperson meant me.

I’m of Indian descent, and so is my husband. We both grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, graduated from large public schools, and attended college in Ohio. We root for the Browns, the Indians, and the Cavs. My family has brown skin. And we are all American.

And yet, despite wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt and speaking fluent English with no hint of an accent, I was described as foreign.


  1. of, relating to, or derived from another country or nation; not native.
  2. of or relating to contact or dealings with other countries; connected with foreign affairs
  3. external to one’s own country or nation
  4. carried on abroad, or with other countries
  5. belonging to or coming from another province, etc.
  6. located outside a specific district, province, etc.

Technically, I’ve been in America—and living in the Midwest—longer than any of the people working at that table have been alive. Technically, if I were to add up the time my children, born and raised in Cleveland, have spent in India, it would total less than eight weeks. The younger two have visited once, the eldest twice. They belong here. I belong here, despite having visited India much more as a child. Vacationing somewhere, after all, does not make me a native of that land. Spending some time visiting my cousins did not make me belong there.

I’m sure the salesperson meant no harm. In fact, I would wager that she (or he, not entirely sure which employee my friend worked with) intended not to be offensive, and feared that calling me colored would have come across poorly. And as such, decided to use the more ‘politically correct’ term, foreign.

In fact, the following day, I had a dialog with a black man who asked if I was foreign (to which I responded that nope, I’m a Clevelander). I’m sure these people are merely curious about my ancestral heritage, are being friendly, and certainly intend no harm.

But here’s the thing.
Words have meaning.
And using the word ‘foreign’ carries implications beyond merely not wanting to describe someone’s physical appearance.

Calling me foreign implies I belong somewhere else.
If you don’t want to call me colored,
say my skin is dark
or mocha colored
(or whatever the hell flavor of coffee my skin matches).
Say I’m brown,
invoke chocolate, caramel, or peanut butter.

But do not,
by some misguided attempt at being color-blind,
think that it is somehow less hurtful to tell me I don’t belong.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me Foreign

  1. I love this. My parents immigrated from India in the late 1950s. I was born in Maine in 1964. My brother(born in India but came here as a baby) went to Kindergarten in 1964 soon after I was born. He was asked what tribe he was from. Soon after we moved to Massachusetts. This is where my younger sister, myself and my brother identify as our home town. My brother watched Star Trek first run. My parents saw JFK speak on campus. They were citizens before the man landed on the moon. Yet we always have to defend our place. I am New England born and raised. I moved to CA. My children are CA born and raised. I am and always have been American.

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