As brownness comes of age, how will you embrace it in the right way?
A view from Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock

As brownness comes of age, how will you embrace it in the right way?

I took years to embrace my south Asian identity. But as 'brownness' is finally embraced in all corners of the creative universe, how should marketers respond?

Forgive me in advance on this one; I’m going to get personal.

I wanted to use this particular column to discuss and celebrate a new, confident sense of diasporic south Asian identity I’ve noticed bubbling up in the creative industries over the past 12 months.

There is a sense of “brownness” being embraced in all corners of our creative universe, and I truly believe sometime very soon it’s going to hit critical mass. 

When it does, how will brands and agencies react? How will they interact and engage with a movement that to date is still figuring out its voice?

Ultimately, how can everyone support, nurture and amplify this brilliant thing happening, rather than exploit, drain and destroy it?

Let me start from my own personal perspective, just to show why I’m both so excited and protective of the nascent brownness movement.

For the longest time, I hid my own brownness from my professional, and to a large extent personal life. Maybe even from myself.

I grew up in Cambridge in the UK in the 1990s. I’m the son of academic parents who migrated to Britain in the 1970s in pursuit of a new life filled with new opportunities.

Right from the off, it wasn’t straightforward for our family.

From my parents deciding to stop teaching me their mother tongues (Sinhalese and Tamil) as they feared my Sri Lankan-English accent was the reason I hadn’t been invited to any of the neighbouring kids’ birthday parties.

To me being embarrassed about having to eat curry at home every other evening and yearning for oven chips and fish fingers like “everyone else.

My childhood and adolescence, now I reflect, was dominated by a desire to aggressively “assimilate” into “native” British culture.

In other words, the aim of the game was to “suppress” my brownness in order to “fit in”.

Which is bizarre considering I was one of a handful of non-white kids both at school and sixth-form college.

University opened my horizons a little, though within the confines of the tradition-obsessed institution that is Cambridge (yeah I grew up and went to university in the same place… tragic, I know).

By the time I started out in the British film and TV industry, my hang-ups around brownness still haunted my subconscious.

My professional aim was not to be my full self. Instead I’d show a compartmentalised, palatable and (in my mind) passable version of myself to get by and “excel” in the industry.

But luckily for me, British society and the creative industries changed as I grew into my working life.

First at Channel 4 (which really did want to embrace my lived experience when it came to commissioning) and then at Dazed and Vice where I ran video departments. Slowly, not only was my brownness intriguing, but it eventually became an asset to provide a point of difference to my creative output.

I pushed through commissions such as this documentary for Channel 4 about British Asian Sound Systems featuring Riz Ahmed.

I began travelling back to Sri Lanka every year to try to reconnect with my ancestry and the south Asian creativity happening on the subcontinent.

Living in London at the time, I actively sought out other brown people in the creative industries to share experiences with.

But none of this was reflected in the real mainstream.

Meanwhile we saw a confident black British identity grow into the public consciousness. In advertising, the watershed moment was perhaps Nike’s “Nothing beats a Londoner”.

I loved (and I mean LOVED) everything that went into that campaign. But I wasn't the only one who noticed there wasn’t a brown face in sight. The latest omission in the past decade.

I grew up with south Asian icons like Bend it Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, Mercury Prize-winning Talvin Singh and Olympian Amir Khan. But during my professional life, apart from the likes of Riz Ahmed and M.I.A. (or the over-exposed Romesh Ranganathan – sorry Rom!), the brown voice in pop culture was almost inaudible.

All I could hear was the desi-drone of BBC Asian Network, which does not and still does not speak to my nuanced idea of what brownness is and what it could be.

I have to caveat at this point that my experience is subjective and far from universal. But it is fair to say that for my generation, my relationship to my brownness has been complex. Rightly or wrongly I had not wanted to bring that part of my identity into my day job.

But literally in the past 12 months, that has all changed.

I put that down to a new generation of brown kids who don’t have the baggage I had. It’s a total inspiration.

Take the brilliant London-based Daytimers crew. Taking their name from the daytime ravers in the documentary I mentioned earlier, this time around this collective of British south Asian DJs and musicians throws incredible parties, fundraisers and insightful podcasts, with genres spanning way beyond any conventional viewpoint.

Ryan Lanji, a Canadian-born south Asian who moved to London a few years back, has set up the phenomenally popular LBGTQI+ brown night called Hungama – a safe, joyful space that has made waves.

Brothers Aaron and Reuben Christian, alongside the brilliant musician and DJ Almass Badat, created the  “What is this behaviour?” podcast during the 2020 lockdown to celebrate south Asian creatives “going against the grain”.

All alongside brilliant emerging creative icons like Nayana IZ and fashion designer Priya Ahluwalia.

Trust me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. So many more brilliant brown voices are finding their stage that I don’t have the space to mention.

But it’s not just the creative output coming out; there’s also a wonderful community that’s beginning to be built across the UK, Europe and even North America.

Brand and social impact consultant Heta Fell, photographer Vivek Vadoliya and Riposte editor Danielle Pender created the “Art for India” initiative that raised more than £76k in one week for Mission Oxygen, which is helping meet the desperate demand for oxygen in India’s fight against the Covid crisis.

In marketing, I’m part of a south Asian marketing group called “Chaiwaale” that links all sorts of brown talent together to share job opportunities, experiences and mentorship. 

Add this to the endless WhatsApp groups popping up, and it’s hard to ignore that something really significant is happening. Something I have certainly never experienced before.

It’s inspired me to recalibrate my agency Soursop as well. 

We’re now actively supporting and employing new brown talent, commissioning and developing brown editorial projects, and bringing brown culture to almost all of our client work in some shape or form (behind or in front of the camera).

A lot of our brownness-centric work is coming out this year, alongside more brilliant work from others.

I feel it’s going to create a collective “brown” moment, and it’s only going to grow bigger and brighter.

So now, to those non-brown readers still with me in this column:

I’ve told you creative brownness is coming. What are you going to do about it? 

How are we going to learn from dealing with other “minority” voices in recent memory?

My worry is about the marketer's instinct to jump on a “trend” and ride it out in a campaign or two, before moving onto the next. Worse still, to create on-screen representation without the off-screen representation to back it up (just look at the state of advertising diversity off-screen right now!)

But I can tell you that for me and many others, this isn’t a trend. This is our life – our life’s work potentially. We will all be hyper aware of those trying to exploit, versus those genuinely trying to enable.

That said, for this movement to hit critical mass, it’s going to need all the support and encouragement it can get – from everybody. 

It’s true, brownness is going to live alongside all of the other wonderful diverse narratives that are starting to find their form, too.

But for those like me who have had a complex relationship with their south Asian identity, this brown moment could not have come soon enough.

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop