Why not capitalizing “Brown” erases cultural history

Dania Aguayo, VP, multicultural and brand strategy, Hero Collective
Dania Aguayo, VP, multicultural and brand strategy, Hero Collective

Keeping “Brown'' lowercase is another attempt to strike out cultural experiences that define our beliefs, attitudes and values.

When the New York Times declared it would capitalize the ‘B’ in Black in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, it said that “style best conveys elements of shared history and identity, and reflects our goal to be respectful of all the people and communities we cover.” 

In that same article, however, the Times declined to capitalize the ‘B’ in Brown on the grounds that the term generally has been “used to describe a wide range of cultures and its meaning can be unclear to readers.”

But if you dig into the roots of the word “Brown,” that argument falls apart. 

By assuming that “Brown” is a generalized identifier that holds no history or identity, the argument completely omits the complexities of being Brown. It ignores what I call our street culture history, which often isn’t captured in history textbooks.

While “Brown” may be seen as a catch all color, it encapsulates a people struggling to find a place in a country that didn’t acknowledge their existence.  

Hispanics/Latins were not protected under the 14th Amendment until the 1954 Supreme Court case Hernandez vs Texas. For years we were considered the “white invisible population,” treated under “white laws” without the white privilege. At the same time, we were seen as less than dogs and governed under Jose Crow laws.

But as we left our home countries, we also weren’t accepted in our parents’ homelands, either. As a Mexican-American, I lived with the reality of “el dicho” (or saying), “ni de aquí ni de allá,” or “neither from here nor there.” 

Brown is a culture that was invented out of necessity as Mexicans were acculturating to the U.S. These Mexican-Americans preferred to speak English, ate Frosted Flakes cereal and drove American cars that were converted into lowriders.  

Culture does not stagnate. It is a living, breathing organism that evolves based on human context and experience. For some Hispanic/Latin people, Brown is an identity that isn’t completely defined by race or nationality, but by shared cultural experiences, ancestry and struggles.  

The Chicano movement of the 1960’s used “Brown” as a cultural identifier to inspire a political movement. Modeled after the Black Panther Party, The Brown Berets were established in 1967 to combat police brutality and fight racism. Some chapters also demanded education, job, and housing equality. 

The 1990s saw the rise of Chicano Rap, pioneered by Robert Gutierrez, a.k.a. “ODM” (One Dope Mexican) and Bobby Ramirez, or “DTTX” (Don’t Try To Xerox). The duo, known as A Lighter Shade of Brown, was at the forefront of an explosion of Latino hip-hop groups that rose to prominence at this time. They touched on serious social issues such as police brutality and misconduct on the posse cut “Interrogated Cause I’m Brown.” 

Today, the Hispanic/Latin community is rejecting colonization and reclaiming our Brown identity. We have constantly struggled with the mark the European conquistadores left on our people by trying to erase our ancestors and history by devaluing their worth and genius. 

Many labels are used to bucket the Hispanic/Latin population, and I don’t mean to add another one to the list. But keeping “Brown'' lowercase is another attempt to strike out cultural experiences that define our beliefs, attitudes and values.

Dania Aguayo us VP, multicultural and brand strategy at Hero Collective.

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