Why Do We Call Brampton “Browntown”?
Written by Malgosia Wenderski
Growing up in Brampton, the term “Browntown” has become very popular. People of all ages and all ethnicities have used this term. Now, other labels of the city have been created, such as Bramladesh, Bramestan, Bramptladesh, Little India, Bollywood North, Singh City and Singhdale. This has led to preconceived notions that Brampton is dominated by a South Asian population, that it resembles cities in South Asia, that it is home to South Asian stereotypes[i], and that it smells of South Asian dishes, particularly curry[ii]. People have: posted forums questioning this term, written essays about Brampton as “Browntown,” and people from the outskirts of the Great Toronto Area and beyond know of “Browntown” (my past University lecturer from America had even noticed it). Many find the word comedic and all in good fun, however the consequences are profound. Using “Browntown” supports negative preconceptions of Brampton and South Asian citizens. It has also facilitated “White Flight,” in which White Brampton citizens move to other cities overwhelmed with the changing demographics in Brampton. We see that it has evolved to a very legitimated word that has many attached meanings and consequences to it. This motivated me to write the paper you are reading right now. I want to explore what “Brownstown” exactly means. Why do people from Brampton use labels like “Bramladesh” and “Browntown” to refer to their city? What are the experiences that led to this profound trend?
One possibility is that a higher concentration of South Asian citizens have led to calling their city a “Browntown.” According to a Brampton National Household Survey on Immigration and Ethnic Origin (2013), we see an increase in immigration from South Asian countries. From 2006-2011, 52.49% of the total proportion of immigrants were Indian. Visible minority population statistics demonstrated that in 2011, South Asians consisted of 38.41% of the population, an 18.91% increase since 2001. In comparison, White citizens of Brampton composed of 33.58% of the population in 2011, which decreased since 2001 by 25.22%. Therefore, an increase in South Asian people in Brampton due to immigration may have been a prominent factor in the belief that Brampton is “full of Indians”, calling it “Browntown.”
The large presence and symbols of South Asian culture has also played a role in dubbing Brampton as “Browntown”. According to Bramptonsucks.com, a marker of being from Brampton includes seeing “more people wearing turbans than baseball caps.”[iii] The practice of Sikhism, according to the National Household Survey (2013) is the second most practiced religion in Brampton (first is Catholicism). Third is Hinduism. We do see a growth in South Asian modes of worship, demonstrated by Gurdwaras and Hindu temples scattered across Brampton.
South Asian symbolism also transcends to cuisine as many South Asian restaurants and bakeries have gradually opened (and are prospering) in Brampton. This explains @Brampton_Stats’s tweet, “you know you’re in Brampton when you see a squirrel running around with roti in its mouth.”[iv] Many plazas in Brampton host Indian and Punjabi bazaars, stores with mannequins in adorned saris, and furniture stores and jewelers owned by South Asian people.
In the summer, I can recall groups of women wearing traditional saris, and/or salwar kamiz, walking along cemented sidewalks and chatting with one another. Men in colorful dhotis, or kurtas with pajamas meet in parks and relax on picnic tables or benches. Bhangra music (affiliated with Punjabi culture) would echo from vehicles with all windows down. In November, grand fireworks set off for the celebration of Diwali. Because of the vibrancy of South Asian culture, people may call Brampton “Singh City” or other terms because all these symbols of South Asian culture combine to give us this experience of living in a city in South Asia.
In addition to seeing culture of South Asia becoming prominent in Brampton with increases in the demographic, “Browntown” is also used because of resistance; there is a portion of Brampton that does not welcome this change. One theme is that people claim to feel estranged living in Brampton because they feel unfamiliar to it’s current landscapes and people: “seriously, I hate living here in Brampton and feel like I don’t live in Canada at all, feels more like India. Everytime I drive to and from work, all I see on the streets are ladies on their gowns and guys on their pajamas and torbans!”.[v] (I did not edit the grammar of any quotes to display them in their originality). Many express annoyance that Brampton celebrates multiculturalism and diversity, “where is the multiculturism in this country? its like cities are divided into small nations,” arguing that it is just the South Asian culture that has integrated its culture mainly. Another factor of “Browntown” is that South Asians are now becoming a primary interest group as immigrants and are given special treatment by federal and provincial agendas: “the left wants the votes so they bring in a punch of immigrants who will work for pennies while there sick family members come from India are eating up our healthcare.”
Focusing on White citizens of Brampton, I want to point attention to a YouTube video called “Brampton Racist Girl”[vi] that you may have watched. In this video we see how racially charged the use of “Browntown” and “Bramladesh” is. The girl in the video expressed disdain for South Asian people because her high school consisted mainly of South Asians, and concieved of them as terrorists, dangerous, smell bad of curry, and are dominating Brampton. Online discussions on Brampton also mirror her thoughts, and become very controversial as comments lead to racial fights. People clearly express discomfort and annoyance that South Asian culture has become so pervasive. One argument is that White people are no longer the dominant group, but a minority. We see this in Kyla Pawis statement: “I am tired of you taking over my city,” emphasizing White ownership of Brampton with disapproval of it’s changes. “Browntown” therefore represents Brampton as no longer being a white city, but a Brown one. This turns into another common opinion: White people feel as if they have become the second class citizen: “the fact is that canada accepts and lets in anyone but whites. to me its like a shame. it hates its own kind and only lets in bad people insted of smart and educated. thats why whites are becoming the minority in canada fast.”[vii] Another theme is that people feel they have lost benefits, opportunities for jobs, while simultaneously purporting that South Asians abuse “benefits, welfare and lax immigration policies.”[viii] Therefore they contend there is a economic inequality in which they experience income loss. Also there is frustration that South Asians are non-conforming or assimilating to Canadian culture. In a fight deciding what issues South Asians are creating for Brampton, one states “it’s about them coming here and living by our laws and traditions. Our traditions like saying Merry Christmas or saying the Lords prayers, RCMP unifoms etc, are all being changed for them. BS.” [ix] There is anger and resentment for Canada accommodating South Asian immigrants, without taking care of the White citizens who have lived in Brampton for a long time. This indicates a dislike of South Asian culture and how it is changing Canadian policy, and reducing Christian and Canadian traditions. Not being able to see other White people as often as they do see South Asians is another area of concern. This may reflect losing the feeling of community, and the lack of desire to include South Asians into this community. A less mentioned comment, White people express that they are discriminated against by South Asian people: “I can’t help but notice a trend of being treated with so much rudeness, and passive aggressive attitude that border Trump level racism, the looks I get making me feel as if I somehow have done some sort of unforgivable deed to their people, that I feel I am being silently discriminated.”[x] Another important component of “Browntown” is founded on many stereotypes and generalisations about South Asians through the lens of White people. Persisting are the comments on smells of cuisine and body hygiene: “You dhotis don’t know anything, except how to smell up the world with curry powder!!!” Many comment on the lack of proficiency in English through thick accents and poor communication. High density within homes is a stereotype that is mentioned often: “Its like 20 people live in a house, one family has 12 cars parked everywhere”[xi]. Emerges from all these thoughts is the archetype of South Asian males, named as “Jafar” in the urban dictionary that also associates Middle Eastern men to the definition.
All these negative characteristics are emphasized to represent a South Asian males and culture. Not only is it demeaning, it portrays South Asians in a stigmatizing and subordinating manner. All of these generalizations combine to purport that the sole presence of South Asians is degrading Brampton, creating it a “Browntown”: “East Indians are ruining everything everywhere you go.”[xii] And this deterioration is emphasized by comparing old Brampton and new Brampton: “Brampton was a small, pleasant town in the 60s. Today it has morphed into a giant, crime ridden slum. Wannabbee gangsters and restrictive hiring practices (Asians only) keep any decent people from moving to Brampton and keep a high level of them moving out.”[xiii] Media outlets are scolded for poor journalism because they do not explicitly blame South Asians for economic issues at the moment, “the Guardian kind of downplays the issues of immigration, race and poverty because Canadians like to pretend problems like ghettoization only exist in other countries,” with strong beliefs that job opportunities and wage gaps are caused only by South Asian immigrants.[xiv] This discussion of White people admonishing South Asians in Brampton is not only limited to the GTA: “same here in sault ste marie….we are stuck with a bunch of west hindies who are stealing all [our] jobs.”[xv]
It is clear that a portion of White citizens of Brampton (not specifying any percentage because that is yet to be researched) apply “Browntown” because they possess disdain for this demographic, and it is discrimination and prejudice directed towards South Asians as a group. Ergo, its racism. Evident is how a group of White Bramptonians dislike Brampton’s evolving identity and the integration of South Asian culture because they desire for a White Brampton. Reinforcing terms like “Browntown,” with all its stereotypes and racist undertones, Bramptonians mark the distinctions and segregate the notions of “Browntown” (as influenced by South Asians) and Brampton (influenced by White citizens and policy makers). It is also explicit in their goal to maintain a white national identity of Brampton among the White community, and to resist and oppose changes that will diminish it (immigration and integration). However, many have already reacted to this change; white flight. Housing has become a major topic for preventing White (or other ethnicities) people to enter Brampton. As people look to forums to understand advantages and disadvantages in this city, they see stern messages of warnings: “ask yourself if you would truly be comfortable living amongst a large South Asian population? Same goes for an East Asian population in Markham or Richmond Hill. White flight is a very real phenomenon and buying a home is the biggest investment you will ever make so make sure you will truly be happy and comfortable where you live.” This highlights that conditions (or the ethnicity of South Asia that they interact with often) are so unbearable they moved away. It also plainly says that White house hunters will not be happy in Brampton, because it has turned into a “Browntown”.
Starkly contrasting racism behind “Brown-town” is the pride people have in being able to call a city in Ontario “Browntown”. “Browntown” is celebrated because it represents the assimilation and success of South Asian Bramptonians as they yell to the skies, “brown ppl run shit in b-town! bombest shit ever…. if ya’ll don’t like it don’t move here then!”[xvi] In Brampton, youth (not only restricted to South Asians) are able to learn about South Asian culture and become exposed to diversity as high school talent shows feature authentic dancing numbers.[xvii]
And an addition to that, most definitely is the cuisine and henna appreciated by people across all ethnicities. A yelp user proclaimed “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said a thousand times. Brampton should be called ‘Browntown’. As a fellow Indian,” he emphasizes, “coming here to visit relatives is like living in India with a developed infrastructure. With a large, overwhelmingly South Asian contingent, the number and quality of Indian restaurants makes this city one of the best to get this kind of food.”[xviii] Many South Asians express overjoy that they are no longer a minority. Brampton’s own Russel Peters described his negative experiences while living in the Brampton decades before as a minority: “I was only 5 at the time and was called a ‘Paki’ when I’d be riding my bike on the street… It was the first time that someone told me that I was ‘different.’ It really sucked.”[xix] Fast forwarding to the present, there is relief and happiness behind being a part of a large community that allows a sense of belonging without experiencing explicit racism. Noreen Ahmed-Ullah in her wonderful essay described this relief in saying “I don’t need to worry about someone judging me by my hijab or hurling racist comments. I don’t have to worry about the patronizing tone of a white person in a mall parking lot, talking down at me like I don’t speak English about some asinine rule. The brown people who live here love Brampton.”[xx]
As a result we see the South Asian community in Brampton becoming very close and confident in speaking up against ostracism. A South Asian user in a forum defended herself and her community – one of many occasions – claiming “what you think does not affect us. Canada is an immigration country, not a white country. Sooner you accept that, better for you. Also, Canada’s a ‘salad bowl’ in comparison to the U.S. ‘melting pot’. It’s just as much ours as it is yours – legally. We don’t ‘need’ to adapt to White Canadian ways – our Indian Canadian ways work for us, yours work for you, leave us alone.”[xxi] This social cohesion and pride is visible in South Asians interact with one another. Often at transitways, outside All-South Asian plazas, by Sheridan college, in Tim Horton’s, or in restaurants I see groups of South Asian together, laughing and conversing with each other. Resistance to “Browntown” may be felt, but regardless, they have South Asian neighbours, family and friends to emotionally and socially support them. They can depend on me too, and the many people of all ethnicities that openly welcome “Browntown” in all its glory, with pride of our home city!
Image: Lopon Picnic Eldorado Park August 20120
Malgosia Wenderski studies psychology and sociology at the University at Toronto. She is the founder and host of the Collegiate Talkshow, and passionate about social psychology, inequality, and mental health.