Speak Up

The list of reasons I love being Bangladeshi never ends. I can’t get enough of the delicious cha my abbu makes for me, the vibrant sea of shari’s gliding around at family weddings and the feeling when my maa helps place a tikli symmetrically in the center of my forehead. As much as I take pride in my rich culture, I am also willing to hold it accountable. The summer of 2020 awakened a beast in many of us. We felt hurt and angry at the treatment of Black people in America. And after that rage was expressed in the streets protesting, on social media and in honest discussions with friends, we were left to look at ourselves. To truly enact change, we must address the implicit and explicit biases harbored as individuals and as a community. Those conversations start with our families.

As a child, I learned about the harsh treatment my parents faced being Deshi and living in the states in the ’90s. They’d have to lug their clothes in trash bags to the laundromat from their apartment and passing drivers would yell that they were “dirty Iraqis.” No one deserves such vicious treatment. Yet my maa and abbu immigrated here from Bangladesh, not Iraq; they received hate from assumptions born out of ignorance, labeled as something they’re not because of how they look. The Islamophobia only worsened after 2001 with my Muslim family members receiving so much disdain from people not willing to accept that extremism doesn’t define an entire religious group. I figured since Deshi folks from my parent’s generation knew what it felt like to receive hostile attitudes, they wouldn’t give the same to any other community. But that turned out to be far more complex.

Once I visited a family friend’s house because their son, Raffi*, had been in a pretty bad accident. One of Raffi’s friends, who flew in from out of town to visit him, was walking up as my maa and I arrived. More guests stopped by and eventually we sat together to eat dinner while Raffi rested in the other room with his friend. As we were eating and chatting one of the uncles stated how thoughtful it was for Raffi’s friend to fly in. An auntie chimed in with “Yes, he’s one of the good Kalo boys. He’s such a good student too” I nearly choked on my torkari. Yet another auntie squealed, “That’s so rare, you know they’re naturally more aggressive.” My jaw dropped! This particular auntie was a doctor!! No wonder Black folks are terrified of not being taken seriously and receiving proper care from health care professionals.  It makes me feel ashamed that my Deshi community would perpetuate this kind of harmful stereotype. I don’t care how many times I hear these dangerous assumptions – it’s always blood boiling, if not surprising. First, they praise Raffi’s friend for his kindness, then they dare to criticize “his people.” I’ll be honest, that was one of the times I fell silent. I didn’t say something when I should have. I don’t feel good about sharing this, but I know I’m human and it takes time to find your voice. I use that moment as an everyday reminder to speak up now.

It is very upsetting, but these are sentiments I’ve heard more than a few times. They’ve bought into the stereotypes that Black people are loud, unruly, misbehaving. Nothing like us. As a teenager, I got the impression that I shouldn’t date a Black person. It felt like there was a ladder of hierarchy and they were perpetually at the bottom. The model minority myth pits “us” against “them.” White supremacy pits minority groups against one another to keep the system in place. When in reality it should be all of us against white supremacy. Solidarity among all minority groups has the power to topple the notion that marginalized communities must compare themselves to each other to be the “best.” It is disastrous when the South Asian community harbors anti-Black ideologies.

I am a light-skinned Bangladeshi but have freckles on my nose and cheeks which I adore. Sadly I’ve noticed that admiration begins and ends with me. For example, every time I’ve had makeup done for a cousin’s wedding the makeup artists ferociously insist on covering up “all these marks on your face!” Of course, I never let them, but would things be different if I was darker-skinned? As a tween who visited Dhaka regularly, I saw ads for skin lightening creams everywhere. I remember finally asking my maa if I could try one. She gave me a swift and decisive “NO.” But if she didn’t look out for me, would I want to cover my natural face? It’s easy to believe skin tone determines your worth when people constantly comment and attempt to decrease your melanin value. The colorism doled out within South Asian communities is so casual, as if someone’s noting rainy weather. Comments like you’re getting too dark, she’s fairer than you, they would be so pretty if they weren’t so dark circulate readily. I’ve often wondered how much of it stems from self-hatred instilled over generations. Generations before us were taught to praise paleness. “Bleach your skin”, “dark is undesirable”, “dark skin is worth less than pale skin.” In this kind of climate, it’s important to love ourselves and stop the cycle.

As a teen I found myself speaking up more, even if I couldn’t express precisely why I felt the need to do so. Once I was in the car with my maa and she was complaining about a man she encountered at work. He was Black and she used the derogatory word, “Kahli”, with a tone denoting contempt. I took a gulp of air and firmly said “You’re being racist, don’t say things like that.” She shot back with, “I’m not! How can I be racist?” In the next moments, I genuinely thought I would get kicked out of the car. But miraculously, I was allowed to stay and I began ruminating on that last phrase. It can be especially difficult to tackle the topic of bigotry knowing our families have had no walk in the park living in this country. To this day people are insidiously rude to my maa’s face and tell her to go “back to where she came from.” My abbu has randomly been denied permits and had to jump through hoops just to build a deck in our backyard. It is rough for any immigrant here. I started to understand that a large part of our community thinks they’re immune from displaying racist behavior because others discriminate against them. Of course, that’s not how it works. 

Millennial and Gen-Z Deshis are quick to raise their voices against anti-Black hate. While it counts for something to make a post or call out a friend, the mindset starts at home. No one has a chance to break through to the hearts and minds of your family like you do. Until we confront those who are closest to us we continue to be a part of the problem. I’m sharing these personal stories because I acknowledge it’s not easy to talk to family. Each member has to put in the work and take time to create new habits. Unlearning deeply rooted colorism and racism isn’t a linear path. Even if it’s scary I’m always really glad when I speak up. People can change at any stage in life. My family has grown over the years thanks to a lot of tough, uncomfortable conversations. They’re still questioning and self-educating, and so am I.  

Calling out colorism, Islamophobia, nationalism, caste discrimination and classism is beneficial for South Asians as well as other marginalized groups. Racism won’t end overnight, but it’s absolutely unacceptable to let it perpetuate. We need to do our part to become true allies not only to Black folks but also to the AAPI, Indigenous, Latinx, MENASA communities and more. Our vibrant South Asian cultures are not defined by their worst faults. We can make that a reality by loving our skin for what it is, standing up to the people we love the most, unlearning biases and remembering we are not alone in this fight.

* Names have been changed

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