One of the oldest and most well-known hotels in our city (one which I will refrain from naming), has a billboard outside of it advertising swimming lessons. In the billboard, there is a photo of five babies next to the pool, being their cute, cuddly selves.
A generic advert, no doubt. But what struck me as odd was the fact that all the babies were white.
It is no secret that, as much as we hate on the white man, certain Asian countries, with Bangladesh being no exception, fetishise white, Western culture, their skin, the things they do, the music they play, the movies they make, their liberalism, and so-called free-spiritedness.
And by we, we mean a certain section of us (though the skin thing has of recent become almost exclusive to other parts of society). A certain section has become “Westernised” to a degree that our culture, apart from a few interjections of hippie-style Baul songs, is barely distinguishable from the one we are exposed to when we’re abroad, or the one we see on television and film, much to the disapproval of a certain other section of society.
There’s nothing wrong with that, though. Nothing right with it either. The problem lies in the fact that this section of society is blissfully unaware of the fact that they’re doing it, and with such conviction sees the rest of society from a vantage point of self-righteous superiority.
Or maybe I’m completely mistaken about this (though I doubt it). Even if I was, undeniably it is the case that there is not a single poor foreigner in Bangladesh. Exorbitant incomes (Tavella, anyone?) coupled with the royal treatment some of them are subjected to, as if the ground they walk on is paved with diamonds and gold, lead to a segregation within society that is all too apparent, with only the elite deemed worthy enough to walk beside them.
Of course, it could be that my McGuffin of a billboard advert, one involving five white babies, could be a stock photo downloaded from the internet, with the hotel’s marketing department blissfully oblivious to what it was doing (though, from a presumably five-star establishment, this is unlikely).
And of course, it could be that this is making a mountain out of a molehill. But there’s a molehill nonetheless.
In this molehill, there’s a vast minority, one that speaks exclusively in English, has travelled the world, is more “educated.” Their beliefs rule much of the media; in fact, you’re reading this in one such outlet.
Of course, they care very much about the world; you talk to them and it seems they weep tears of such potent sorrow for the world. The poor, the downtrodden, these are their fellow humans, suffering, while they sit here, ever-so-lucky. They believe in things, don’t you know, though it’s a very specific vision of the world, a Utopia of equality and justice and liberty. Of free expression and classlessness and freedom (conditions and contradictions apply).
Like with all labels and grand philosophical schemes, such contradictions and instances of confirmation bias are to be expected. That is, after all, only human.
Should we be embarrassed that we as a nation aren’t well-behaved enough to mingle with each other? Or should we be ashamed of the fact that for that to happen, one section must perish?
I can forgive it (as I hope you will my generalisations to make a certain point), but the practical implications of this are a sea of places within the city that cater to this very specific section. That is, after all, how the July 1 attackers knew where to go.
That is not mentioned in a bid to blame the victim. But it’s clear that there are some people who are looking inwards from the outside, be it full of jealousy, regret, or vindictiveness, wondering why some people are better off just because they were born in the right household and, sometimes, with the right skin colour.
Prices are kept high, people are looked down upon. Tk250 for a scoop of ice cream, Tk2,000 for sushi, freshly made Spanish bread: To some, these aren’t luxuries, but examples of excess.
On a scale of one to Starbucks (which has yet to arrive in Bangladesh), how white do you have to be on the inside to join? The price of inclusion, though, is hefty. Not just culturally, but one that demands appreciating the difference between gluten-free and organic, and offloading a “Western” amount of cash in an “Eastern” country.
But that’s okay. While discussing with a friend, she said, for a country like Bangladesh, these separations are required; people aren’t well-behaved enough to all be a veritable petri dish of versatility and diversity. Could you seriously expect to carry a conversation with your bua? Your interests wouldn’t match. She wouldn’t know how to cut her steak; you find the food too oily.
And the fact that we can make that distinction by class, and not by the very fact that you are two different people, is where the problem lies. Not enough “education,” not just maths, English, science, but not enough knowledge of the world. After all, that’s how you got there, right? Saw a “better” part of the world and chose to imitate? We must teach the rest of the country to do the same, right?
So, should we be embarrassed that we as a nation aren’t well-behaved enough to mingle with each other? Or should we be ashamed of the fact that for that to happen, one section must perish?
SN Rasul is a Sub-Editor at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @snrasul.