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OP-ED: Black Lives Matter: Why should it matter in Bangladesh?

  • Published at 08:56 pm June 27th, 2020
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More relevant for Bangladeshis than we realize REUTERS

We may not be able to stop racism entirely, but we can stop it from spreading

Somewhere during history classes in school, as Bangladesh taught its colonizer’s history and America taught its own, the history that connects the two -- Black history -- got lost.

For a country that has yet to denounce colourism and distinguish it from racism, understanding the latter may be ambitious. However, one does not have to separate colourism from racism to understand why the kneeling of an armed white man on the neck of a defenseless black man for nearly nine minutes till he lost his breath is, on all grounds, wrong.

Most of us have grown up in a household or society that is either knowingly or ignorantly racist. What makes our collective attitudes towards this even more concerning is our sustained inability and consistent unwillingness to recognize this notion of inherent racist attitudes. 

Hence, it isn’t a bolt from the blue to see Bangladeshis feel a sort of detachment from the Black Lives Matter movement. For a community that demands a from-scratch understanding of why this movement should matter to us, it is important that we go back to the period of our historical migration. 

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the earliest Bengali settlers -- peddlers and seamen -- migrated to the US from their villages with bags full of embroidered silks. During that time, the US passed a string of racist laws that disallowed the entrance of Asians into the country. 

Bengali peddlers were moving through Southern America amidst the imposition of Jim Crow segregation laws -- a time when the US recorded its highest number in history of lynching black men. 

Jim Crow Laws -- the American racial apartheid -- were a set of laws in Southern America that legally kept white people separate and superior from coloured people. That meant coloured people weren’t allowed to sit beside, eat with, or even go into the same buildings as white people. 

They were also not allowed to shake hands because it implied both races were socially equal. Although the law affected all of North America, it was harsher in the South because, during the Civil War, the South fought for slavery and the North fought against it. 

The reason they called it the Jim Crow Laws was because there was a minstrel show in which the main character, named Jim Crow, was presented as a dim-witted black slave. It was a character created by a white man to amuse white audiences. 

However, soon after, the character would come to symbolize one of the most tragic eras of race relations in American history.

During that gruesome period of segregation laws, Bangladeshi men survived by building networks within and through the help of black and brown communities. African American and Puerto Rican communities in New York and New Orleans welcomed Bengali men into their neighbourhoods, and their descendants became a part of those communities.

Many of those Bengali men married African American, Puerto Rican, and Creole women at the time so they could live with them in their neighbourhoods, in an attempt to escape American exclusion. 

That particular fact is noteworthy given multiracial marriages are, for the most part, frowned upon in the Bangladeshi community. However, during that time, the intermixture of those ethnicities was in fact a fundamental aspect of the Bangladeshi-American story. 

Bangladeshi men were, on one hand, departing a home country that was colonized by the British, and on the other, arriving at a country that fully prohibited their entrance as it enforced increasingly racist immigration laws. 

Now, as we reminisce the plight of our men during those times, it is important that we also understand this: In the years of Bangladeshi exclusion in America, it was African American and Puerto Rican communities that accepted Bengali men into their neighbourhoods and gave them the opportunity to initiate their lives on foreign soil. 

While they were fighting their own fight as America’s antagonists, they voluntarily adopted the role of our ally as they too, like us, became martyrs of marginalization.

This is all to say: We cannot be quiet when Black people cannot breathe. Excusing ourselves because our society never taught us to care about black lives is an excuse in itself. We need to acknowledge the difference between being non-racist and being actively anti-racist and move beyond performative activism, ie merely making social media posts to catch a trend.

We have to practise allyship, which is not a one-time, interim act of solidarity. 

Allyship is a lifetime commitment to educating ourselves, doing our research, acknowledging our past mistakes, and actively making an effort to modify them. 

Some ways we can practise allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement is by sharing the information we are learning, signing petitions, supporting black-owned businesses, and voting when we are eligible.

As South Asians, however, it is perhaps most important that we extend what we learn to our dinner tables and partake in uncomfortable conversations. As we learn more, we have to make sure our parents and relatives unlearn their anti-black ideologies. 

Being anti-black may be an inherent cultural norm in most Bangladeshi households, but in order to change that, we have to be willing to respond differently when our loved ones showcase anti-black sentiments. We have to also remember that our families aren’t trying to be hateful; they just have implicit learned behaviours -- ones that can be unlearned. 

We need to approach them with love and provide assuring statements such as, “Not being aware of this doesn’t make you a bad person.” And then allow them the time to gather their thoughts and ask if they have any questions. 

If you don’t have the answers, you can educate yourself on it and get back to them with a response because, remember, you too are learning every day. 

Through those conversations, if there is even a small chance of rewiring the ideologies of our parents or relatives who possess anti-black sentiments, we need to have those conversations. 

We have to start a dialogue, not a monologue.

If we understand how black people have been treated for decades and still continue to be treated despite their innumerable contributions to society, we will also begin to understand the global outrage.

As Bangladeshis, it is important we acknowledge the part we play in normalizing anti-black behaviours within our communities, and not remain silent, because when we do, we become a part of the problem.

We may not have absolute power to eradicate racism, but just as the virus, we have the ability to do our part in stopping it from spreading.

Maisha Kabir is the program development manager of an educational non-profit and a recent graduate of Gender and Sexuality Studies, New York University. Email: [email protected]

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