Bengali Americans and Black Liberation

Introduction and Positionality

I, along with many other first-world women, spent more than enough time today mindlessly scrolling through Instagram to escape from and avoid what feels like a neverending list of responsibilities. The simple tasks of my privileged life have become increasingly heavy in this last year and I constantly feel as if my existence teeters between meaningless and helpless as we adapt to living under the weighted blanket of COVID-19 padded with inescapable civil unrest, systemic racism, and an inhumanely negligent government. While I allowed these thoughts to hinder my ability to complete this overdue article – both in theory and actual deadline – I came across a colorful black and white photo shared by @bangladesh.story.

(Source: @bangladesh.story)

The photo depicts two Muktijoddha women of the Liberation War carrying grenades in a basket masqueraded with water hyacinth – a metaphorically invasive growth known for destroying biodiversity in and around the waters of Bangladesh (Mohamed Saif, 1971). This photo was shared in acknowledgment of the launch of Operation Searchlight – the Pakistani military operation seeking to eliminate the liberation efforts of Bengali nationalists initiated fifty years ago on March 25, 1971 (Abu MD, 2012). This assailment preluded the Bangladeshi Genocide killing 300,000-3 million Bengalis, displacing 8 million as refugees to India, and the gendercidal rape of an underestimated 300,000-400,000 women and people in an attempted “Islamization” of the Bengali people. (D’ Costa, 2011).

The casual reminders of the recent tragedies of my elders are painful to swallow as a second-generation Bangladeshi-American woman with an autonomy that my women and others of color have historically been stripped of and still not always afforded. I am reluctantly vigilant of the pervading consequences of colonialism, imperialism and the systemic racism and misogyny I face. I am also critically aware of the privileges given to me at the nonconsensual expense of the many women who come before and alongside me in my motherland of Bangladesh, the rest of the Third World, and my home country of America. As I reflect on the traumatic photos marking 50 short years of liberation, I cannot help but parallel the histories that have led to my existence. My freedom as a Brown woman in California can only be attributed to the bloodshed sacrifices of my ancestors and, even more critically for myself, to Black Americans whose ongoing and historical fight for revolutionary liberation is what founds any freedom we – as non-Black people of color – have claimed since our voluntary arrival to this land. As Bangladeshi Americans we cannot continue to acknowledge our ancestral history or highlight our liberation without also critically examining the role of Black Americans in our success; the anti-Blackness our community perpetuates as non-Black people of color tormented by the internalized violence of the 3 C’s (casteism, colorism, and colonialism); and finally, our role in Black liberation as the descendants of freedom fighters.

Proximity from Blackness and to Whiteness 

The aggregated integration and social capital of Bangladeshi Americans as we have navigated survivorship as Brown communities is a direct result of our proximity to or from Blackness and to or from Whiteness. Critical race and intersectionality theories, as well as American history, leads us to understand that anti-Blackness and racism are endemic to American life (Delgado 2012). Global structures and the various symptomatic-isms we experience, even as non-Black people of color, are evidently rooted in anti-Blackness. We do not by any means face the same oppressive systems or violence Black folks experience – rather, as non-Indian, non-dominant, lower-caste, Indigenous, darker skinned and/or Muslim people, our relativity to Blackness as a construct, as opposed to Whiteness as a construct, is the root of the intersecting oppression and violence we experience. On the contrary, despite the relative proximity to Blackness, our positionality away from Blackness brings us closer to Whiteness in terms of social and political power. This hierarchical positionality is then used to both justify anti-Black policies, institutions, and beliefs by those upholding White supremacy and is (both unintentionally and intentionally) leveraged by non-Black people of color to appeal to White power structures and gain social capital in order to survive. In short – our role in American society, what we have accomplished as a community, and the barriers we have simultaneously faced are not a coincidence nor are they solely a testament to our hard work, or lack thereof. All of these realities are influenced by how we can and have appealed to Whiteness, and intentionally distanced ourselves from Blackness, by subscribing to capitalism, perpetuating anti-Black discrimination, and fulfilling the model minority myth. 

This survival mechanism of appealing to Whiteness is a natural human response to a capitalist nation that fosters individualism over collectivism under the facade that equity, and even survival, is scarce and can only be afforded to those who work for it. If we loosely apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the Brown immigrant or refugee experience this can be described more visually. As our communities assimilated upon arrival to this country their priority was to fulfill the physiological and safety needs described by Maslow. However, when we apply a critical race theory lens to the hierarchy we can recognize that Bangladeshi Americans continue to face an array of discrimination, barriers, and violence which ensures that securing these foundations of survivorship at their minimum – food, money, shelter, and employment – is constant and cyclical. The delegation of energy to personal survival, by any means necessary, rarely allows immigrant communities to think outside of their own. Whether subconscious or intentional, the process of surviving in this country also means quickly learning in what ways assimilation is successful. As mentioned earlier, racism is endemic to America; this means it also becomes clear upon arrival to this country that Black communities do not have the same extent of (financial and material) resources that Whiteness is given and that under capitalism those same resources are limited. Where Bangladeshi communities, in general, have significantly failed in this process is critically engaging in learning and understanding the historic and sustained reasons for why this comes to be.

 Choosing individual survival in response to the traumas endured by many immigrant communities of color can easily be understood, and is especially explained when considering the recency of the traumas embedded in Bangladeshi descendants. However, as non-Black Bangladeshis benefitting from both the collectivist acceptance by Black communities in lower-income neighborhoods upon our early arrival as outlined in Bengalis in Harlem, but also from the manipulation of white supremacy (see: model minority myth) upon our integration, it is imperative we are more critical of our role in anti-Blackness, Black Liberation, and America. 

Habib and Victorial Ullah (back row, left and middle) with their children, Habib Jr. and Humaira, and friends, Doña Juana (standing, right), Fina, and Feyo (kneeling, left and right), at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, New York, circa 1950 (Source: Habib Ullah Jr.)

 At what cost (perpetuating anti-Blackness) are our people (non-Black Bangladeshi Americans and people of color) integrating and gaining social power in the hierarchies of America? Black Americans welcomed Bangladeshi immigrants to their predominantly Black neighborhoods in New York City, Detroit, and New Orleans upon our first arrival when segregation and its effects still lingered (Bald 2013). This acceptance and integration is a testament to the collectivist values and empathy embodied by Black Americans who were well aware of what it means to be non-White in America. This shared understanding provided us with a foundation in this country that they themselves were not given, as we leveraged what they already established and survived together as a community – such as the East Pakistan League in New York City working on civil rights issues alongside the Black Panthers (Bald 2013).

Photo of the East Pakistan League Banquet (Source: http://bengaliharlem.com/category/family-stories/)

The same sense of community has not been extended from Bangladeshi Americans to Black Americans as our own communities grow, as others arrive with more resources than our predecessors, and as we obtain more social capital through political representation, higher-paying careers, formal education, and movement to upper-class white suburbs. Rather, our community has adapted to the individualist values of American capitalism, leaving the issues Black Americans face with Black Americans to deal with alone. This intercommunity reflection and engagement in Black Liberation is essential as it not only honors the legacy of our own freedom fighting elders, but also because, as Audre Lorde says, “we are not free while [anyone] is unfree, even when [their] shackles are very different than our own.”  

Parallel Histories

Ironically, each year we simultaneously conclude Ekushey February and Black History Month – both emptive attempts at commemorating the grotesque and historic violence faced by these communities. The Indigenous communities of Bangladesh and the Bengal region have been conquered by colonizer after colonizer who attempted to erase the native language, cultures, spiritual practices, and people of the region while exploiting their rich resources for hundreds of years. We are no stranger to systemic oppression and minoritization as darker-skinned, caste oppressed, and Muslim folk forced into dominant structures of hegemony. Ekushey February recognizes the efforts of Bengali people to preserve their language and culture as Pakistan initiated an ethnic cleanse – allocating less resources to (the then known as) East Pakistan and enforcing Urdu as the standard language.

Our people fought for the right to preserve our complex identities and rich culture spanning from various dialects to Indigenous spiritual practice to representative attire. Our relationship to genocide, exploitation, and racial/ethnic violence on the basis of our ancestral identities is tumultuous and resilient. As Bangladeshi Americans further integrate into American society our pride in this fact has seemingly strengthened as we are slowly seeing more representation and conversations about our identity and distinction from Indians.

Black Americans have withstood the longest attempt at genocide starting with the colonizing and enslavement of Africans, to Jim Crow-era segregation, lynchings, and forced sterilizations, to modern-day mass incarceration, police violence, and systemic racism.

The Summer of 2020 was an overdue mainstream acknowledgment of the state-sanctioned police violence inflicted on Black Americans. This particular violence is not new nor is it the only form of systemic racism plaguing the lives of Black America by systems of power, institutions, non-Black people of color and white people alike. The United States government was first formally accused of Black genocide by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) in “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People” which was presented to the United Nations in 1951. The document highlights that the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines genocide as any acts committed with “intent to destroy” a group, “in whole or in part” (Civil Rights Congress 1952). It also cites instances of lynching in the United States, legal discrimination, disenfranchisement, police brutality, and systematic inequalities in health and quality of life. Not surprisingly, this was largely ignored by the general American public and Black genocide was never formally named as such despite thousands of incidents following the declaration into present day.

While our histories parallel, it is imperative to recognize the stark differences in outcome, positionality, and present status. While Bangladeshi Americans have less social and political power in the United States overall and comparatively, our privileges relative to Black Americans are apparent. It is important to acknowledge that while the conditions that forced the displacement and immigration of Bangladeshis, the choice and chance to do so is a privilege that most Black Americans and their ancestors did not have. This physical mobility allows for social mobility when integrating into a nation embedded in anti-Black foundations and systems. The luck, preservation, and hard work that contributed to Bangladeshis winning the Liberation War is a result of access to resources that do not translate to Black Americans in their fight for Liberation. The chance to preserve our language, establish ourselves as an independent nation, and take pride in the resilience of our culture, is a significant step towards racial/ethnic equity that Black Americans have yet to be privileged with – despite a genocide enforced by White Supremacy for hundreds of years longer than the genocide experienced by Bangladeshis. 

Our Role in Black Liberation 

Our mere existence in this country is only possible due to the resistance by and resilience of Black communities and revolutionaries who led the establishment of any civil rights afforded to people of color in the United States; a foundation that Bangladeshi Americans had the privilege of building from after Black Americans did the work, upon our arrival. It is also essential that we acknowledge the violence endured by Black Americans who were not active revolutionaries or activists throughout American history, without glorifying their struggle. Their experiences also contribute to the version of freedom we live in today, but we must not depict them as martyrs as they did not choose to sacrifice in order for us to survive. Yet the violence was and is forcibly placed on them; thus their continued existence in itself is resistance and we are responsible for alleviating these conditions as we continue to benefit from them.

Bangladeshi Americans and Bangladeshis must commit to eradicating anti-Blackness within our communities and within the systems we live in. To reiterate: racism is endemic to America. This means that for as long as America exists as is, there will always be a place for us to deconstruct anti-Blackness – starting with our own people and in our own homes first. The call to actions are endless, but can begin with the following:

  • Address colorism: Colorism, the discrimination of those with darker skin, is rampant in South Asia and across the diaspora. This, a direct product of anti-Blackness, manifests as a billion-dollar skin whitening cream industry to family members advising us to “stay out of the sun” to Bollywood consisting of majority white-passing or light-skinned North Indians. It’s up to us to deconstruct these ideals when they come up at home through open conversation and look inward at the ways we perpetuate them ourselves: Are all of our friends and romantic partners lighter-skinned? What initial thoughts do we have when we see darker-skinned folk? Are we hiring and including darker-skinned team members? Are we listening to darker-skinned people on this topic and on other concerns within our community? Activists to learn from and support include Seema Hari and Kavitha Emmanuel who have addressed colorism and casteism in South Asia. We must also similarly dedicate ourselves to the intersecting anti-caste work by following caste-oppressed leaders and organizatioins, such as  Equality Labs, a Dalit civil rights organization committed to abolishing caste violence.

  • Deconstruct the model minority myth: While I will always advocate for Bangladeshis to be proud of our preservation and success, we must also be critical of the ways we reach these milestones. The idea that we are inherently hardworking or smart enough to “make it” is a capitalist facade used to distinguish us from Black Americans as if they are the opposite – furthermore, it paints both our communities as monoliths and allows white supremacy to use us as a tool in anti-Blackness. We must deconstruct these beliefs within our families by having proactive conversations around privilege, anti-Blackness, and studies that debunk the model minority myth, such as NPR’s recent release of 6 Charts That Dismantle the Trope of Asian Americans as Model Minorities. 

  • Advocate for Black People – as they would and have for us: This can and needs to be done in our homes by speaking up when family members make negative or questionable comments about Black neighborhoods, artists and music, or people directly. This can be done in the workplace by addressing when your team doesn’t have any Black people – especially in leadership. This can be done in the classroom by addressing when your syllabus doesn’t include any Black scholars. We can show up by continuously supporting Black businesses and boycotting anti-Black businesses. This is done by showing up to demonstrations protesting anti-Black police brutality, signing petitions or supporting initiatives led by Black folk, and by contributing to mutual aid funds that benefit Black individuals directly. Advocating also includes following the lead of prominent Black leaders and organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, on their voter guidelines as they know best on what policies and politicians will impact their livelihood the most.

 These actions aren’t new – Black folks have been requesting this for years. Even more so, our community is familiar with these forms of advocacy as we have not only done it for ourselves but continue to show up in these same ways for communities we identify with. Bangladesh was  one of the first to support the liberation of Palestine, as their ongoing plight for freedom resonates with our history, and we have seen this embodied by the diaspora in recent weeks. The energy we have for what have been categorized as “Muslim issues”, such as Palestine, is the same energy the Black community deserves from Bangladeshi-Americans as well. Much like the water hyacinth and grenades carried by the Muktijoddha women – white supremacy and anti-Blackness are invasive growth that will only continue to inflict violence upon communities of colo, but especially Black communities as we continue to see. It’s ancestrally and morally required of us, as descendants of these freedom fighters, to dedicate ourselves to deconstructing and eradicating these systems of power in the pursuit of Black Liberation. We are not free while some of us are unfree, even when their shackles are very different from our own.

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