The significance of identity is not really something I considered up until a few years ago. Moreover, throughout majority of my childhood, I repressed a certain aspect of myself that I very strongly identify with today. Much of who I think I am today has a lot to do with education and culture playing a part in shaping who I am and what I consider myself, which is a Bengali woman. Not a Bengali-American, which is what most people perceive me as, but just Bengali. The progression of me becoming comfortable with my identity has been gradual, and, as I have mentioned before, education and culture has played a big role in constructing my identity today. However, with that said, there is a lot of work left in coming to terms with other parts of my race and identity that I struggle with every day.
I came to America at age 7 thinking that it was “God’s land” and that America was the place to live. The notion that money fell from trees on this land was a thought that was not that far off in my head at that age. I was fascinated with the United States. Prior to coming to America, I completed a little bit of schooling in my native country, Bangladesh, so I knew how to read and write Bangla. However, at that time I did not consider this skill to be advantageous or a perk. I enrolled with that mindset in a public elementary school and was completely out of my comfort zone because I did not speak English. Although I vaguely remember being put into an ESL class, I still felt very uncomfortable because people made fun of me for my accent and incorrect grammar use. My goal at that point was to learn English and speak English fluently without an accent so I would not entertain the feeling of discomfort going forward and would not be singled out because my English was not perfect. Hence, I became obsessed with learning the English language because I was in America and that is what immigrants are “supposed” to do: assimilate. As a result of that mindset, my native language fell by the wayside. After about two years, I only knew how to speak Bangla at a very beginner’s level and my writing and reading skills dissipated over time. My parents, with all great intentions I am sure, then proceeded to enroll me in a private school so that I can get a better “American” education and improve my English language skills even more. I was not really encouraged by the educational institution or by my family to improve my Bangla reading, writing and speaking skills. Being caught up with becoming Americanized, I started to dislike being associated with being Bengali. I thought it to be an inferior race, especially since America seemed like it was full of white people that ran the show in social, economic and political sectors of the United States. My identity of being Bengali was not really worth anything. With that mindset, whenever people would ask me what I am, I would tell them Muslim, since that religion is associated with many different countries and I did not have to specify a country unless otherwise asked. (It is important to note that the only reason I identified as Muslim is because that is what I was told to believe I am by my family and that the societal norm for a Bengali is to be devoted to the Islamic fate. I will expand on this later.)
However, it is this same educational institution that did a one-eighty and made me realize the significance of race and identity about 12 years later, when I started taking classes at City College that taught me about American imperialism, race construction, and the importance of identity itself. America reared its ugly head as I learned more and more about a lot of the torment America imposed on immigrants in our country and imperialized many other nations. I was not taught this information in elementary school nor in high school. I was given the rosy picture of America I assume most kids get when they learn about our history in this country. I vaguely remember throughout my education, prior to college, brief mentions of how the United States oppressed people of color, minorities and Native Americans. In college, I learned more in depth of how Native Americans inhabited this land first, that they were stripped from their rights when Europeans came here as immigrants, who then posed as Americans and then tried to convert Native Americans to be “full Americans” by assimilating them into this culture they forcefully took over. That strikes me as very absurd! We are a land of immigrants yet certain immigrants are more American than others? With this knowledge, I started to associate myself less and less with being American. I am a Westerner because of my geographic location but not an American. I am Bengali, because in my opinion, the true Americans are the people that inhabited this land first which are Native Americans, and I am not one of them. I was born in Bangladesh and, therefore, consider myself to be Bengali.
Bangladesh is a very rich and vibrant culture and I am proud to say that I am from there but there are certain societal norms in Bangladesh that my parents and other Bengalis adhere to, which I consider to be very disturbing. The three most disturbing norms in my opinion are favoritism based on skin color, being forced to choose Islam as the dominant and only religion and arranged marriage. These factors have shaped my identity growing up.
I am considered dark-skinned by Bengali standards and I abhorred being dark for almost two decades because I was told lighter-skinned people were prettier, smarter and had more class. Although I am sure my parents do not mean to hurt me when they point out my skin color because that is what they were taught growing up, it still does because it made me feel that I was lacking because I was not lighter-skinned. Hence, I always thought white people were more superior because they were so fair-skinned. Even television shows and advertisements reinforced this notion growing up! All the big time actors and actresses were fair-skinned! However, I realize now that skin color plays no factor in inferiority or superiority amongst and between races. As John Relethford exclaims in “Race and Global Patterns of Phenotypic Variation”, skin color does not support the idea that there are two separate races (17). Skin color does not discern between rich and poor and it is biological in nature. Class, ethnicity and race have no bearing on skin color because there are many variations based on geographic locations, intermixing, amongst other factors. Today, I am proud of my skin color despite having moments when the lighter-skinned is still more favorable amongst my peers at school and in my Bengali culture. Through education and interaction with other people from other cultures, I have come to realize that indeed, skin color has no impact on superiority, inferiority or intellect but that this notion is societal in nature.
The religion that is embedded in my culture also reinforced whom I thought I was growing up and it is something I struggle with present day, specifically with my parents. I was taught that I am Muslim and that I have to adhere to the standards of the Islamic religion. My parents arranged it so that a religious tutor, an imam, would come to my house once a week to teach my siblings and me the pillars of this religion and how to read Arabic and memorize customary prayers. I was taught that unless you follow all of the rules of the Islamic religion, you will go to hell or that you are a bad person. Although I accepted this for a number of years, slowly I started to question this belief. It did not make sense to me that a person’s good deeds are meaningless unless they go to church or pray five times a day. Hence, I questioned the establishment of all religions. Personally, I feel religion was created to establish control and make people feel as if they belong to something by enforcing certain values. Today, I consider myself agnostic, if anything, because I do believe in a higher being but cannot find myself to associate with any particular religion. I tell people I am Muslim on paper because that is what my parents deem me to be. The biggest hurdle is that even though I feel my parents implicitly know that I am not particularly keen on this religion, I still have to read with an imam once a week—one, to avoid a huge conflict with my parents and two, to satisfy the Bengali expectations. This conflict has led me to resent the Islamic religion even more and also how close-minded most Bengalis are when it comes to this mindset.
Lastly, I find the custom of arranged marriages in my culture and others to be very conflicting. One, because I think people should have the liberty of choosing their own partners. Second, and most importantly, arranged marriages in my culture looks unfavorably upon intermixing. Arranged marriages in my country are based on class and the superiority of different regions in Bangladesh. For example, region X is discouraged from marrying region Y in Bangladesh because region Y has more poor people whereas families in region X are better off. Similarly, Bengalis are strongly discouraged to marry people who are not Bengalis and Muslims. This way of thinking resembles the mindset of keeping whiteness intact. This is basically saying that race and ethnicity should play a factor in who a person should be with—but in actuality, none of us can control who we are attracted to. Personally for me, I have always been attracted to men outside of my race and were I to marry a person who is not Bengali or Muslim, it would put a huge strain on my relationship with my parents. I still have not decided whether or not I will marry a Bengali, an African American or even a white man, nor if I will even get married because of all of these conflicting factors that is associated with the notion of marriage in my culture.
Although I am sure of my identity for the most part, I have a hard time convincing other people to accept me for what I identify with the most, especially my parents. I am a straight, Bengali woman who does not consider herself Muslim, does not consider herself American nor does she care to conform to many Bengali societal standards, one of which is marrying within the culture. This automatically deems me as the black sheep. I am okay with this but I wish it were not so hard to convince my family and others of my identity. I have my peers telling me I am American or Indian or naive and immature and will realize everyone was right all along as I get older. I am 23 years old. How much older do I need to be in order to know who I am?