November 10th, 2016
The most First Generation sentiment I can express, one that has probably appeared in some form in a million college admissions essays, is that this country is flawed and obscene, and also, it is ridiculously beautiful and it is one hundred percent worth fighting for. I say this because my parents came here during a war from a place with comparable problems: systemic misogyny, abuse of women as the norm, an insane class divide, religious and cultural infighting. There are thousands of writers who do more justice to the diaspora experience, its pressures, disconnect, and vulnerability, but if I can, here’s how this personal experience is folding in on itself, echoing in doubled and tripled ways for me.
Being a recent immigrant or a child of immigrants is not particularly special, but the experience absolutely shapes the psyche in a notable way. And the last ten years have fundamentally reformatted the psychology and awareness for people of color moving through space, language, and communities. Here’s one crucial way: I never used the term “people of color” until several years ago. Neither did plenty of my peers of color. I remember the ’90s as a fairly protected (I’m trying not to use the word ‘bubble’) time. Earth Day. We were singing Kumbaya as Bill played the saxophone, before we saw his sad face apologizing. I remember the flicker of the Gulf War on a very small television set. Benetton advertisements. Ignorance, bliss.
My parents came here forty years ago from Bangladesh in the middle of one of the bloodiest independence wars of the last century. My dad’s family was from a village; his father was a doctor in the Chittagong hills, where some of the world’s poorest would line up to get one check-up per decade. And my dad was in a military cadet school, and he was a champion swimmer. When the (West) Pakistan army came for scholars, for students, he and his brothers lay down in a field to hide. For a whole year, they did this, hiding in a field and holding their breath during raids. He swam to deposit his family’s rifles (because they hunted) in the middle of the Shitalakya, which is a river that literally looks like an ocean, in the middle of the night. It’s so absurd. I almost laugh thinking about these stories.
And my mother’s father, my Nana Bhai, was the headmaster of a school outside of Dhaka, and he (as I’ve been told so many times as a kind of Get to Work edict passed down from the last century) woke my mom and her brothers and sisters up at 4:30 every morning to pray, then to read, then to write. She came here to write and to teach, and she came all alone, without any network. And like them, so many immigrant parents came here with obscene and unresolved traumas. It is why our life was painful, broken, and fractured in so many ways you can’t tell from my presentation. Most of the First Generation friends you have are carrying around memories and experiences you wouldn’t even believe, that would disgust you, that are shameful, sad, grotesque.
Without realizing it, this kind of child develop modes and strategies of self-protection and spaces in which they feel they can breathe. I think this is why I’ve always felt most at home in The Cyber, because of its fantasies of a kind of anonymity, a surrealist opportunity to make and remake oneself in a created image.
Further, Work becomes a kind of self-protection, as it might be the only element of meritocracy that does, well, work, in terms of improving the material conditions of a fairly shitty life to be less shit. Work, we learn, can’t possibly paper over trauma. But to just get by, one might just learn a kind of fanatic devotion to Work to survive. My parents gave me that, and they still are insanely hard on me, often to the point I can’t bear it. This devotion to work, I get now, comes out of a kind of fear — of going back to where they came from, of ruining one’s life, of misusing one’s talent, of ending up poor, like, seriously poor, again.
It has taken me a long time to articulate these feelings, in part because a big part of being a grateful child of America is that you perform your belonging. You know: being exceptional can cancel out the color of your skin, yes? (I’m being sardonic.) God forbid you not be exceptional! You donate to the schools you went to, you work like a dog or automaton or an automaton dog and say things like, “I work really hard — can’t you see how hard I work? How much I value being here?”
This week was a confirmation of someone, as Ryan Kuo has written, looking us in the face and saying, “No, we don’t care, and we don’t see your work, and we definitely, unequivocally don’t want you.”
I became more sympathetic to the Left as I ‘moved along in time,’ (ha) but today I am deeply frustrated with its disrespect and dismissal of identity politics, as though economic realities and culture and race are not intimately intertwined. As though people debate the ‘Global South’ and post-colonialism just to irritate and distract us all from the real issues (class!). And I’m ever critical of Hilary and how she ran this entire shitshow into the ground, her neoliberal warhawking, the thousands of brown and black bodies that are dead at the feet of her policies and her husband’s as they sold out Haiti and the Middle East and Latin America. Not for a second can we not examine and resist how the Democratic party failed us, has perpetrated crimes, has enforced and expanded our prisons, has continued to perpetuate a deeply racist system. How liberalism helps us forget all these facts.
These past couple of years, I’ve looked to thinkers like Ayesha Siddiqui for committed activism combined with a serious writing practice. She is one of the most incredible critics of the failures of liberal democracy. She pointed out, rightly, how Hilary paraded and deployed a Gold Star family for her own political games. And Ayesha writes, even more importantly, on how representation is not, in any way, the same as real diversity of thought and perspective, as anyone of any kind of marginalized identity knows. Diversity is new, different-looking bodies in the room, yes. But it is also the capacity to tolerate and hold multiple opposing points of view in the mind at once. That’s why Hilary didn’t resonate with so many former Democrats turned socialists.
Clearly, September 11th changed life for every one, and for those of color, even in the most rarefied spaces, it changed how you saw your friends, how you saw yourself, how you felt yourself. Anyone who looked vaguely Muslim learned ways to cope. One could disappear. You thought hard about what about yourself to mention in work spaces (try not to mention anything). You might have thought, I would have to be a complete fool to undermine all the work I did with some identity-brandishing. Maybe I didn’t care about it that much, after all. It wasn’t anyone’s business what religion I was. I was made of a thousand identities! Why should one define me?
In many ways, this desire to be a thousand identities and none was essential to becoming a writer, which demands existing on the periphery, never getting too deep in, entering, receding, in ways that can often feel (and be) opportunistic and lame.
The real truth: this one identity no longer felt like one to be proud of, not in public. I didn’t believe one identity defined me; I wanted to absent myself of it. Like a vessel emptying out qualities that were not convenient. And as I started to reckon with the many, obvious, deep problems within the religion as it manifests from culture to culture across the world — misogyny, violence, homophobia, among them — I also started to feel more distant and cut off from it. I found no place to discuss or work through these problems, save only very recently in more radical spaces. The concept of being “radical, queer, and Muslim” was just incomprehensible to me five years ago. Only now do I feel I could possibly try to reckon with all this.
With some time having passed from leaving home, I have to recognize how much work my parents had to put in to protect me, psychologically. I grieve how much abuse they probably took that I never saw or will ever understand. Most first-generation people I know are fairly indestructible people who absorb shock, or bury trauma, or find ways to process it almost immediately. Junot Díaz gave a stunning speech recently about the superhuman qualities of immigrant children. This isn’t bragging, though it can sound like it without understanding the intent. His purpose is clear; when a person is degraded, it’s necessary to hear this kind of poetry, to hear that they might be magical, capable. Not trash.
That’s the thing about this conversation around privilege. You can be a talented PoC and go to the best schools and meritocracy your way to great jobs with amazing colleagues, but there’s a deep-seated knowledge you are a step away from Henry Louise Gates, one of the greatest scholars of our age, being asked by a Cambridge officer if he is breaking into his own home. You’re a step away from your loyalty and belonging being questioned.
And then fear begins to creep in. Is it possible that my majority allies might not protect me? Have I really known them to suffer any real sacrifice for me? If I were, or my family were to be abused or hurt, and in private, will they help me, in private? And then there is the horrible, empty, echo: I don’t know. And I absolutely hate this “I don’t know,” because it damages my faith and belief, this swinging and shifting between trust and distrust, petering out to a general, impotent numbness.
The experience of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants is holding vulnerability and power in your body and spirit at once. In the first years of crossing over, the immigrant mostly has to rely on himself and those of blood. In institutions and schools, the minority’s talent is both protected and cherished. But there is a nagging, persistent sense that it is also dispensable. That he, is, in fact, dispensable. This isn’t identity politics. This is just a fairly standard way of describing what it feels like.
Really, If I dwelt on the messed-up things said to me almost daily, I’d never get anything done. I’ve learned to zoom, scale, listen, blur, mute. Muting is probably my best protective device.
So, this call now for empathy is a charged one, and an interesting kind of burden. I can’t speak for most, but not having empathy for those who deny, discredit, and harm me is an essential psychological tactic, as it has always been. Not listening is a skill. I refuse to believe the burden of helping white America learn about itself must fall on people of color, though it does, over and over again. It isn’t the job of the magical, singular person of color in the room, as Hannah Black has written so rightly, to absolve the dominant community’s issues with itself.
As many are writing, what’s transpired isn’t new; surveillance isn’t new, or interesting. Feeling eyes on you isn’t novel. I am interested in economic parity; I want to understand workers who feel disenfranchised, but helping a racist person not be racist? This, I am sure, is not my job. Helping a xenophobic person gently down the path of recognizing her fear is not rooted in reality? Really; it is not our job.
I guess I’m thinking, moving forward, about what immigrants and the children of immigrants do really well. We work despite knowing our work will be devalued, cast aspersion on, doubted, and sidelined. We write and do work in this country despite knowing that you might, if lucky, gain incredible success in all those distant towers, and meritocracy still might (will, can) fail you. That you still can and will be disrespected. Success doesn’t protect you. But work might — not the neoliberal work of acquiring names and positions — but the thinking work, critical work, criticizing your home because you love it and because you believe in it, might form some resilience. Resist!
My parents knew how to work, so I know how to work. Everything I do, I want to go back into this country; I don’t want to flee. I think I’ve wept twice today? But no more.