Holding Onto My Roots In An Interracial Relationship
I won’t minimise my identity or ethnicity to make anyone feel comfortable
For years, whilst learning and unlearning so many truths and the history behind not just my culture and my people, about the impact Britain left behind on Bangladesh, once part of India with Pakistan, I, in all complete honesty, wasn’t a fan of white people as a whole. Individual white people, I liked of course. Not to sound like one of those “I have _____ friends” people, but I did have some white friends. Them, I liked, because they were aware of their white privilege and the way they held power in a society and world that hated people of colour, and used their privilege to be allies to ethnic minorities. But really, white people as a group, I hated because I knew the power they had, the privilege and the advantage to get ahead — because they could say or do anything and it would be fine, forgiven and forgotten.
Freedom Writers (2007) is a popular movie that is well loved. In it, there is a scene between Eva, a Latina student, and Erin, a white teacher.
White people wanting respect like they deserve it for free.
I’m a teacher, it doesn’t matter what color I am.
It’s all about color, it’s about people deciding what you deserve, about people wanting what they don’t deserve. About whites thinking they own this world no matter what. You see, I hate white people.
You hate me? You don’t even know me.
I know what you can do. I saw white cops shoot my friend in the back for reaching into his pocket, his pocket! I saw white cops come into my house and take my father away for no reason except they feel like it! Except because they can! And they can, because they’re white. So I HATE white people on sight!
Eva’s words are a statement majority, if not all, of us who aren’t white can relate to. The fundamental value here is that white people are superior still, despite how far we may have come. They are still favoured by companies, employers, entertainment industries, publishers and so on and so forth. Whilst I do not particularly believe in reverse racism (because can you really oppress the oppressor?), I do know there can be discrimination and prejudice against white people. It is not however, and never will be, on the same level of harm, disrespect, humiliation, or violence, as it is against (mainly) black people, Asian people, Arab people, Muslim people, and every other person who does not fit in with ‘white’ or white passing. There will always be that fear, around some white people, lurking beneath the surface, no matter how comfortable you may feel with them, due to being an ‘Outsider’. It takes years of unpacking to become more than just a white person kind of aware of racism and racist comments, to learn why certain jokes and remarks cannot be taken as just jokes because they are offensive, stereotypical and not funny, to learn about subtle racism and micro-aggression.
Last year, after learning more about my own country’s history and the beauty behind the Bangla language, I met an amazingly kind, funny, educated man who completely swept me off my feet. And this man is white. (He also totally looks like walking white privilege.) From the very beginning, there was a connection and a kind of banter and flirting I never really experienced with anyone else. Him being white did play on my mind for some time, because well . . . he’s white. The thing is, my friends and I always thought there’s a level of banter that you only have with your own people, or with other people of colour, and it’s harder to have with white people. Not even just the banter thing itself, but there is that whole issue of ‘ok shit he’s white, where is this going to go? Is it just sex? Will it lead to anything more? If it does, how will my family react? Will I fit in? Are his family racist? Is he aware of his white privilege and will he use that to help me in situations I need him to?’
Dating someone of a different race comes with the education of another culture. When I realised that what we had was a lot more than just casual talking, when we made the decision to be exclusive and become a ‘we’, I understood that it would not happen without its trials and tribulations. There wouldn’t be the tossing jokes back and forth in Bangla, which only a fellow Bangladeshi person would get, or jokes related to the Bangladeshi culture because it wouldn’t make much sense to him. At the beginning, I went in with the knowledge that yes, I’m dating a white man, but I saw it as just him, being only one person, not an extension of his family, with past histories of racist views or opposite political beliefs to my own. With that insight, a small seed of fear and doubt planted itself in the pit of my stomach.
I’d say that I don’t want this piece to be political, but my very existence, especially in the current climate, is political. I am a British-Bangladeshi Bisexual Muslim Woman with Immigrant Parents. I’m a First Generation British Citizen and that stands for everything, in everything, because of everything. Racism runs deep in British waters, rooted to the very core of this country’s values. This was obvious in the last election, and it is obvious in the handling of current events. Dating a white man has helped me to learn to hold onto my culture and my language, more than ever because I plan to raise children with him, and I want them to be able to know and understand half of their identity. I want them to learn, understand and love half of their heritage.
I still kind of don’t like white people, because I know the damage they can do and the privilege they have, but that, again, is only reserved for the white people who do not acknowledge their privilege, their power, that despite whatever suffering they may experience in their life — their skin colour does not attribute any hardship to them existing. This has been said many times over the last few weeks, but where is the same energy and effort for Shukri Abdi, a 12-year Somalian Muslim immigrant, that there was for Madeline McCann? Shukri was killed by white kids and not a damn thing was done about it, and the school still has not been held accountable. Where are the homes for the survivors of Grenfell tower, majority of whom were black or brown, as well as Muslim? Where is the same care for lower income households and people of colour that there is for middle or upper-class white people?
During the last few weeks, when the events in America unfolded and social media was flooded with #BlackLivesMatter and vital information, I learnt that saying “I don’t see colour” means nothing. Because colour is everything. A person’s skin colour, when they are not a white person, subjects them to horrific and awful treatment, racism, onslaughts of abuse, whether it be verbal or physical. You cannot say “it doesn’t matter what colour a person is” and leave it at that, because in this world it does. It shouldn’t. But it does. A person’s skin colour defines the way they are treated. People of colour are marginalised for their race, treated differently, stared at, facing racism on a daily, having to fight for a place in a world that favours white people.
I have argued about why the protests, despite the pandemic, aren’t pointless or unsafe, because with action comes change. The Civil Rights movement did not just happen with speeches and petitions; it came with protests, riots and anarchy. Change cannot be implemented without hundreds or thousands of people vying for the same outcome. (And they all had masks on, and there was no spike in the virus as a result of the protest either.) This same energy was not there for all the people that were at the beach how many months ago? All gathering close together, hardly with masks on. That was unsafe. Racism happens because of skin colour, and to say “colour doesn’t matter” or “I don’t see colour” diminishes the importance of how racist behaviour and words can affect a person and how it happens.
I have been called a Terrorist and a Paki numerous times by white people, the first time when I was nine years old outside my cousin’s house in South London. The fear of it going further than just words resides in my very bones. When I first met my boyfriend’s family, I was scared. Not because I thought that they’d be horrible or make racist remarks, but because I was worried about how I would fit in and because I knew it would impact the way I was with him too. I knew that if any ‘jokes’ were made regarding my skin tone, my ethnicity or the South Asian culture, I wouldn’t take it as a joke. That ever-present fear of not really ‘fitting in’ with his family still exists, even though I have now met them all and I get along with them. But being ‘Other’ in a white family, let alone white-majority country, is like wading into deep waters when you can’t swim, hoping not to drown. (And fyi: I can’t swim.)
I am learning to believe in myself enough to not let go of the things I believe in. My man and I don’t have opposing views when it comes to important issues, and the smaller things we don’t always agree on, we’re mature enough to communicate and learn from one another. But what I have learnt is that, unless it goes against the basic human rights of a person and aids in oppressing someone, not agreeing on things can be fun, because it allows you to talk more, challenge each other and have a debate.
Being with someone who is white means having to get used to the constant stares, and god, are there stares. It’s from both Asian and white people, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable, in the sense that I have to take in a deep breath, count to eight and compose myself. I’ve never liked people looking at me, a thing that stemmed from years of self-loathing, low self-esteem and anxiety, so to now constantly be dealing with it even more is draining. The stares though, are nothing compared to the reaction from having to defend my choice in being with him to my family. It’s not really racism or prejudice, but more of a language, religious and cultural barrier putting a wall between him and them, that makes them hesitant to accept a white man into the family (and the whole issue of what people will say and being the only child/daughter.) In addition, the fear of losing a language my people fought to speak is blameless and understandable. It is a language I, unfortunately, am not as native in as I should have been, despite it being the only tongue I speak at home, and the first language I spoke in.
I had always thought I would marry a Bangladeshi man my parents would approve of, so didn’t need to worry about not being able to pass on the language and heritage to my children, or implementing the cultural foods and traditions. Of course, if worst case scenario comes to play and I have to choose between the love of my life and my best friend, and a family I have already sacrificed so much for, I know I will choose him. I will just have to work harder and learn more about the culture I grew up with, erasing the bad and increasing the good it comes with, and speaking to the children we have in Bangla whilst he speaks to them in English. Perks of it will be them being bilingual, right?
In dating a white man, I am learning to love myself and my culture and my identity more, and I am learning how to detect thinly veiled racism that are so carefully hidden, and learning not to take the subtle racist digs — “yeah but where are you from?” or “were you born here?” or comments about how I’ll “probably get an arranged marriage”, or “isn’t Bangladesh basically India?” (and by the way, Bangladesh was a part of India ’til the Brits invaded us, thought of us as uncivilised animals, let millions of my people die and then partitioned us, which only led to more deaths.) “Racism is defined by its impact, not always the intent behind it.” In dating a white man, I am learning how it feels to truly love and be loved, and I’m able to freely be myself without hiding away parts of my personality.
The thing is though, I won’t minimise my identity or ethnicity to make white people, no matter who they are, feel comfortable, when it is something I am proud of, after spending years wishing I could paint my skin white and be one of them so I wouldn’t have to be scared when I left the house, away from the safety of my own. Being an Asian Muslim is a double burden, facing both racism and Islamophobia, when I’d rather not have to deal with either. Some small, scared part of me hopes that any children I have will be white-passing, so they don’t have to deal with the institutional racism, the having to work harder to get to where their white counterparts already are, simply for being white, or scrutinised for having the surname Ahmed.
But then I realise, that this is part of the problem. So I hope my children have dark hair and brown skin in shades of gold and bronze, unafraid and unashamed of their Brownness and half their lineage because they are proud and fierce and strong. Because I am proud, unafraid and unashamed of being a Brown Muslim woman.