Loving and accepting my Bangladeshi identity in America has been and continues to be incredibly emotional and empowering. This journey is a two-step process.
The first step is unlearning self-hate and internalized racism ― altering appearances and downplaying racial backgrounds in attempts to fit in with white peers. This is a process I’m sure most people of color share. The classic example of self-hate for me was hating when my mother would pack some sort of Bangladeshi food for my elementary school lunch because all of my non-Desi friends and even teachers would make fun of the way it looked and smelled. I made sure to only bring sandwiches to school after that. Another example was hating wearing mehndi or henna because one of my elementary school teachers said it looked like I had a disease in front of the entire class. I remember going home and trying to scrub it off and with it, trying to scrub off aspects of my brownness. I can’t imagine how my parents felt during those times.
The second step is differentiating Bangladeshi culture from other Desi cultures. As I went on to middle school, high school, and college, I became close friends with many Desi people and slowly began to love being brown. We shared a love for Bollywood, Desi food, Desi outfits, and so much more that I finally felt more comfortable in my own skin. Most of my Desi friends are Pakistani, so the culture was similar enough to feel familiar. I began to assimilate with their culture so much that in turn, I lost some Bangladeshi roots. Often, my friends were eager to learn more about Bangladeshi culture, but I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t take the time to know enough about it. Unfortunately, certain incidents and mocking from Desi people led to further suppression of my Bangladeshi identity. If you’re Bangladeshi, I’m sure you’ve heard endless jokes about fish, darker skin tones, and more.
I was having a conversation with my sister one day and she mentioned how we grew up calling one of our cultural outfits a sharee and now everyone in America just says sari. I started noticing that I, along with many of my Bangladeshi peers in America, had been changing up Bangla words with words from Urdu/Hindi. Fuchka became pani puri and shingara/somocha became samosa. Once again, I found myself unlearning aspects of other Desi cultures in order to learn more about and love my Bangladeshi culture.
My heart is immensely full with Bangladeshi pride now because I’ve suppressed it for such a long time, and I finally understand who we are as a people. I know many of my Bangladeshi friends feel the same way. We’re learning about the strife our parents and grandparents went through to fight for this language and culture, and we’re tremendously ashamed for not loving it and valuing it enough. These feelings of regret cut deeper today.
Ekushey February (the 21st of February) marks a day where many lives were lost in Dhaka because of our beloved language, Bangla. West Pakistan, which dominated the government even though the population in East Pakistan was much larger, wanted to eliminate all “Indian” components of the country and established that Urdu was to be the sole state language and Bangla was to be removed from schools, currencies, and stamps. Bengali leaders joined together to fight against the systemic cultural and linguistic oppression. On February 21, 1952, Bengali students gathered at the University of Dhaka to protest the oppression, leading to many arrests. Enraged by the arrests, students attempted to storm into a government building and were killed. This led to further unrest and progressed for years until Bangladesh declared its independence.
The purpose of the Bengali Language Movement was to develop and celebrate a different language, literature, and culture. UNESCO recognized the movement and unanimously supported the dedication of the 21st of February to International Mother Language Day, a celebration of cultural diversity and multilingualism for all people. For me, it marks the rectification of years of suppression of my Bangladeshi culture by the full immersion into loving every aspect of it- the sunkissed color of my skin, the friendly head tilt to the side our people do upon greeting each other, the staple shada sharee with the lal paar, the vivacious colors during Pohela Boishakh, the savory bhaja Ilish maach, the earthy aroma of mehndi left on freshly stained hands, the impeccably and meticulously balanced spices in our food, the vibrant green pastures in the motherland, and most importantly, the softness and poetic flow of words from our resilient language, Bangla.