Oh, So Now I’m Bangladeshi?
April 9, 2016 2:04 AM   Subscribe

 
Every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language

Damn
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:47 AM on April 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


This is a really good piece, and powerful. I haven't read Rahman's novel yet, but it is near the top of my to-read list.

I always prefer to see authors credited in FPPs (for future searching, if nothing else) and an essay about identity and personhood would seem doubly appropriate for having the author named.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:23 AM on April 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


it must be lonely to be him, his ethnicity puts him on the outside on both sides of that hyphenation, British-Bangladeshi, especially in the East End of London.

His last paragraph reminded me of Sojourner Truth, "ain't I a woman?" speech and of Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes", the pain of the outsider laid bare.

I too am an outsider in Britain, and the crude cudgels of the Brexit campaigns are doing my head in, but my ethnicity privileges me, I'm Irish and gone are the days of "no Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish" signs in guesthouses. If anything being Irish in the UK means people break their traditional reserve and I'm often given a warmer welcome than another brit would get in company. Stereotypes of Irishness are now an ice-breaker for all the wrong reasons but I feel I am at a significant advantage socially due to my ethnicity.
posted by Wilder at 4:56 AM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


PRETTY MUCH MY LIFE.

I wasn't born or raised in Bangladesh. I barely speak the language, can't read it. I go to Bangladesh, mostly on holiday, and I am immediately pegged as a foreigner. Yet because of a "quirk" in the Malaysian immigration system, I was born with a Bangladesh passport, and only became the citizen of the country I was born, raised, and mostly educated in on my 26th birthday.

Even now people don't really see me or anyone like me as Malaysian - the progressive folk here have bees in their bonnet about Bangladeshis being a "tool" of the repressive Government through phantom voting, while the conservatives think we're trying to "take over" the country and steal peoples jobs/women/whatever typical immigrant claptrap that's about. Even overseas I get people who fight me telling me I can't possibly be Malaysian because I don't look/sound like one.

In the meantime, it weirds me out when people try to introduce me and bring up Bangladesh in my history. Like ok, my parents are from there, so I'm closer to it than say people whose families have been in Country X for generations. At the same time, it seems about as salient to my experience as "White Guy Jimbob, who is originally Scottish and British and Danish mix". Yeah ok I have Bangladeshi heritage and was parsed as Bangladeshi for most of my bureaucratic experience, but what do I know about the culture? I'm an outsider there too.
posted by divabat at 5:24 AM on April 9, 2016 [38 favorites]


So glad to see this on Metafilter. Zia Haider Rahman is an incredibly intelligent writer. I didn't enjoy his book, 'In the Light of What We Know', because I am not a fan of that very self-consciously intelligent, hyperarticulate, twisty-turny style, but I felt sad about that, because I could tell that what I was reading was very clearly an Important Novel with important things to say about Identity and History. But I enjoy his journalism, the little I have read of it, because I find it articulate and concise, with the odd beautiful turn of phrase. (Derail: there is some fantastic writing coming out of Bangladesh and the Bengali-speaking diaspora these days, obviously Rahman, but also Saad Z. Hossain and Sharbari Zohra Ahmed. I'm very glad to see my compatriots getting the international literary kudos they deserve.)
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:23 AM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


it must be lonely to be him, his ethnicity puts him on the outside on both sides of that hyphenation, British-Bangladeshi, especially in the East End of London.
Third Culture Kid - the alternative community that we seek is one with others who may not share our heritage but inhabit the same liminal culture space. At least we're less likely to impose some label and are more likely to just listen to you when it comes to defining your identity.
posted by bl1nk at 7:33 AM on April 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


His novel is truly remarkable but has one flaw which almost ruined it for me, that being its treatment of women.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:38 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I feel like I might have posted this before, my great grandparents were from China, they moved to Singapore to escape starvation, their children got caught in the Japanese WW2 invasion, their grandchildren moved to Malaysia, and the next generation, me, grew up in Malaysia but moved to Australia to work. My entire education had been in Malay, and it was an interesting transition at an Australian university to see my internal thoughts (mostly school related stuff) change from being narrated in Malay to being narrated in English.

I was sent as a consultant to an affiliate in Thailand. When I got there, one of my first conversations was like this.

"I thought they were sending us an Australian."

"I am Australian. But I'm actually born in Malaysia."

"Then why don't you look Malay?"

"I'm actually Chinese."
posted by xdvesper at 8:32 AM on April 9, 2016 [29 favorites]


We're all mutts. Being snotty about it is a popular way to feel up-hierarchy, with a long tradition stretching back to the grunty era.

White people are very good at racism, and can sometimes be blind to the achievements of other groups in this arena. It really is an equal-opportunity way to be a schmuck.

Somebody once told me I wasn't couldn't call myself a citizen of the city I lived in because I took the bus one block too far to get home. Micro-aggression defending a shared identity against me. I don't think I looked different enough for it to be a genetic criticism so much as a generalized drive to keep the shared identity as exclusive as possible. I guess you get a higher score that way, in whatever game you are playing.

It's too bad so many feel so defensive that they'll not notice pushing down against a person.
posted by Construction Concern at 9:10 AM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


He doesn't complain about being called a banker though.
posted by w0mbat at 10:02 AM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


A good read, but I felt myself questioning two points.

Rahman mentions that he's experienced open racism in the past, and recently that a statement by the MAN Booker prize described him as "Bangladeshi". He says: "Of course, keeping me Bangladeshi has the advantage of enabling some people to tell me to go back to my own country." But I feel he's put two opposite things together. The racist calls him Bangladeshi because he thinks of Rahman as an outsider and wants him gone. The kind of people who run the MAN Booker prize think of him as Bangladeshi as they make a fetish of diversity. They're exoticizing him, turning him into a "minority", "BME", "POC", or even "ethnic" writer, but they definitely want to keep him.

Rahman's not a full person to them, but only an aspect of his culture, reducible not to some idea of humanity but some idea of Bangladeshi/South Asian/Muslim. White people get to write about the human experience, to be universal and timeless, non-white people get to write about a time or place or culture to which they're assumed to be moored. It's another kind of racism--as well he knows--but one which is weirdly acceptable. The racist who spits on non-white people in the street is rightly called a terrible person, but the racist who "celebrates diversity" by forcing non-white people into boxes?

Every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language. To the white Briton, the hyphenated identity — Bangladeshi-British, Pakistani-British — only highlights otherness. Each side regards the hyphenated identity as a concession to the other, rather than both rejoicing in a new stripe in a rainbow nation.

I had to laugh at this, as I think Rahman's been sold a pup with Britishness and he's not aware of it. In the UK, Britishness is specifically sold to minorities as a national identity. White people overwhelming call themselves English/Scottish/Welsh and not British. At the 2011 census (in England), 72% of people reporting their ethnicity as Bangladeshi said they were "British only", while 72% of people reporting their ethnicity as White British said they were "English only". White people don't give a shit about non-whites being "British-Bangladeshi", or even just "British"--that's an identity you're welcome to have and which the establishment is carving out for you. But don't even think about calling yourself English, that's off-limits in a profound way. If the UK breaks up (as it likely will) into a Wales, Scotland, and England, there will some deep, deep problems of ethnicity and nationality.

If Rahman wants to make a point--and I hope he and other folk of a non-white background do--he should call himself English.
posted by Emma May Smith at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


he should call himself English.

Angrez might actually work better for this case in point.
posted by infini at 10:33 AM on April 9, 2016


It has always interested me how the Angrez never pause to consider the hobson jobson their pristine culture might have already become given 500 years of intermingled history with the Commonwealth. This strikes every time I'm at Immigration, in Heathrow.

Necessary pedantic update - its Angrez, not Angrej, in Roman alphabet transliteration
posted by infini at 10:35 AM on April 9, 2016


The points he is making are valuable, but lose a bit of sting when one stops to consider the source. It's a prize committee with a vested interest in the facade of diversity, representing publishers, with the same interests. Literary Prizes have come under fire in recent years for rewarding white dudes, So anything they can use as a marker for diversity, they are gonna use. His very broad use of "you" is very narrowly directed throughout the essay, which, to me dilutes his otherwise powerful message. That and any extra book sales he gets from those same folks casting as wide a net as possible to boost the appeal of his work.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:01 AM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am reminded of the comment from the captured alien in Independence Day. When the "POTUS" asks, "What do you want?" The Alien replies, "We want you to die!"

I doubt the Bangladeshi descriptor is to do harm, but more addresses that harm that has been done with cultural discrimination. The statement backhandedly seems to be, "He is one of us, though dark skinned, presumably Muslim, or Bangladeshi. See! He is OK. See, we are OK, by discriminating in these statements, we demonstrate we don't discriminate."
posted by Oyéah at 12:21 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


“I speak Dutch fluently,” he went on, in English. “I know more about Dutch culture than most Dutch people. I am Dutch, but I’m never really accepted as Dutch.”

Use "French" instead and this is absolutely true for me as well. And I'm from a Scandinavian background, with a very Anglo-sounding last name. Every single day I am reminded that in spite of speaking French for 30 years, having a degree in French, a Masters from a French university, French citizenship, working for a French company, I am Not French. Every single fucking day. Then there are these screeds about "foreigners" (mostly people born and raised in France when you actually look into it) creating "communities" because THEY are the ones who "refuse to integrate", and it's like, fuck that bullshit. If I, a white woman who speaks French better than most French people, who has seen nearly every corner of France, am not considered French, how the fuck are people less privileged supposed to "integrate"?

There is no such thing as integration. There is no one X culture in any country that is a key to "integrating." I have eaten frog legs, snails, foie gras, drunk Champagne in Reims, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in fucking Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself, but am I French? No, I am an American who can't possibly have any appreciation for French food. For instance, the only time I have been taken seriously when ordering wine in France is when the sommelier is someone else who is not considered French. We have a ball with it.

I go out of my way to frequent places I know aren't considered "French" now. Look, me being communautariste. At least I'm seen as human and not alien. Then there's the fucked-up nonsense about French racists using me as a tool to justify telling less-privileged people around me that "fraula at least is integrated, you should make an effort like her." Not that they treat me like I'm French when no one else is looking. It's all so infuriating.
posted by fraula at 12:28 PM on April 9, 2016 [29 favorites]


Related, the awesome Aminatta Forna on the book world’s obsession with labels and identity (previous discussion). Even better as a talk, if you have 35 minutes to spare.

(re the Britishness thing, she's listed as "Scottish-born British" in Wikipedia, whatever that means.)

(fwiw, the best piece of writing on identity I've seen in a long time is Erik Lundin's multiple award-winning Suedi, but that's in Swedish and way too precisely written for me to ruin it with a throwaway summary translation...)
posted by effbot at 1:36 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


In the UK, Britishness is specifically sold to minorities as a national identity. White people overwhelming call themselves English/Scottish/Welsh and not British.

As a white Briton, I completely and utterly disagree with your characterisation of the British identity. I hold myself to be British above Scots and English, and my family does too. We are Canadian, African, New Zealander, Scots, and English.

I am not going to pretend that Britishness is not bound up with Victorian imperialism (or for that matter with Protestant supremacy, or violent racism). But to characterise it as some modern trick being played on non-white Britons is, at the least, not the whole story.

Apologies if I have taken you wrongly.
posted by alasdair at 2:47 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'd like to try and triangulate between Emma May Smith and Alasdair here; I think that both of you are basically right and talking at cross purposes.

Where I'm coming from: white, London-born, third generation Ashkenazi Jewish family. Londoner, still in London. I do not consider myself or feel English. I do consider myself and feel British. I don't think it's a pup. I think it's just what happens in England when your identity contains some Other than just English. I can't speak for Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales and I don't think it's the same at all there; also pretty sure that all three are different.

Here in London almost everyone I know well both now and as long as I've lived here seems to have some kind of non-English background, whether they were born here or not. People in my life almost all seem to have some kind of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Jewish, Asian, Caribbean, African, non-British European, Romani, Antipodean, American, or Middle or Far Eastern heritage. After 44 years here, I've noticed. You would. I do have a very few resolutely English English friends, but really only a very few.

For some reason.

So where Emma May Smith says 'White people...' I think what she really means is 'English people...' There's plenty of non-English white people here in England. And don't we get reminded about it regularly. "Where are you from?" "No, where are you really from?" I get that quite a bit, even though I'm quite clearly white. Just ever so slightly olive skinned though, dark eyes, dark hair. Definitely look a bit foreign. But my Polish friends have all kinds of stories about being the Other, and they're white as white can be. Imagine the stories my non-white friends have. Eg the OP.

And where Alasdair talks about being British above Scots or English or Canadian / African / New Zealander etc, that's not contradicting Emma May Smith's point at all. Having Scottish heritage is already Other enough for the English English.

That's without getting into the deep schism between the posh English English and the non-posh English English. Because that hatred runs *really* deep. I think this may be the root of the intensely English othering of everyone else. The point about the English is that they seem to hate everybody - as a general baseline - but particularly one another. Oh, and themselves. See eg Little Britain.

The weird - and frankly rather beautiful thing about the English - is how incredibly tolerant and awesome they can be - both individually, and on the whole, recent Tory-led blips aside, institutionally - while still more or less openly-yet-secretly hating everything and everyone. But mainly each other.

So no. I'm not English. I'm British. And I'm fine with that. It's really not a pup.
posted by motty at 4:39 PM on April 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Rahman mentions that he's experienced open racism in the past, and recently that a statement by the MAN Booker prize described him as "Bangladeshi". He says: "Of course, keeping me Bangladeshi has the advantage of enabling some people to tell me to go back to my own country." But I feel he's put two opposite things together. The racist calls him Bangladeshi because he thinks of Rahman as an outsider and wants him gone. The kind of people who run the MAN Booker prize think of him as Bangladeshi as they make a fetish of diversity. They're exoticizing him, turning him into a "minority", "BME", "POC", or even "ethnic" writer, but they definitely want to keep him.

That's the other side of the same coin. They only "want" you insofar as they want a token they can display to show how ~~tolerant~~ they are. The moment you break their tokenization (usually by just being yourself rather than a caricature, often by speaking up against the establishment) you're not wanted. You either become no longer "interesting" or you're "too confrontational". You're expected to be grateful that these big institutions deign to recognize you at all, even despite your Otherness, so if you even so much as sniffle a complaint suddenly you're unwanted. I lost an entire career over a mess very similar to this.
posted by divabat at 5:09 PM on April 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


American readers may not know that it's normal UK usage to describe ethnicity with the same terms used for nationality, which is ambiguous but less verbose than the hyphenated US terms like Bangledeshi-American. E.g. You may describe your friend Dave as "a big chinese guy with green hair" and it is assumed from context that you mean he's a local British guy who is ethnically chinese, you are not saying he's a Chinese born citizen of China. The writer lives in the UK and knows full well that the word Bangladeshi is being used in this context, to accurately describe his heritage, not mislabel his citizenship.
Personally, I find the US phrasing more inclusive, even if it is a bit more cumbersome.
posted by w0mbat at 6:45 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


This particular British reader didn't know that was normal UK usage, w0mbat: I thought that kind of thing was a way of signalling that you really don't mind people thinking of you as a little bit racist.

Unless we are already very good friends indeed, if you start going around calling me the 'Jew' or the 'Jewish guy' it's certainly a pretty good way of telling me that we probably aren't going to be friends.

And I'm pretty sure Zia sees it the same way.
posted by motty at 7:08 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


w0mbat, if you think the writer does full well know that the phrasing was not racist, why do you think he wrote that article? Why is he pretending to have experienced racism, when you claim that he knows that he did not?
posted by armadillo1224 at 7:59 PM on April 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, speaking as a us-ian, it's fairly common to drop the "-American" here too in lots of contexts.

Nobody on March 17 goes around proclaiming their "Irish-American" status, just their "Irish" heritage.

Even if they've got none.

So it's not like we're not unfamiliar with that pattern...

..but that's also not the point of the piece.
posted by qcubed at 10:11 PM on April 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


American readers may not know that it's normal UK usage to describe ethnicity with the same terms used for nationality, which is ambiguous but less verbose than the hyphenated US terms like Bangledeshi-American. E.g. You may describe your friend Dave as "a big chinese guy with green hair" and it is assumed from context that you mean he's a local British guy who is ethnically chinese, you are not saying he's a Chinese born citizen of China.

As a Chinese-American, born and raised in America, who is still constantly described as a "chinese guy" or "asian guy" without any hyphenations I don't think this is all that unfamiliar for Americans.

This is of course, separate from the problem where "caucasian guys with green hair" are never described as such.
posted by Karaage at 6:20 AM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Like I said, "Bangladeshi" is standard UK usage for someone of Bangladeshi heritage.

For example, see a quote from this article from the Daily Telegraph.

"Last week I arranged a visit by two Bangladeshi professionals to a school on Brick Lane in London's East End, where I'm a governor and where the pupils are overwhelmingly Bangladeshi. "

The article was written by Zia Haider Rahman.
(Drops the mic)
posted by w0mbat at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2016


Gosh, w0mbat, it's almost as if these things have a totally different connotation when used by someone about themselves as opposed to someone else.

I wonder if there are any other race / ethnicity related words which behave in the same way.

(Picks mic up, dusts it off, puts it carefully back in protective case muttering dark imprecations)
posted by motty at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


these things have a totally different connotation when used by someone about themselves as opposed to someone else.

Also, that bit in the Telegraph article was about professionals trying to inspire kids with a similar background. Highlighting similarities in a situation where they are relevant is rather different from highlighting differences in a situation where they're irrelevant (and the latter was of course his point in that paragraph: "I was struck by the fact that both had come from environments where attention had not been drawn to differences.")
posted by effbot at 1:04 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well he does make his point clearly in the New York Times piece itself:

The issue is not what I choose to call myself but what the supposedly educated Briton chooses to call nonwhite British citizens.


So yeah I understand why from his point of view it’s a bit different when he refers to his Bangladeshi origins himself in context, and when a literary prize committee describes him in four words as "Bangladeshi banker turned novelist!" (which actually, besides the Bangladeshi vs British vs English vs whatever thing, is in itself a bit of a funny moutfhul. I mean, if you were trying to sell me a book by "a banker turned novelist" I wouldn’t exactly go oh wow sounds like something I totally need to read. But that’s probably not fair to... bankers?)

He seems to be making a similar point in that Telegraph article too, even if from a different angle:
Let's be clear about something. Ceasing to ''celebrate difference" does not mean that an immigrant cannot hold on to his heritage. It is not a zero-sum game. The key point is that difference is not something we should be revelling in within the public sphere.

posted by bitteschoen at 1:13 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Just two cents, I wasn't aware that e.g. "Chinese-American" was supposed to be hyphenated. I thought it was two separate words, one adjective modifying the other: Chinese American. These being two separate traits that the person has.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 3:26 PM on April 11, 2016


This isn't the worst thing in the world. Diversity should be recognized and appreciated. I'm ethnically Bangladeshi but born Canadian and love how diverse our country is. I'd hate to live in a place where everyone is the same. How boring would that be?!
posted by sharona at 11:19 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Coming late to this thread, but I loved the article, and wanted to echo fraula's comment about its applicability to France. Completely matches my experience too.
posted by motdiem2 at 2:59 AM on April 17, 2016


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