by Tibra Ali
I had a wonderful time listening to classic bluesy songs at an international club in Gulshan the other night but it didn’t start off on the right foot…
I was waiting for friends in front of the club at the embassy row when I was told by a security guard not to linger and move on. I gave him a piece of my mind, saying that by law I had the right to stand on the sidewalk of this city as any other citizen. I also asked him if he would have asked me to move on if I were a white (i.e., non-brown) person waiting outside an international club. I think I managed to crush the spirit of this particular guard.
It reminded me of the time when, a few years back, I was told by a volunteer at a literary festival that I couldn’t sit in a row of seats that were reserved for their ‘foreign delegates/dignitaries.’ I had asked the volunteer how he knew I wasn’t one (he hadn’t asked for an ID) and his confused face told me the answer I needed to know: I was too brown or deshi-looking to be a foreign delegate.
The other day, I was waiting for the elevator at the university I work for and the security guard shooed me away from the front of the elevator. A moment later I saw the white foreign admin guy walk out of the elevator and I knew exactly why the security guard had shooed me away. I had experienced exactly the same thing in the sister NGO of my university.
I am dating a western woman at the moment and the other day she was visiting me in Dhaka. She had booked a couples’ massage for the two of us at a spa run by a Korean woman as a romantic gesture. (Sorry for sharing such an intimate detail but there is a point.) She had been explicit when booking the massage that it was for a man and a woman. But the moment I stepped into the spa with her, I knew from the confused face of the woman running the place that she hadn’t expected a brown Bangladeshi-looking guy. A few minutes later, she came and asked me if I was Bengali and then proceeded to tell me in her really bad English, ‘No Bengali men.’ I was alone when she told me this, but when my girlfriend returned she told her instead ‘No men.’
I have lived in Western countries for more than two decades and I have faced racism. But in general I found most of their public spaces to be more or less devoid of such naked racism.
But the racism I find in Bangladesh is weird. It is sanctioned by society. The people and institutions of Bangladesh seem to have internalized colonialism and racism. And we seem to have created a bubble for foreigners where a lot of them seem to feel that it’s their birthright to be treated as superiors.
The international clubs in Dhaka are understandably a haven for foreigners living in this country. But a lot of them implement racist policies regarding memberships. They want to keep Bangladeshis with foreign passports out and they have found a clever way to do this. A lot of them have a policy that if you have a foreign passport but you have a No Visa Required (NVR) sticker on your passport (as most dual-national Bangladeshis have) then you automatically disqualify. It’s a clever ploy to keep us brown-skinned duals from overrunning their safe havens.
When I lived among white people it was expected that I would face racism from time to time. But I hadn’t expected such pernicious racism against Bangladeshis in Bangladesh after 51 years of her freedom.
This post was originally published on wanderingwords.org