I’ve had a foot in two worlds most of my life. I am Bangladeshi-American, although I was born in Pakistan and grew up in India. As Toni Morrison put it, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When people ask me where I’m from — which immigrant hasn’t heard that? — my usual response is: “I’m Bangladeshi but I grew up in India.” I’ve been in the U.S. for over two decades now, having lived in New York most of that time. Even if this is “home” to me, I have never quite felt I belong.
My dark-skinned, Bangladesh-born daughter, on the other hand, feels “American.” Amherst is the only home she’s known; she does not enjoy visiting my mother in Dhaka. (To be fair, the traffic, heat, and poverty in Bangladesh’s capital can be overwhelming for a child accustomed to the wealth and beauty of the Pioneer Valley.) But even here, I think a part of her knows she’s different. She sometimes says she wishes she were not brown. It is heartbreaking to see her internalize negative social messages, and know that I can only do so much to protect her.
My daughter is constantly reaching out to people, spreading her smile, spunk, and fearlessness. She has a mix of friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but the brown kids in her class form her inner circle. Our family moved to Amherst because we wanted to raise our child in a racially diverse town. But certain events have made me question our decision. Last year, when my daughter was in second grade, a group of white girls in her class wouldn’t let her and her brown friends play on the ramp in the school playground. She was upset and confused, but over time, she and her friends were “allowed” on that ramp. This was one of many such incidents that have occurred since we moved to Amherst in 2010.
My then-eight-year-old did not perceive her classmates’ actions as “racist”; to her, they were being “so mean, Mama.” And I have not wanted to put that word in her head, but a recent conversation with a friend has made me question my choice. In my desire to protect my child, I have tried to talk about discrimination in different ways without using the term “racist.” But, based on other incidents that occurred during that school year, I am certain the girls were (unconsciously?) discriminating based on skin color. A lot of these behaviors are learned. In Amherst, unfortunately, many of these kid groups mirror the parent groups. Some well-meaning parents may feel they/their children don’t see differences, because they have a friend or two from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, but those loose friendships often seem to just fulfill the grown-ups’ notions of social justice and inclusivity.
I never imagined that raising a South Asian child in a biracial family would be so nuanced. My husband is Caucasian, of Irish ancestry; I’ve always felt he gives us “credibility” in predominantly white circles. I look at my daughter’s beautiful brown face and don’t feel confident that life will be easy for her, especially in the current political climate.
The racial/social/economic divide, of which most people in Amherst don’t speak, couldn’t be more obvious than during prom season. Last year, this separation struck me when I looked at friends’ photos of their kids all glammed up for prom. In most of the group shots, brown/black kids posed separately from the white kids. Occasionally, some circles mixed it up. I asked a friend who has biracial children about this. She said most of her daughters’ friends were brown — they just seemed to gravitate toward each other. Not so different from what I see happening with my child.
I understand that familiarity is what fosters many relationships. I see it with my daughter’s core group of feisty, strong brown girls from diverse racial, social, and cultural backgrounds. It’s been harder for her with the “whiter” groups. I ache for her. I know she hurts when certain kids don’t let her join in group activities. Sometimes she has vocalized her feelings, saying she wishes she “wasn’t like this,” pointing to herself. She is referring to her South Asian roots: her dark skin, her Frida Kahlo eyebrow, her black hair. Often, I am not sympathetic, because I resent her rejecting her roots; they are my roots, too. When we adopted her, I promised myself, and in a way, her birth mother (whom we could not meet), that I would make sure our daughter knew her roots. But I often find it hard to tell her that she was born in one of Dhaka’s poorest areas, or mention the possible circumstances behind her 16-year-old birth mother’s pregnancy.
I have never thought as much about race and class as I have since becoming the parent of a beautiful brown child. At a party a few years ago, I was chatting with the mother of biracial girls, one of whom is in my daughter’s grade and a part of the “whiter” circle of girls. She told me that her daughters (who could pass for white) and those of a couple of other families at the party were sleeping over at her house. She said she loved that the kids would have “wonderful memories of their parents going to this party and the kids having a sleepover.” She then asked me, “So what is Sofia doing tonight?”
I am not imagining these slights. My family has been straddling different groups for years, never completely belonging anywhere. I like to think our daughter will benefit from our diverse friendships in town: school teachers and professors, construction workers, landscapers and house cleaners, farmers and writers/editors, doctors, university admin workers, and just plain rich people who don’t have to work.
It is good for our child to see this wide social spectrum, so when she wants to go horseback riding more than once a week, because “so-and-so rides twice a week” (my husband and I have three jobs between us to pay for one lesson a week, among a couple of other activities), she gets the example of the friend whose parents cannot afford a luxury like horseback riding at all. My husband and I are glad we can give her this balance, because we strongly believe this is how she will learn to appreciate all she has. And to understand that we are fortunate to own our home and a car (which we’re paying off), and that my husband and I prioritize and sacrifice to make ends meet.
Thinking about race and socioeconomic differences as much as I do is exhausting. Before I came to the U.S., I didn’t realize how rampant racism was, or that I would face it in obvious and subtle ways. I am learning to navigate that quagmire through a different lens — that of a nine-year-old. If she can experience discrimination in Amherst, with all of its liberal residents and social justice proponents, I need to prepare her for the anti- brown/immigrant/Muslim world out there. After all, the future is about her, and children like her.