When I first interviewed with my research advisor (Scottish) in undergrad, he asked me why there’s a Bangladesh that speaks Bengali and West Bengal state in India that speaks Bengali, but Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan and Pakistan doesn’t speak Bengali.
I explained that when Britain left the subcontinent, their parting blow was to divide it into religious groups, and so the areas that had a relatively higher concentration of Muslims became East and West Pakistan—a “Muslim country”—and West Bengal remained a part of Hindustan—now India—as a “Hindu country.” People started to emigrate according to their religion to the newly designated Hindu and Muslim regions, so over time the level of contrast of religions between regions increased, but modern day India still has nearly as many Muslims as there are in Pakistan. What the Partition actually accomplished was rhetorical and political divide—what used to be a large Bengali speaking region became divided into East Pakistan and West Bengal who spoke the same language but had an increasingly polarized religious politics.
On the other hand, West and East Pakistan were distinctly different cultures with the vast expanse of India between them, and a common religion did not bring unity. West Pakistan, with its greater military power, oppressed East Pakistan and treated it as a colony until within a few decades, East Pakistan revolted and fought a war to become independent as Bangladesh.
The professor responded “I asked another Bengali student about this and she wasn’t able to explain this.”
Me: Well I didn’t move to America until I was 9 so I spent time in the Bangladeshi school system and learned more than other people who moved here at an earlier age might have.”
Professor: No, I think she moved here at the same age.
At the time I didn’t know what to say so I shrugged. I could have said that my parents fostered pride and appreciation of my culture and heritage and not all families are like that. My parents are both very educated, it’s possible I am somewhat more attentive to history and culture than most people, etc. but I couldn’t shake the feeling that that wasn’t the point, so I said nothing.
Lately, I’ve been thinking (because of tumblr) of how we tell women how to be careful and not get raped but don’t tell men how to avoid raping, and more subtly, how we wonder more about why women stay in abusive relationships than we do about why men abuse women, or why we attack teenage girls for “being inappropriate” in front of men, but don’t condemn men like Robin Thicke or James Franco for treating minors as sexually available.
Perhaps the concept of victim blaming is applicable to a wider range of situations than we realize. Where, even if we say we don’t condone the crime a perpetrator commits, we spend a hell of a lot more time discussing how the victim could have avoided being a victim and whether it was possible they didn’t try hard enough and ask if they could be partially responsible for the perpetrator’s actions.
We spend more time on a theoretical possibility that blames the victim than we do on discussing the visceral reality of perpetrators. On trying to understand and educate them, or even creating a society where less people become perpetrators.
So here I am, five years later, realizing that the correct response to my professor would have been to say:
The other student probably didn’t know or remember the history of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent because it’s easier to live in America if you assimilate into white American culture. Cutting ties with your heritage and history even if you had a chance to learn some of it before emigrating is a way to do this. American culture does not encourage young immigrant children to respect their heritage and learn their history.
She did what was best for survival, and it is the system of colonial and racial privilege that’s more relevant to discuss than to spend time wondering why she didn’t have more knowledge of something she’s actively encouraged to disown.
This led me to thinking about having to explain why people immigrate to America recently. (See next entry.)