Kate kayaking close to Cambridge, United StatesAuthor's own

“What mix are you?”

I was in London for a brief visit and had just placed my order at a local Kebab shop when the question caught me off guard. Did she mean what mix I wanted on my lamb wrap? I asked her to clarify.

“I mean, racially.”

I tell her that I’m khati Bangladeshi (pure Bangladeshi), but before I can admonish her for asking such an offensive question at first encounter, she says,

“I’m Maltese-Turkish.”

An interesting conversation ensues, where she tells me about her life, her work at her father’s restaurant, and her side-gig: she cuts hair. I was in dire need of a haircut at the time, so we exchanged contact details. I visited her on my next trip to London to get my split ends cut.

I have been told on other occasions in the United Kingdom that I look biracial. I’m not exactly sure where the misperception comes from; I am from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I grew up watching Western cartoons and high school soap operas, but so did most other Bangladeshi of my generation, at least among the affluent English-medium school kids with whom I studied. I was the odd one out as a scholarship student and the daughter of a single working-class mother, which made me even more eager to fit in.

“British stereotypes about Bangladeshis might just be a little restrictive”

My cross-cultural educational experiences might be another reason I defy conventional ideas about Bangladeshis. Before university, I studied at a high school in the American Midwest for an exchange program (and, in the process, gained a new Sri Lankan-American family). I also completed portions of my schooling in India, including in Darjeeling and Pune. Most recently, I spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area for my undergraduate degree, a journey that took me to several countries, including South Korea, Argentina, and Germany (google: Minerva University). In adapting to each of these environments, finding friends, lovers, mentors, and just about anything wherever I was, it was almost as though I had become racially ambiguous. What’s more, British stereotypes about Bangladeshis might just be a little restrictive as well.

Cambridge was my next stop. Being here is an absolute thrill for me - there are multiple opportunities to pursue just about any interest. On any given day, you might find me debating the Buddhist perspective on free will at the Union, wandering Kettle’s Yard for a visual exploration of slavery in British India, or engrossed in discussion with my classmates about Japan’s industrial policy and what it means for present-day Zambia. Despite this, reminders of England’s imperial past, as well as Cambridge’s links to this past, come back to impress upon me that I am, on some levels, unwelcome, no matter how committed I might be to the university community.

As a Bangladeshi, the biggest schism that Imperial Britain left was alienation from the other half of Bengal (now West Bengal, part of India). Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India (and an Oxford graduate), had implemented the partition of Bengal in 1905 as part of the totally predictable but highly effective British “divide and rule” policy. The partition triggered tumultuous riots and became a rallying cry for the larger resistance for Indian Independence in the region. Subsequently, to appease Bengali sentiments, Bengal was reunited by the next Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, in 1911. Before starting his career in diplomacy, Hardinge studied at Trinity College, Cambridge.

“In both these men’s lives, Bengal, my Bengal, was a career stop-over”

After completing their terms in India, both Curzon and Hardinge returned home to resume their work in British politics. At least one of them spent a considerable amount of time opposing property-owning (overwhelmingly white) British women’s right to vote. In both these men’s lives, Bengal, my Bengal, was a career stop-over. In much the same way that one grumbles about insufferable workloads and unreasonable people after a long day on the job, perhaps they complained about the existential struggles against Empire happening in my Bengal.

My discipline, Development Studies, was founded after the Second World War as European powers became concerned about managing their now-formally-independent colonies. In referring to the Bretton Woods Institutions (presently known as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) that have stifled any meaningful exercise of independence in countries of the Global South, Law Professor Sundhya Pahuja highlights their roles as “... knowledge producers about development and … surveillance mechanisms upon which many other development institutions, commercial lenders, state creditors, and state and multilateral aid agencies rely.”

Somehow, the colonies have never been able to speak directly, on an equal footing, with our masters. There was always a need for some coercive intermediary, some mechanism which cajoled the masters’ need to have his interests absolutely protected, unquestioned, perhaps even revered; after all, don’t we all want to be “developed”? Our national leaders and local elites have signed up for the program themselves. They, compliant with their status in the colonial pecking order, exercise despotic controls over indigenous communities today.

Part of me wishes to withdraw from all societies capable of inflicting so much damage on other sentient beings — my racial ambiguity may be the closest I can get to a state of relative distance (even though I continue to identify as a woman of color given the experiences of racialized sexism which are a part of my life in the West).


Mountain View

What does it mean to be Canadian?

Asked to contribute to a book called My Cambridge, Welsh novelist and cultural critic Raymond Williams began his essay by writing: “It was not my Cambridge. That was clear from the beginning.” Like Raymond, I too feel as though Cambridge is not mine. If the University could nurture a community willing to examine our pasts critically, question unjust power structures, and help build a more inclusive future - in other words, a Cambridge prepared to decolonize the world, perhaps we would all find a more dignified place for ourselves. Until then, I mourn for a Bengal that no longer is, an identity splintered, a cultural heritage dismantled, and a modern British citizenry which seems unaware of - or worse, indifferent to - Britain’s historical entanglements in South Asia and other former colonies.