Sabrina Sultana delivered a keynote speech at Bard’s first Asian Gala that took place on April 1st, 2016 in response to the question: “What Does it Mean to Be Asian in America?”
“I want to start off by acknowledging the people in this room tonight. There’s so much diversity here, from Indians, to Pakistanis, to Chinese, to Koreans, to many more. The beautiful thing about this is that, despite our differences in where we come from, we are here today to embrace one common trait: being Asian. Most importantly, we are here today to look past our separate identities and unite together as humans. This gala isn’t just another event on campus, but rather one that acts as an extension of all the events we’ve had that unite everyone together and build awareness. Despite the crying we do in our rooms, staring at numbers, and feeling like shit over exams, papers, and for many of you… Senior Projects, we are still putting the effort to put something like this, together. That’s honestly pretty remarkable. So again, thank you all for doing this and coming out tonight.
The greatest pain in life is to feel invisible. To be invisible. To feel like no matter how many times you speak up for yourself, no one is hearing you. What I’ve learned is that we all just want to be heard. We all want to be part of something. To join, to create something… together.
Pangea. Have you guys heard of that term before? Once upon a time, about 300 million years ago, we were all one. I mean, we were all literally one supercontinent… like a huge blob surrounded by one ocean. All of the continents fit together perfectly, like a puzzle. Can you believe that? It wasn’t until a century later when the supercontinent started to break apart, started to differentiate itself into what we know now as Africa, Europe, South America, etc… you know the rest of the continents, I hope. We all started to find our ‘homeland’. The place that’s separate from others. We began to notice how different we were from one another; from complexion, to attire, to language, to etc. And with the internalization of these differences came prejudices, ignorance and intolerance, and state-of-minds that informed the divisions that we have to get over now. It’s our responsibility to figure how to do that… how to integrate into our own community.
Being a South Asian Muslim-American taught me that progress is beyond the perceptions of a marginalized citizen. It taught me that it is guaranteed that you will come across someone who will make you feel uncomfortable, because in that moment, you realized that their perception of you is way different – and possibly far more negative – than how you perceive yourself. In fact, it was bizarre to me that someone who is white, has friends of color, and is receiving a prestigious liberal arts education, has the audacity to correct – or even attempt to validate – my own experiences as an American. ‘You’re not really from here though.’
It was bizarre to me that when I went back to Bangladesh to my own people, I was not Bengali anymore. I was an American in my own homeland. It was bizarre to me that relatives would suggest that I invest in skin-bleaching creams – the most popular one ’Fair and Lovely’ – because my skin got a bit darker than before. I was not ‘fascia’, or white, anymore. It was bizarre to me that I felt compelled to fit at my New York City school by trying to lose my Bengali accent. Just to feel like I counted. Just so I can be ‘American enough’. What was more bizarre, though, was that my efforts to become more American didn’t matter. Because I was and will always be asked ‘soo… where are you originally from?’
It is bizarre that no matter what, I will stand out as a foreigner in a country I’ve lived in for 20 years. It just did not line up.
In the end, we all just want to know that we matter. We want validation. We want to live a prosperous life with the people that we care for… the people we love to laugh with. We want to have the power to create something, to pursue something out of ourselves.
For that, our social identity is something that ALWAYS needs to be reflected and explored. I used to think that I had to pick one identity over the other, that I needed to be American over South Asian-Muslim, or vice versa. Just one. So I could gain control over myself – over who I am – and to feel part of a whole. For years, I dreamed of spending more than just a mere two to three months every two summers in Bangladesh to be my ‘self’. With the many joys of wanting to be there, I still could not leave my identity behind. I missed home, the South Bronx. I realized I couldn’t just pick one identity. It was only until I came to Bard that I realized it’s totally okay to have multiple identities. I feel more comfortable now as a person who views all my identities simultaneously. It’s just trying to get them to converge together into an integrated whole that proves to be the most difficult part.
My identity crisis has taught me to disregard perceptions of ignorant people, and to adopt a more open mind so that I can work towards resolving the pressing issues in all my communities. The negative connotations attached to being a South Asian-Muslim in both America and Bangladesh once pressured me to leave that identity behind. I didn’t want to deal with colorism in my South Asian community. I wanted to escape. But that only made it worse. I also didn’t want people to question my identity solely because I have a slight accent. I didn’t want people asking me what their name translates into in my language. Like what? I didn’t want people looking at me and my family suspiciously because my mom wore a hijab and my dad’s first name is Mohammad. I was done with the microaggressions. I was done with feeling out of place in both of my ‘homes’: New York City and Bangladesh. I had grown accustomed to internalizing colorism, racism, and microaggressions. I internalized my own prejudices, and that was reality for me for too long.
It was only until Bard that I became determined to cultivate images that normalized positive reflections of myself as a South Asian Muslim-American, instead of just an American or a South Asian. I found multiple resources that could help to embody ALL parts of me, within the form of widely known stories and images. I learned, and am still learning, how to explore the intersectionality and fluidity of my identities, and how they all connect and overlap.
I cultivated a blessed community and family back home and at Bard that knew my experiences because they were similar to others’. We found one another to dismantle borders of multiple kinds.
Here, I gained a sense of comfort. I had no idea how moving away from a previously constrained mindset would affect my well-being, and force me to reassess my needs, desires, and passions. Here, I learned to challenge the old fashioned thinking that I would never dare to question before. I learned to take the notions people have of a person like myself, whether right or wrong, and mold it into something I can use throughout my life. This is where I learned to dissect the issues at hand; to let the ideas marinate. That’s honestly where the development happens.
I really want to motivate, educate, and inspire others to deconstruct their own flawed thinking, just as I had. We are constantly learning and growing. And we are damn lucky that we have the opportunity to do so. We are the new millennials; the generation that doesn’t just want to do good for ourselves. We want to do good for others.
We don’t just dream. We act. We move. We learn. And I’m learning how to make something out of combining my identities – as a South Asian, Muslim and American – together.
Sharing stories, experiences, facts, and statistics are just a few of the many ways to help educate the world and to help ourselves be better humans. That is why, with one of my closest friends, Rigzin, I founded Bard Expression. To share short personal experiences yours so others can be enlightened, motivated to think more, and feel more connected with others at Bard and beyond. Also, check our page out on Tumblr and Facebook.
That is why as co-head of MSO, Abiba and I strive to transform it into a mechanism that allows Muslims to express themselves, and to let others question, think, and learn more about us.
And now, with one of my best friends, Bianka, I have finally launched and released the first issue of Oblivion Magazine, a publication that promotes awareness on issues pertaining to People of Color all around the world. Ya’ll should check that out on Facebook – and our website oblivionpub.wordpress.com. Our second issue is also coming out in 2 weeks.
ANYWAY, we all just want to be heard. And I thank all of the people who continue to let me share their stories; you allow other people to see themselves within a larger community, and to be more critical about our society. And as a result, we feel the power to change for the better and make a true difference, small or big.
Although sometimes it may feel depressing that people just don’t get it, and sometimes it’s frustrating to see Trump’s white tears on television; those tears are – in a way – a symbol of how much work we have done to cause such fragility, and how much MORE work we need to get done. Activism is never over.
We don’t have to accept a world where we do nothing about the persistence of Asian microaggressions and stereotypes. We don’t have to accept a world where Asians are expected to be the ‘model minority group’. We don’t have to accept a world where dark skin is condemned instead of celebrated. We don’t accept bullshit.
I now feel much more capable and in control, inspired to continue putting in some effort to make a difference. It all starts with a conversation outside of your class, in a hallway, at your dining hall or even at this event. The hardest part is just starting one.
I’m proud to be a South Asian Muslim-American. I celebrate my melanin. I celebrate my accent. I celebrate the roots of my culture both in Bangladesh and in the South Bronx.
I want to give back to the world that has given me so much to grow as an individual. That is why I will continue to take advantage of every day; so everyday can be a day to remember.
Sabrina Sultana Photograph by Pranay Pandey