This is actually a devotional I wrote for the e-news of my denomination’s regional church (on which I serve as staff). I wrote it upon my return because they had generously given me sabbatical time and paid my salary while I was away.
Bengalis are not popular in Assam.
That barely sounds like English, does it?
My father is from West Bengal, a state in India. My mother is from Scotland. When I’m in India, I generally emphasize the former, because it creates a solidarity of sorts-I’m obviously American, but in some ways I’m still connected to this vast, diverse and ancient land. It generally works for me.
Not so much in Assam.
In the state of Assam (part of northeast India, which is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Burma), the British very strategically placed people from lots of different cultures in the tea plantations at the turn of the 20th century, so that people couldn’t speak their own language and rise up as a united people. Bengalis, Assamese, Keralans, Orissans, Biharis worked side-by-side, separated by different languages and cultures. The indigenous Assamese people (kind of like Native Americans here) barely add up to 20% of the population in their home state now (many having been displaced during the British reign).
But in the mix of things, Bengalis were put into leadership a lot of the time-they became the plantation managers and overseers, and they found decent-paying jobs in industry and in the marketplace. They made it their home.
I was invited to present a paper on Black liberation theology and the bible at Eastern Theological College in Jorhat, Assam at the end of my sabbatical, at a conference on tribal (indigenous) theology and the bible. During that conference, I discovered that people were much more comfortable dealing with my Scottish heritage than with my Bengali heritage, because the British might have been oppressive a long time ago (and set up the existing system very intentionally and sown seeds of dissent among Indians before they left), but the people who were oppressing them now were Bengalis. Because they liked me, folks were willing to ignore my Bengali culture.
My roommate was an indigenous person from the northeast and the vice-principal of a seminary in the next state over. We were talking one night about what we valued about our cultures. I had the presence of mind to begin by saying, “I know Bengalis are not so popular here,” before continuing with, “but something I really love about Bengali culture is the way they’re really invested in one another’s wellbeing-neighbors watch out for each other and know one another’s business.” She said, “Yes, it’s hard for me to think of Bengalis in a positive way, so it’s strange to think of good things about Bengalis, but I know that you have had good experiences of them, and maybe they’re not all the same.”
I benefit from privilege in a lot of ways in America despite the challenges of an Indian identity-I’m light-skinned and straight and educated and middle-class (if not middle-income). And in India I get even more privilege (albeit occasionally with a little resentment mixed in-one presenter at the conference in Assam kept making references to the “western visitor” and how maybe I could explain the tolerance of alternative lifestyles and the consumerism and materialism and sexual liberties that we were exporting in harmful ways to the people of India). But at no point in time had I ever thought of myself as being privileged as an Indian, specifically in this case as a Bengali. And I’ve been thinking about it for the last month now.
I do anti-racism work because I fear that we let our privilege go unchecked and unacknowledged, so we unintentionally harm others in the process of pursuing the privileges we think of as rights. And yet, when I found myself in a situation where everyone knew that I benefited from privileges I had never recognized before, it didn’t feel great. However, it gave me a really big gift: it gave me the gift of empathy which I had not had before: only in realizing the privileges of my community in Assam was I able to truly understand the costs to the Assamese people and also to the relationship between Bengalis and Assamese in the city of Jorhat. And it was only in recognizing that privilege and acknowledging it that I got to experience the joy of open relationship with someone who had no reason to love me as a Bengali.
And I learned a little bit about grace, too. The next night, my roommate looked at me and said, “When I first met you, I thought you looked white. Now I look at your eyes and cheeks and nose and chin, and I see that you look Bengali.” And she meant it as an affirmation, despite all the complex history wrapped up in that short phrase “You look Bengali.”
As I re-enter my work here with people I have loved and missed, I re-enter a little different, re-shaped by my interactions with amazing people in the other land I call home. And I hope I re-enter having learned more about self-reflection as a way of living my faith with integrity. But I also hope I re-enter having learned a thing or two about grace. And I pray that in the coming years, we will continue to extend those opportunities for self-reflection and for grace to one another. God bless you and thank you for giving me the gift of this sabbatical time; you will never know how much you have blessed me.