Reflecting on the complexities of identity: being a Brit Bengali in a post-Covid world
Prior to Covid, I didn’t often think of my ‘ethnic minority status’. I’d grown up in a very mixed area of London and attended multicultural schools. Even though there was a huge Bengali and wider South Asian community there, I wasn’t intrenched in it – in fact many of my friends had different ethnic backgrounds, and different-coloured skin.
But since the pandemic I’ve been forced to confront the very real and often life-threatening inequalities that minority groups suffer. By extension, I’ve been forced to interrogate my identity in a way I’ve never done before.
We now know that patients from BAME backgrounds are more likely to die from Covid: Black people were in fact four times as likely as white people to die from coronavirus early in the pandemic. When you think back to the initial stages of the Covid onslaught, this isn’t something that was acknowledged or highlighted by the media for a long, long time. But everyone from a BAME community could see it, in the illnesses and accounts of friends and family. Seeing and reading and hearing about this data I’ve suddenly felt targeted for one of the first times in my life. I’ve suddenly realised that my reference points are different to the reference points of the media, and of politicians.
My brother is a doctor, which has made the whole thing yet more stark for me. “He’s on the frontline – will he be safe?” has echoed on a regular basis, particularly as I’ve witnessed him not getting the protective equipment that he needs to work safely. And so it’s made me question leadership positions in the NHS and beyond, and the lack of representation there. South Asians have been in Britain for donkey’s years – why are they not rising through the ranks? What are the barriers there? Why is there still an NHS pay gap affecting Asian and Black people, along with other minority ethnic groups? Before Covid, it’s not something I’d have thought so much about. But the pandemic has put a different slant on things for me. I feel more vulnerable now. I feel like I’ve been pushed into this group that has worse outcomes in pretty much every area – health, employment, you name it.
This has also coincided with me living in Germany for the past few years. I find myself judged in a very particular way over here. In this country, I very much identify as being English. Which is odd to me, because growing up that’s not something I would have ever said (maybe because I never needed to). But being English is not what people in Germany see when they look at me. What they see is my skin colour, and the way I look. They’re regularly surprised – “Wow, you speak really good English!” – and can’t grasp unprompted that I might have grown up in England. Over here I know white-skinned people who were born and raised in England but whose parents are from France or Russia. No one in Germany looks at them or queries their identity as being anything other than English. I don’t get that same acceptance.
My identity – like anyone’s – is incredibly nuanced. I’m English, British, Bengali, Muslim, a Londoner, a mother, a sister… But living in a different country, my identity from the outside is seen in such a clear-cut, one-dimensional way – one that bears little resemblance to the way I see myself. And it’s the same in the eyes of the BAME statistics that relate to health and employment outcomes. I’m not Ummul, who takes pride in being physically strong and working hard to get to my current position. I’m an ethnic minority: I’m four times as likely to die from Covid than a white female counterpart, and my prospects of reaching a senior executive position in the workplace are significantly lower.
As I get older, I think about my British Bengali identity more in terms of my children, and the legacy and foundations I’m providing for them. How do I pass on my knowledge of the Bengali culture, and their part of it? Is it through language? Through food? Do they even really need that knowledge and cultural awareness? The reality with them growing up in Berlin is that people identify them from the outside as being Asian. In spite of them having lived in Germany and Kenya and Jordan for way longer than they’ve ever been to Bangladesh. In spite of them having a British mother and a German father. They are actively being told that they are ‘other’. I hadn’t been ready for that. So for me it’s important that they have a bit of a concept of what it is to have a Bengali heritage: even just a few words of the language, or some awareness of Bengali foods. Because then that gives them choices later in life. It gives them the ability to feel grounded – especially when everyone around them is telling them their version of who they are (or who they’re not). In a world where their heritage means that the odds are already stacked against them, I at least want to give them that.