Trigger Warning: Beautiful Bangladeshi Women Exist.

“If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And white people have a very, very serious problem.” — Toni Morrison

Bengali Silk Khatan saree, Milan, 2019

A year and a half ago I went to Milan for an editorial shoot. It involved wearing south-Asian hand-woven sarees. I was nervously excited since I very rarely get the chance to wear my traditional clothes, in fact it had been almost a decade since I’d last worn a saree. When we arrived at the shoot, the location was beautiful but the “production manager” was away on another project. So no hair and make up had been oraganised and somehow I was the only Asian model.

I did my own makeup, while the white models had their hair and make up done. I generally had a nice time on the chaotic set while making friends. After a long day, I’d accidentally left the shoot wearing a pair of small costume jewelry earrings. When I got back to the flat, as I was taking the earrings off, the woman I’d helped arrive in Milan* said; “It’s in your genetics”. The day before, we had very stupidly attempted to leave a dinner without paying. It had been her suggestion to leave the restaurant, though childish, I agreed, wanting to “fit in”. So, there was no mistake about what she was referring to; she had good English and her words were incisively concise. As in.. “stealing?” I froze. My genetics..? Why was she talking about my genetics? It was stomach-churningly jarring. This is what she was judging me on, picking apart all this time and waiting to point out as somehow defective. I had never had such explicit comments made about my “genetics”, yet I understood far too well.

This woman had to make me aware, again, of my “otherness” because the shoot had centred on an aspect of a foreign culture that didn’t fit the status quo she was comfortable with; white skin and European features. Privileges which she had obviously relied heavily upon her entire life were in the process of falling apart. During the shoot I ignored her and had stopped being aware of my “otherness”. I was comfortable in Italy; happily modelling in Bengali sarees and she was going to fix that by ruining the experience. To be frank, she just didn’t look nearly as good; she was sloppily wearing a saree and was obviously out of her element. In the grand scheme of things; she was just an average white girl who had only got the role because she was best friends with the “production manager”. I was surprised that she was on the shoot, since I expected the shoot to be for South Asian women, not for me to be the only one there. Enter trigger warning: beautiful Bangladeshi women exist.

For the past two days this person had been chipping away at me like a playground psycopath firstly by repeatedly mocking my Italian. I shrugged most of it off and didn’t care to entertain her. Knowing from experience that any retaliation would end in white crocodile tears and I already knew she had bullied other women. We still live in a world where whiteness is associated with innocence while being brown is propagated as being associated with aggression, and I struggle to find a more blatant example where the truth and reality has been turned on its head. Not only did she make that racist comment; she tried to interrogate whether being gay was “natural” or “a choice”, declaring that if she saw a gay couple kissing at a party it would disgust her. I got up and left the conversation. What a judgmental b***h who ironically always finds time to say “I don’t judge people but….”.

I had been to a shoot which was tiring yet empowering. Meanwhile, this woman and best friend of the “production manager”, was making homophobic statements and racist comments about my “genetics”? I was sharing a flat and transport with her since I’d organised transport for her and her dog*. The same dog she took for a walk, locked out on the way in, and then had to go and find. Poor dog.

The “production manager” desperately asked me to shoot a second day. I agreed hoping this woman would skip it and I would have an excuse to get away from her. When I agreed this woman also agreed as though she couldn’t let me have the experience without her interference. I got ready the next day and did my make-up in advance. Seeing how good I looked; she threw a backhanded compliment; “Wow, Rabia, not too much fire.” in other words; “don’t look too good.” I modelled a second day, only with her; both of us wearing sarees and sunglasses in front of the bloody Duomo di Milano. The shoot overran by more than an hour and the “changing room” organsied by the “production manager” was the basement of a cafe. I was tired of the situation so I left when they refused to pay overtime.

The “production manager” later attacked me for leaving and accused me of being “lazy” and “embarrassing” her team even though she’d failed to secure basic essentials for the shoot like a changing room and whereby a €50 budget had been made on the first day to buy makeup for the entire set of models. The models laughed wondering which shade of foundation they were going to buy. I’d done my job while she hadn’t. Enter stage; scapegoat.

No luck explaining what happened to the “production manager” whose real “job” is purchasing friends using family wealth; not exactly the type of person to champion fairness or equality. Among other things, I was told I had “already taken a lot for granted”, as in I should be grateful. There was a total denial and distortion of reality. Of course, blame the immigrant/the foreigner while also insisting that the immigrant/the foreigner should somehow be grateful. What exactly had I taken for granted as the only Asian woman on set? All of this is classic, normalised pathological racist abuse. Enter stage; gaslighting.

I was upset about the sequence of events and wanted to connect with my friends around the world about what had occured while living abroad so I posted an instagram story. And the messages came in from this racist woman’s friends and colleagues: “haven’t you gone too far?” “I don’t like racism but…” “you have to take responsibility for your actions” “you’re making excuses and victimising yourself” “You’re making up a story and that’s sad and scary”. Well, I wish people weren’t that shit. It would actually and literally make my life much easier if racism didn’t exist... What a bunch of self-righteous, ignorant d***heads.

This woman had reasons for being shit; she was in a terrible relationship of her own choosing; sleeping with someone she wasn’t attracted to because of his career prospects, and because she wasn’t as skinny as she wanted to be. She had to put other people down to make herself feel better about herself and racism and homophobia were her outlets. We were all going through shit, but nothing, and I mean, nothing, justified her bullying, homophobia and her racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Immigrants and other minorities are not here to be used as punching bags for insecure, entitled white people. It was shocking how manipulative she was and how easily she used my foreigness, my “otherness” to repeatedly attack me then totally denied it. The powerplay was actually sad and pathetic. Enter stage; denial and isolation.

The friend who I met this woman through chose to side with her because they are colleagues and it made career sense. That same woman would mock my friend’s English, while I, as an English teacher, always encouraged and helped her to learn. She was a close friend of mine who I’d spent a lot of time with. Racists not only isolate ethnic minorities, but deliberately make it difficult for others to be anti-racist, friends or allies with minorities. This isn’t an excuse; it’s the sad reality. People feel like if they side with ethnic minorities they will lose their privileges especially those of being the native majority, or even that they might be treated just as badly as us.

The fashion industry thrives off objectification, bullying and competition; market competition and racial competition; racism. This demands ethical questioning. In a society built on white supremacy and the persistent, ongoing subjugation of non-Europeans, what are people capable of doing when given even the smallest amount of power? The reason why she could be so racist was because I was in her native country, she was best friends with the “production manager”, and she knew none of the girls she worked with would turn against her so she knew her back was covered. The other girls, who I happened to be close to were not there, so she took the opportunity to bully me as much as she possibly could. The third person who was there was actually a friend of mine, and she also said nothing (though had more than plenty to say behind this woman’s back) so for w while, a part of me really felt like the fault was with me.

I wrote this article to demonstrate how pathalogical, pervasive and toxic “petty” racism is, how it is carried out and how it thrives through systemic and individual dehumanisation, across different environments both personal and professional. I also want to show that the term micro-aggression is a means of downplaying this toxicity and how badly it actually affects us. Furthermore, how much of an impact this has on non-white women especially when we try to enter new spaces. I hadn’t come across another Bangladeshi woman in the public spear in the entire 2 years I lived in Northern Italy. This speaks volumes. It only takes one rotten apple in order for racism to breed. No, we are not the problem. Racist, Fascist Europe has a serious problem.

There is no space to make “mistakes” as an immigrant without being severely punished. Moreover, there is so much that you accept, not realising you’re just doing something to “fit in” and gain acceptance, even though you don’t agree with it. This idea of leaving a dinner without paying as being “cool” is also part of a common culture that pretty women don’t pay for things.

“If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And white people have a very, very serious problem.” — Toni Morrison

The impact of being racially abused by someone you know for wearing your traditional clothes or for being something other than the person they are comfortable with is almost beyond words. I am much more than simply “the girl from London”. I am very independent, I make friends easily and I have a lot of friends from around the world and from so many different beautiful cultures. My own culture is beautiful and I look stunning in a saree. All this is exactly that which incites seething jealousy from insecure racist white women. White entitlement; the idea that everything they have is superior, even though it is not. It seems to really hurt racists to see a beautiful brown woman moving from scene to scene with such power and grace. They feel the absolute need and impulse to destroy this fragment or tiny momentary amount of acceptance we may experience every now and then and they always strike on our weak spots or when it’s least expected, because they are cowards. It’s a pathological sickness and we should treat it as such. These people are sick in the head.

The psychological and emotional impact of not being believed, being attacked, accused of being a liar and ostracised by people I considered “friends” is probably worse. None of these people know what it’s like to be the child of brown Muslim immigrants, planted 5,000 miles away from one’s homeland in a racist, Fascist, xenophobic continent. None of these people can lay claim to being “anti-racist”. They are in fact the support system of racism, the backbone of Fascism, the operators of the smokescreen. The support that gives racists bold audaciousness and immunity. The undignified, cowardly minions.

Racism typically goes hand in hand with other types of abuse and it always escalates. This racist woman was a homophobe and a bully without boundaries. Calling it out for what it is is extremely important not only for equality, and safety for all but in defence of a real solution to this sickening toxic sickness which I am sick and tired of having to deal with. This story is one of far too many, and is also the reason why Bangladeshi women are so extremely and consistently socially isolated and excluded. Bangladeshi women in Italy are non-existent in the public domain and there is a huge problem with this in the U.K. When we dare to enter new spaces and excel; this is how we are treated; scapegoated, gaslighted, harrassed, bullied and isolated while other people turn a blind eye. It is repeated and it is chronic; I’ve been through this more times than I can count in so many different spaces which I’ve entered. This woman had the audacity to post a picture of the shoot on Instagram, which included me all the way in the background. Needless to say I never received the photos of myself from the shoot. Another example of the limitless psychopathy, entitlement, withholding and audaciousness of racists and their cronies.

All this is indicative of classic Fascists; people who want to control other people, other people’s perceptions of them and other people (such as immigrants), and control all the narratives because in reality they have so very little self-worth. A Fascist’s sense of self-worth is not based on being a good person or humanistic, but based on something nonsensical and fallible and forcefully acquiring power through lies and manipulation.

In a world where a billionaire sex offender Whitehouse President can casually post a Nazi symbol on twitter, and casually get away with it, in a world where Fascists are considered heroes, where people will still find a thousand reasons to defend this particular Fascist woman and where whiteness is still considered synonymous with innocence and brownness associated with aggression. This story is important.

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