Misunderstood: The Bronx, Bihar, Stereotypes, and Cardi B

I work in Bihar, India. When I say that out loud to folks who ask me about my job, their response can be summed up with: eyes widened with worry, confusion wrinkled across their foreheads and a curious “how’s that?” question. You see, Bihar has a reputation.

Bihar was once seen as the “Ancient heart of India”, home to one of India’s greatest empires, the Maurya empire, and even playing a significant role in the Indian independence struggle. Instead,“The end of the Earth” is what it was considered as recently as 13 years ago (Srivastava, 2010). It was India’s “armpit… A byword for the worst of India: widespread and inescapable poverty; terrorist attacks by groups of Naxalites; a chronic misrule that has allowed infrastructure to crumble, the education and health systems to collapse, and law and order to evaporate” (The Economist, 2004). That was Bihar in 2004. Now, in 2018, Bihar fights not just these stereotypes based off past realities but the repercussions of these realities: effects of youth still struggling to continue schooling, a marriage age still too young for our girls, and a Bihar health system only leaving Biharis sicker (Annica, 2016).  But those are not stereotypes, instead they are a byproduct of a time when Bihar was in great need — so no, Bihar didn’t scare me or at least its reputation didn’t. Thirteen years had past from its “lawless danger” to when I first arrived to Bihar.

Walking towards Project Potential. Photo: Esmeralda

I’d seen this wide-eyed, worried, confused, and curious expression before — it would occasionally come up when I would say, “I’m from the Bronx”. The South Bronx has been known nationally and perhaps in some international spaces as “a symbol of urban destruction and decay.” The Bronx was burning in the 1970s/80s… literally burning; 97% of buildings were on fire, with many abandoned, along with severe problems with poverty, social exclusion and many types of violence and insecurity (Hu, 2013). It was also considered home to the poorest congressional district in the nation during that time (Hu, 2013). Well into the 90’s, the apocalyptic Bronx was fighting the war on drugs and my next door neighbors were losing.

176th Street and The Bronx. Photo: New York Times

On one particular day, I remember walking home from school, as I usually did, to my building on the corner of 183rd and Davidson, where Puerto Rican and Dominican flags blew in the summer wind side by side on clothing lines and where sneakers hung high together in a great big ball of knots in the middle of the telephone wires, criss-crossing from one building to another. I’d walk to my building of accused drug dealers, supposed delinquents and folks who didn’t exist in the American system, only to find ten men on their knees, faces covered, their wrists and ankles handcuffed, and foreheads inches away from my kitchen window. Men, whose kids’ birthday parties I’d attended in my building lobby; men, whose smiles and hellos I knew because that’s what I was given when we’d run into each other. The police were familiar too, although we never greeted one another while they stood in my building’s lobby day after day, night after night. I was too scared I’d give away some sort of immigration status to ever look them in the eye, so passing by I had instead tried to memorize my building’s floor design: it was black and white.

I am not saying that the Bronx and Bihar are the same. They are drastically different — Bihar has suffered colonization and independence in a developing India, massive migration, and castes/religion wars just to mention a few. And then there’s the Bronx situated in supposedly one of the world’s most ‘developed’ cities, constantly ashamed of its mass incarcerations, racial profiling, a crippled educational system that leaves thousands of kids functionally illiterate, generational poverty that many have yet to escape and a health system that stigmatizes to death (Hu, 2013). Consequently, I believe growing up in the Bronx prepared me for Bihar in some ways. Both are places of misunderstood and forgotten people; the epitome of “we’re gonna get better” folks, living in the future versus the present for what could be instead of what unfortunately is.

Walking Through Bihar. Photo: Esmeralda

Today, anti-Bihari sentiments and discrimination against Biharis still exist. On one hand, with “issues of social justice and affirmative action, Bihar has been a trailblazer in post independent India” (Srivastava, 2010), but on the other, Bihar is still thought of as a place, where “everybody avoided visiting and dreaded becoming” (Economist, 2004), and is now simply considered a land of migrants and “buffoons..lacking social skills” (Sinha, 2015 ). That is what stereotypes do, they bring a sense of disposability of places but most importantly, people.

Stereotypes take time to be altered, for places and people to be perceived for what they truly are versus what the world expects them to be. We all know that stereotypes limit our learning, not just of those who we are stereotyping but of those around us, of ourselves and ultimately of society. In one way or the other, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively, stereotypes influence our behaviour, attitude, beliefs and ideologies. They limit possibilities, our world and thus the world of others.

This limitation has kept the Bronx and Bihar vulnerable — vulnerable to repeat their history or simply continue living within the repercussions of their past realities. It’s kept the people thinking they might not amount to anything other than the Bronx or Bihar –and that’s suppose to be a ‘bad’ thing. The Bronx and Bihar’s experiences have taught me about a different type of vulnerability: of forgotten and misunderstood people. It has allowed me to maneuver in this world with mindfulness, to never judge a book by its cover and things are never what they seem, giving me confidence and comfort with contradiction because I have indeed found beauty in the so called ‘ugly’. My Bronx has and continues to be a dumping ground and Bihar continues to live behind its past’s shadow still building but the love people have of these torn places remains. What the world expects us to be isn’t what we have to be or even what we are.

It isn’t just stereotypes of locations but how they extend to the people that reside there. The Bronx can be viewed as a rude place filled with idiots and poor people who can’t seem to pull themselves up from their bootstraps. This doesn’t sound too far off of what people expect of Biharis. Many times these stereotypes become internalized leaving people to believe they aren’t worth more than what was given to them. Transcending from these stereotypes isn’t easy. They are usually within the constraints of what people think and believe people or places should become instead.

Author in her hometown, The Bronx. Photo: Esmeralda

Similar to fellow Bronxite Cardi B, her rooted refusal “to feel anything other than pride about her personality or her path” is exactly where I stand (perhaps growing up in the Bronx does that to you). Like Cardi B, I do indeed hold the Bronx near and dear to me, and like her  “I can’t stop going back to the Bronx, for some reason” (Macpherson, 2017). Fellow Biharis make sure to uplift Bihar within their capabilities because many times, they long to go back.                                                            

“Welcome to the Bronx” Sign. Photo: Chris Arnade

 

Since its past, the South Bronx has been transformed to a national symbol of urban jungle filled with love, opportunity, and hip-hop, and Bihar is moving forward with its immense entrepreneurial potential. A solid sense of belonging has developed and strengthened in these areas. As far as I’m concerned, I agree with Cardi B,  “I’m’ just a regular degular schegular girl from the Bronx” (Madden, 2018), or Bihar, or any place where stereotypes transcend reality, but still find greatness in your own potential and the potential in your home. Our abilities aren’t defined by the limitations disposed onto us.

On that account, how will we uplift a world where millions live in vulnerability? Can we get beyond stereotypes that are seemingly propelling our world forward and instead to an unknown land of equality and equity, we might not know what it looks like but we can go together. Let’s us not see the world in stereotypes but in the people we meet, the places we openly experience, and authentic ideas we share and build. As a small team in rural Bihar, my host organization Project Potential aims for just that.


References:

A first-generation American, born and raised in the South Bronx, New York, Esmeralda is a graduate of Reed College with a Bachelor’s in Linguistics and a minor in International Relations. A recipient of the Princeton in Asia fellowship, the Benjamin Gilman scholarship and the highly competitive Humanity in Action fellowship, Esmeralda has traveled to China for an intense language immersion program and to Amsterdam to study international human rights. Esmeralda recently worked for a social enterprise where she created immersive programs utilizing experiential education theories and activities in order to empower youth leaders of tomorrow in Indonesia, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Vietnam. She utilized her previous work as a Student Support Specialist where she used social work practices and methods to help at-risk youth find different successful life options and improving educational outcomes for diverse communities. She has experience in identifying and implementing community and system improvements, interventions, managing non-profit, and institutional partnerships. Esmeralda spends her time volunteering with numerous organizations by conducting and counseling people through HIV testing, conducting homeless youth advocacy, and tackling the education gap. Esmeralda is a compassionate and thoughtful humanitarian, she is a determined and collaborative leader who believes in justice, equity, respect, community, and hope. She believes in the exchange of ideas in order to connect communities, for growth and most importantly for learning. In her spare time, you can find her dancing, in the gym or hanging out with loved ones.

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