There’s nothing micro about microaggressions

The visceral long-term impact of racially motivated snubs, slights, and singling-out

Lovely JB and I stayed in last night and spent the evening catching up on Blue Lights, the BBC’s excellent new police drama set in Belfast. Midway through episode three, I felt my dinner start to curdle in my stomach. Main character Grace’s son Cal, who is mixed race, is in a corner store with his friends. The shopkeeper is seen eyeballing him in a way that all people of colour know only too well. After Cal pays for his purchases, the shopkeeper insists on checking his – and only his – bag ‘in case he has stolen something.’ When his white friend tries to step in, he’s told to ‘keep out of it’. Cal is innocent, and the shopkeeper is forced to let him go. While his friends are supportive, he is visibly shaken, and a few scenes later tells his mother that he wants to leave Belfast for university, citing London or Manchester, which he believes to be more accepting, cosmopolitan places to live. My heart broke for Cal, because, as everyone whose eyes are open to the current state of the world can see, these days nowhere is safe.

Microaggressions like this trigger hyper-anxiety, panic attacks, depression and PTSD. And they don’t just hurt, they can kill. They can kill in a myriad of different ways – from early deaths related to mental and physical repercussions of stress and anxiety to suicide, the end result is the same. Names do break your body.

This kind of bullying is a constant chipping away at your mental health, and when it happens over and over again, the constant feeling of unsafeness, of being on edge, of having to scope out every place that you go, consider everything that you do and say and how it will be perceived within the context of your skin colour can be just too much to bear.

Whether you’re being singled out for unprovoked harassment, singled out and ignored, subjected to crude stereotyping, unfairly dismissed and insulted or simply being eyeballed – given a clear signal that you do not belong in a space, it weighs on you. And the more it happens, the heavier it weighs. The more you try to outrun it, the more you are forced to change the places you go and the things that you do, even the places you live, to find a safe space, the more you are aware of the difference between your life and the lives of white people and the more psychological anguish you are subjected to.

At Cal’s age, I still believed that I could find a safe space, a place where I wouldn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder and modulating my voice. At the age of 43 I can assure you that such a place does not exist. It does not exist, because while there are many ways to enforce an implicit colour bar, see all the microaggressions cited above, there is, in all my experience, no effective way to enforce a racist bar. And all it takes is one racist, one microaggression, for a space to become unsafe. And once it’s unsafe, for a person of colour, you are triggered back on that long dark road of PTSD, feeling every other time that you’ve been singled out, abused, ignored, laughed at and glared at and not only do you want to leave, sometimes you just want to leave the whole fucking world.

Your brain tilts wildly, every spark of joy that you’d been experiencing previously to that moment evaporates, and suddenly you feel completely naked and exposed, the only crystalline knowledge in your head the fact that this has now happened and there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. Absolutely nothing.

You can’t call the police. Aside from the fact that these days they would most likely be sympathetic to the perpetrator, unless you can prove that you have experienced a deliberate racial attack, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Your friends can try and intervene, but the perpetrator will either ignore them or extend their abuse in their direction. No one, nothing can be done to undo what has happened, and like all the assaults before it, it will sit inside you, this fizzing ball of hate that lets you know you cannot go about your daily business with the simple freedom that a white person can, and you never will be able to.

It’s that ‘never’ that really gets me. Growing up, my daily encounters were fraught with exchanges like those Cal experienced. I would never have imagined that all these years later, I would still be experiencing the same thing to the same degree, if not worse. Moving to Austin felt safe. The liberal Texas capitol where hippies have been roaming free for decades. After the obscene and relentless level of racism I’d experienced in the UK in every single area of my life, I couldn’t wait to feel safe, to feel normal. To let my guard down and just live. Somewhat inevitably, it wasn’t to be. Ironically, while I gird myself for difficult encounters when we leave the city and venture into self-proclaimed Trump-land, it’s been in the heart of hipster Austin where I’ve been spirited back to the place that Cal found himself in – eyeballed with suspicion, singled out and quietly humiliated in casual displays of power and superiority designed to show me very clearly that these were spaces a woman of colour was not welcome.

The first time it happened here was at a then-new hipster bar called The Far Out. I remember lovely JB and I looking at each other, both thinking ‘is this actually happening?’. After the incident, we contacted the management, who were exceptionally responsive and the person concerned was fired. Unfortunately, this did not set a precedent for things to come. After an incident at Home Slice pizza, the management responded defending their behaviour, citing the need to be ‘overcautious during Spring Break.’ So overcautious that the only person in the restaurant denied service was a woman of colour – clearly far too old to be on Spring Break – asking for a second beer, not the large groups of young white hipsters drinking freely. Most recently, at Barton Springs Saloon, I was refused service while between a white man slumped over the bar and a group of young white girls giggling and saying how drunk they were. All were served. When my husband (the sober designated driver and first person to say if I am ever three sheets to the wind) questioned the barman’s decision, the manager came out, physically assaulted him, and called him an English cunt. Not even any pretense of being anything other than racist. Not even trying to pretend that we just were not wanted there.

Most upsetting in many ways was when I was at my favourite karaoke night at local (now shuttered) venue Indian Roller, performing, only to be asked to leave because my performance was too enthusiastic – clearly indicative of drunkenness. When my husband noted that a drunk person can’t leap around the stage in 6inch heels, he was also asked to leave. Never mind the multiple white people who could barely stand up in the room, the fact that I was enjoying myself performing in their bar clearly upset these people so much that the only solution was to take my fun away. And that’s what it often comes down to. Having the power and ability to deny the right to relax and have fun to someone whom you consider to not deserve them. When recounting this experience to a friend (also of colour) she commented, “ They looked at you and thought, she’s not allowed to be so free.” So they used their power to take my freedom away – because they can, and they enjoyed it, just like the shopkeeper in the show enjoyed watching Cal squirm, singled out while knowing he hadn’t done anything wrong.

At venues, I’m regularly body-searched while white patrons walk straight through the metal detectors. I am now self-conscious when dancing at shows here, waiting for that tap on the shoulder, and I can’t bring myself to go back to karaoke. I feel stung, bruised and it has to be said, lesser. If I can’t act with freedom, express myself without fear, I feel I’d rather not do anything at all. Yes, that means they have won, but I’m just so very very tired.

After these situations, we look up the reviews of these venues and more often than not there will be other people saying they have experienced racial harassment. So, before I go out am I supposed to check reviews for every location I visit? Does this not smack of the days of the Green Book? How is this a way to live?

Every day we see international politics shifting further and further to the right, the perpetrators of these behaviours finding themselves vindicated by the media, celebrities and politicians, no longer shy or afraid they are increasingly out in the open and rubbing their hands together at their new freedoms to express their racism and bigotry, knowing they will be protected by social and legal structures that are in the process of validating their views.

I love going out, and I don’t want to change my life or my lifestyle, but always having to look over my shoulder is a grim and painful burden, and the weight of it can outweigh the joy that I’ll have in certain social situations. I sometimes go out and see other people of colour like me, looking around the room, checking there are others of us there, that this is a safe place, a place we can relax. A look sometimes passes between us. We have numbers, we’ll be okay. If I see a person of colour serving, I become less physically tense. But life should not be like this for anyone.

The fundamental understanding that all human beings are the same, have the same rights and the same worth is so totally absent in our society right now that I couldn’t promise a real-life Cal that things would get better in his lifetime. That he won’t always have to watch his back, check his surroundings, and be prepared for hostility, abuse and the pain and misery that come with them, wherever in the world he goes to. I wish I could, but I can’t.

How not to be a Level Five Auntie

Jada Pinkett-Smith, Anita Bhagwandas and the Guardian telling us all to put up and shut up is making me livid.

Women of colour – it’s okay to be angry.

At least, it should be. However you’d be forgiven for thinking this otherwise if you glanced through yesterday’s Guardian. Me, I want to know when exactly the accepted understanding of how women of colour navigate a world that is, beyond any doubt or discussion, stacked against us at every angle became a combination of benevolent acceptance and self-education? When the goal became understanding the mindset of our oppressors, all the better for us to forgive them. Is this now the accepted dialogue, or did The Guardian just happen to publish two articles pushing this highly unsettling worldview forward on the same day?

Yesterday’s paper featured an interview with Jada Pinkett-Smith, glowing under her Level Five Auntie halo, preaching about how great it is not being angry any more, conflating anger with youth and – by inference – immaturity. She even goes so far as to refer to it as a ‘stage’. She then goes on to emphasis living by her grandmother’s teachings – upholding the ‘traditional role of Black women as the glue of the family’ and curing racism with ‘love’. Her interviewer reacts positively. ‘She faces negativity with compassion.’

Before I get started on everything that’s wrong with this and why this made me so savagely furious, let’s skip on a few pages shall we.

Overleaf (or click), we have British-Indian beauty editor Anita Bhagwandas precising her new book Ugly, in which she attempts to contextualise her internalised negativity about her appearance that is the result of growing up in a world that only sees beauty through a Eurocentric lens. While acknowledging that her understanding of how and why our society has come to value slimness, whiteness, youth etc as the gold standard of appearance has not entirely ‘fixed’ her, she credits her research with giving her the perspective to value herself beyond her appearance.

While this may, on the surface, sound all very admirable, let’s stop for a minute and consider what exactly Bhagwandas is saying. She has put in a significant amount of work, both in terms of research about beauty norms and in understanding and monitoring her own reactions and responses to those norms – ‘policing negative self-talk’ – comparable to therapy, to cope with the self-hate that society has put into her.

So, like Jada, she is, effect, fighting racism with love, negativity with compassion. They are both saying that the key to a happy life is to understand why we are being oppressed, forgive the oppressor and move on.


Forgive me for being blunt, but that’s just not good enough. I don’t want to forgive and accept, I want the world to acknowledge the damage it causes through it’s Eurocentric gaze and get its ducks in a row and give me and every other person who has been negatively affected by internalising centuries-old tropes of who and what our place is, who and what is acceptable, good, beautiful and desirable our goddamn money back. I do not consider it my responsibility to educate myself on the myriad of reasons for my oppression with the goal of understanding and forgiving, and I don’t believe it is my responsibility to make myself feel better. I believe, very firmly, that it is the responsibility of the oppressors to educate themselves on the reasons for their behaviours and the harm they have caused, and to take the lead in remaking our society in an egalitarian fashion.

A pipe dream, yes? Of course, but without those pipe-dream goals all we are doing is falling back under the wheel of acceptance, and therefore become complicit in our own subjugation.

Which takes us back to Jada.

Since forever, women of colour have been stereotyped as the family ‘glue’, praised for achieving the status of Level Five Auntie. The mind boggles that it does not seem to occur to her that she is not just conforming to but actively advocating for the exact woman-of-colour-as-sage-caregiver label that was created by white people for the precise purposes of subjugation. By dismissing anger at racism and injustice as youthful folly, Pinkett-Smith is casting her lot in with the oppressor, advising us all to accept our lot and move on, telling us that as women of colour it is both our duty and our privilege to take on a greater burden, and the more grace and dignity with which we bear our load and the less confrontationally we behave, the more praise we deserve, cos it doesn’t get much better than Level Five Auntie status.

Well fuck that.

For those of us who have actively rejected the role of matriarch and whose aspirations lie outside the nicely labelled box left out for us by white people, this reads like a huge slap-down. Pinkett-Smith has clearly internalised the colonial blueprint of Black and Brown womanhood and is now spewing it back from her own mouth to make it appear as though, coming from a woman of colour, it must be true. This borderline-absurd call to, in effect, Lean In to racialised and gendered norms and expectations is echoed by Bhagwandas and her efforts to change her understanding of herself rather than change the society that created her self-negativity.

While it would be easy to say well, each to their own, if these paths and behaviours make it easier for these women to live their lives then good for them, it’s not that simple. Pinkett-Smith is forever in the public eye, positing herself as an older women of colour to be listened and looked up to – a source of advice and encouragement for the younger generation. A Level Five Auntie. So this Level Five Auntie is dishing out her zen-wisdom-forgive-racism claptrap to younger women of colour who are internalising that it’s their responsibility to fix racists through patience and kindness. It isn’t.

Teaching the next generation that they will have more expected of them and less given to them and that that’s okay is fundamentally wrong. And dismissing anger in the face of prejudice plays into every negative trope about Angry Brown and Black Women created by a racist, sexist society that want us to deal with our own anger rather than have them deal with the structures that have made us angry in the first place. This idea that forgiveness and understanding is the path to happiness in effect completely lets both societies and individuals who have caused harm off the hook. The path to inner peace does not come from taking on the responsibility of healing your own wounds – this is another ridiculous social construct designed to victim-blame. Taking away the agency of righteous anger at social injustice, instead treating anger as a phase, a flaw, an immature response, is de facto accepting a society that is inherently unjust, and asserting that being the bigger person is the right thing to do is placing responsibility for handling the fallout of that injustice squarely in the hands of the wronged.

It is not our job to clear up a mess we did not make. The perpetrator must make right, not the victim.

Taking this a step further, this mindset also acts as a trigger against any women of colour who are angry and do push back, making our lives infinitely harder. It creates an expectation that not only can all women of colour think that way, they should. Because look, this person – say, Pinkett-Smith – who has suffered prejudice has learned to overcome it, they have put in the psychological work to accept the world as it is, so if they can do it why can’t you? And similarly, with Bhagwandas – if she can learn to understand and live with Eurocentric beauty standards, then why can’t all women of colour?

As a woman of colour who is losing her hair, until now I’ve felt a particular resonance with Pinkett-Smith. This article changed that. Speaking about coming to terms with her alopecia, Pinkett-Smith again nods towards self-improvement, referring to her diagnosis as ‘a great teacher’, and describing learning of a ‘a deeper beauty within myself.’ Again, no. Instead of fighting back against the social norms that tell us bald women are not beautiful, instead of pushing to change those norms, to be seen as beautiful by the world, Pinkett-Smith again goes full Level Five Auntie. For me, this is not a solution. I don’t understand why I should be happy or satisfied with the concept of inner beauty in the face of my hair loss any more than I should be in the face of my brownness or weight. I want, no, I demand, the right to fight for a society where the way that my genetic makeup has chosen to express itself will not automatically be seen as lesser, less beautiful, than the genetic makeup of a slim white woman.

We find ourselves in an impossible position where women who should be our allies are actively undermining the position of every woman of colour who actually wants society to change so that we can have the privileges, freedoms and status that we have been historically denied. Reading these articles makes me wonder if there is a new collective sense amongst women of colour towards just giving up, making the best of it, opting for Level Five Auntie status and making do. Or if it’s just that these are the voices that white newspaper editors are choosing to give a platform to. Either way, this is not a positive takeaway for women of colour. Being happy with being less is no more or less than accepting the status quo that leaves us forever lesser, and if that’s a Level Five Auntie lesson, I think we need to rethink how highly we hold up Level Five Aunties.

A Life Sentence

I am not well. Days that should be full of happiness and joy, fun and laughter, are poisoned by periodic outbursts of tears and rage. Sometimes I just lie in silence for hours, the helplessness and self-hate whirlpooling round my brain and seeping out through pores to infect everything around me.

I don’t expect other people to understand. A loving husband, nice house and good job should be enough, right? So what if I’m losing my hair and have gained two stone? It’s just perimenopause. Middle age happens to us all, it’s a part of life. Why can’t I just accept it like other people do?

I just can’t. Having no control over my body, my appearance, makes it impossible to like myself, and the sheer abject loneliness that comes with being childfree when everyone I used to know has peeled off to have kids means I lack the positive-reinforcing popularity to make me feel likeable. I liked my life before. No, I loved it. An endless social whirl of pubs, parties and nightclubs, picnics in the day and fancy dress at night – always something to celebrate, always people around to celebrate with. And my body. Something I could be proud of. Not perfect, but certainly good enough. No stressful dieting or calorie counting-staying out til the early hours every weekend meant I could eat whatever I liked. I didn’t take it for granted though. I’d been a fat teenager-horrifically bullied at school and at home, constantly told how vile and disgusting I looked, how no one would ever love me. I revelled in finally having a body I wasn’t ashamed of, spoiled it with stylish designer garb. Now my beautiful embroidered Pringle coat, sleek Vivienne Westwood jacket and figure-hugging Alexander Wang dresses have sat untouched for over five years. The knowledge I’ll never wear them again pierces me with disgust at myself. No necklaces that sit at the collarbone-mine is invisible now, hidden beneath layers of fat. My cleavage is crepe paper and pinchable wadges emerge against each bra strap. My chin wobbles gently, my thighs reverberate. Rolls of thick stomach make wearing this season’s cut-out styles impossible. Every scroll through clothing sites reminds me of every outfit I’ll never pull off again.

I was never one for beauty routines, always a wash-n-go kinda girl. Now I spend an hour a day on low-intensity cardio, like putting a really time-consuming plaster on a wound. Instead of reading books I enjoy or watching interesting films, I spend hours researching the difference between squalene and hemi-squalene, hyaluric acid versus collagen, the best creams for fine lines, the best serums for hair loss. The minoxidil isn’t working. The bald patches now cover most of my scalp yet the thin film of remaining hair continues to frizz and puff in the heat. Irony doesn’t even begin to cover it. Of course I no longer have the luxury of hair straighteners, as heat only exacerbates hair-fall. My resemblance to Christopher Lloyd in Back To The Future would be funny if it was in a film, but it isn’t. Apparently minoxidil can take up to a year to work, if it chooses to, and must be applied forever to retain effectiveness. A life sentence.

I miss being admired. Yes, I am vain. I won’t apologise for it-having spent my formative years being tormented for my unfortunate appearance, I understand all too well the value, the social capital, that attractiveness grants you in our society. It’s not fair or right, and I don’t agree with it or judge or value others by it, knowing all too well the pain it causes, yet I’m still trapped in the Stockholm Syndrome desperation of seeking that approval. Having been denied it for so long, I treasured every moment of finally getting it right. At my thinnest, a model scout approached me in Selfridges. I was prouder than when I got into Oxford. I don’t condone the way our society privileges those we deem worthy by virtue of their looks but I can’t change that on my own. It’s the one thing I have even less power over than my body. It’s absurdly contradictory that I’m able to rationalise the ridiculous unfairness of the expectations placed on me yet completely unable to change the way they affect me emotionally. I can see beauty in people of all shapes and sizes everywhere but in myself.

At 42, I could already be near the end of my life, or I could be less than half way. The thought of that, of living another 42 years being bald and fat, tolerated but not wanted, is more than I can bear. Seeing other women, my age and older, who have been fortunate enough to retain their hair and figures makes me unhinged with envy. I understand when my husband says I look good, not just fine but beautiful. I understand but I find it impossible to believe him because it’s just not what I’m seeing. I know how I was and I know how I am now and the two are so far removed I feel I’m drowning in that chasm.

My weight and hair loss issues are hereditary and I despise my parents constantly for passing on such wretched genes, and for failing to prepare me for a life without the social acceptance I crave so deeply, in part due to growing up without a loving home. I feel tremendous guilt for my first-world-problems when I know so many people in this world are fighting just to survive, and yet I cannot shake off my self-loathing when every time I look in the mirror I see a monster I didn’t choose to be and can’t do anything about. Dieting periodically shifts a few pounds but they always come back. Since my seizure I get faint and shaky if I skip meals, and yes I could eat more healthily but nice food is one of the few pleasures I have left. I drink less than I used to and try to swap out IPAs for lagers, beer for white spirits, but in five years, since this shitshow began, nothing has made a major difference. I used to blame my father’s side of the family, hoping that not having children would somehow shield me from the weight-gain genes I knew were lying in wait. Then I remembered how my mother basically starved herself and exercised constantly. I’m more like her than I thought – yet without the willpower to indulge the vanity. She’d lost most of her hair by her 50s and told me it was because our family had a curse on us, so you can see why I’m not so well-equipped at dealing with this. Ten year old me was trusting enough to believe her. Even as I grew up and knew better, I never quite lost the sense of being cursed.

I am not well. I don’t know if I can ever be well again. Perimenopause only heads in one direction which will make all this worse not better. I feel I’m now existing in survival mode, and the me that used to flit through life as a glowing social butterfly, maybe she never existed at all and this is who I always really was, the ugly squirming caterpillar underneath.

Come on, do your funny little dance

“The story has always been the same

A source of wonder due to their ability to thrive on poor quality soil offering very little nourishment

But weeds must be kept under strict control or they will destroy everything in their path

Growing wild, then harvested in their prime & passed around at dinner parties

Care for some weed?

So natural, so unrefined”

[Pulp, Weeds II, We Love Life, 2001]

Natural and unrefined about sums me up. Well, if you’re looking for nice words anyway. When I first heard this song in 2001 it was already resonating with me hard. Growing up, I was always referred to as wild which I mistook as a compliment. I imagined myself as some kind of brown-girl Marlon Brando instead of understanding that in the mouths of middle-class mums, the word acted as a thinly veiled euphemism for trash.

Of course, those same mums liked to show off how their kid had a ‘coloured’ (sic) friend as a faux virtue-signaling badge, but for once this isn’t a rant about racism. My presence was permitted as long as I didn’t encourage their precious offspring to be like me in thought, word or deed, that is. A sense of otherness had to be maintained. Of course, my piercings and tattoos didn’t mean I was disinvited to dinner, as long as there was a clear understanding that these life choices stayed strictly on my side of the class line.

Friends ditching me is a bit of a drum I’m banging right now, sure, but as well as being ditched for being too brown, too childless or too lefty, I also get ditched for being too common. So ironic considering I had no friends at school cos apparently I was too swotty (Americans, see nerdy).

Yes, I grew up in a bit of rough town, but I wouldn’t credit Swindon with bestowing my taste and style on me. I was always drawn to excess – to the bold, outre and fantastical. I always aspired to ooze indulgence, much more so than I’ve ever actually achieved in real life (ha), mentally positioning myself somewhere between the Bloomsbury Set and New York’s late 70s punk scene. Never let it be said I don’t aim high.

Embracing my trashiness has never been a problem for me, but it seems to have an ongoing affect on others that I’ll never fully understand. Whether it’s my propensity to leap on stage and karaoke, my willingness to do shots at pretty much any non-work hour, the neon makeup I sport even if I’m just going to the store or my spiky heels and slogan tees, everything about me falls squarely into the category pre-demarcated as immature, chavvy, superficial and ultimately just weird by the middle-class powers that be.

Of course, the parts of me they now ridicule are the same ones that drew them to me like eager little moths in our teens and 20s, when they were trying out personas with intent to shock themselves as much as anyone else. The very idea that I was always For Real (not a Richie Manic quote – definitely not) never even occurred to them. I was expected to grow up, start wearing silk blouses, listening to classical music, only drinking with meals and taking my makeup off before going to bed. And when I didn’t, I became a pariah.

These same people tried on my lifestyle, my values, as if they were thrift store garments of dubious cleanliness, gaudy, chintzy throwaway single-use partywear their parents absolutely wouldn’t approve of, and therein lay the appeal. They used me to guide them, to help them navigate the world of booze and nightclubs and loud, brash outfits when it suited them, dabbling their manicured toenails into what for me is at the heart of who I am and how I choose to live. Watching me with curiosity, mimicking me when it suited them but ready to wring me out and discard me as soon as they’d had their fun and wanted to move on to the next step in the middle class journey to success. Of course, a few kept coming back for a while, just to test the water, see if they could still get away with it. Keeping me at arms length but reeling me in with slippery lies to entice me into thinking I was part of a real friendship, not an exhibit in a zoo.

“Come on: do your dance

Come on, do your funny little dance”

Is there anything nastier than being treated like free entertainment? I don’t understand how or why my authenticity is so often treated like a pathological failure – I can (just about) accept being considered eccentric but when that crosses over into an aggressive critique of my lack of convention, my personal lifestyle choices dismissed as uncultured, uncultivated, unsophisticated and base, I feel the weight of white middle class judgement raining down on me unjustly in a way that makes me want to break shit.

Loneliness is another recurring theme in these posts. My isolation from both brown and white cultures, my unpopular opinions and my ongoing wranglings with sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. I’d call this classism but I’m not even sure that fully does it justice. It’s more a sense of stifling-a pressure to change, to acclimate, to sacrifice my true self on the alter of inclusion. Which of course is not real inclusion at all. I feel I’ve often been treated like a butterfly in a jar – captured in flight, observed with interest, then left to die alone. I write a lot about being bullied and discriminated against, but being exoticized, fetishized and then discarded is the other, equally insidious side of the coin.

Yes, I still dress like a teenager about to go raving cos frankly why the hell not? I like my style, and I don’t care how many of my contemporaries look down their noses at me. I got this shit even when I was a teenager for heavens sakes – turning up for my first class at Oxford in bright pink bell bottoms while the rest of the navy sportswear-clad students stared and sneered. These days, I’m fortunate enough to have many diverse friends of different ages and backgrounds who are happy to just let me do my thing, which is amazing, but a trip back to London always triggers the disapproval-switch of just how much of a freakish anomaly I’m perceived as.

What even is mature, or adult anyway? A specific colour palate, bedtime and heel height? As I said in my last post, having a home, a career, even a marriage isn’t enough to cut it in certain social circles. Because it isn’t really about being grown up at all – it’s just about being the same and fitting in. Not til I swap out my mini skirts for Lululemon could I possibly be rehabilitated into the rank and file of English 40-something middle class women. And also, what’s with this book club thing? Everyone knows it’s just an excuse to drink wine so just cut to the chase and call it fuckin wine club.

I’m keeping my glitter. I’m keeping my strong cocktails. I’ll keep dancing in my 6 inch stilettos and you can keep calling them stripper heels all you want, cos that’s not even an insult.

“Bring your camera, take photo of life on the margins”

Damn, I could have just quoted the whole song, Jarvis says it all.

It’s not my fault I don’t want children

Honestly, I shouldn’t need to write this, but I do. The recent deluge of media content lionizing motherhood in addition to some psychological battering closer to home means I can’t stay quiet about this any longer.

I’m 41 years old and I don’t want children. I can’t help it and I can’t change it, yet I feel under constant social pressure to try. To force myself into a mindset I just don’t have. I’ve spent years looking around my body, around my mind, seeking out that part of me that I’ve been told over and over again must be there somewhere, but it isn’t. The promised craving never arrived, not at 30 or 35 or 40. It’s just not there. Maybe that makes me a broken person. I’ve been told I’m not really human. Defective. Deficient. And selfish, always selfish. As if this were my choice.

Since my late 20s, I’ve had to swallow down hammer after hammer to the heart as each close friend who promised me that they too didn’t want a family slowly succumbed to the lure of parenthood, leaving me emotionally high and dry and ever-increasingly lonely. As the camaraderie of young womanhood is swapped out for the bonds of motherhood, not a thought is spared for those left behind.

This is not something I would have chosen. As a South Asian woman from an abusive home and a lower socio-economic background with an unconventional appearance and strong opinions living in a white environment, I have already had to live my entire life navigating minority space after minority space, pushing back, standing up for myself. Being fucking different. I am sadly all too familiar with the nightmarish reality of falling unintentionally outside the realm of both the Great White Norm and its Brown equivalent, and if I could possibly choose to be what society wants and expects from a woman my age then yes of course I would. I’m tired of fighting.

I miss my friends, but they have gone where I cannot, in good faith, follow. Mostly too, their denouncement of me has been harsh, critical and without understanding. I’m cast off as immature and childish, refusing to accept adult responsibilities and live an adult lifestyle. Of course, having a self-supporting career and owning my own home as a single woman from the age of 29 are not sufficient evidence of adulthood. Instead of being respected as different, I am automatically marked down as lesser.


We live in a world where it’s no longer considered acceptable in progressive circles to judge or exclude people based on their ethnicity or sexual orientation, yet it’s still absolutely fine to shame women for choosing not to be mothers. Childlessness feels like the last bastion of a woman’s life that the world is still not just allowed but encouraged to weigh in on, dividing women into the hallowed halls of motherhood and the scorned shaming-carrying non-mothers. It’s so unfair, so tiring and so fucking cruel.

The English are, by and large, a nation of busybodies. They see absolutely no issue with firing off personal questions straight off the bat. We are indoctrinated into this very early. First it’s ‘what do your parents do?’, then ‘how did you do in your exams?’. Next we’re asked about our own job prospects and relationship status, and each time the question keens with judgement – your answer will pigeon-hole you, there will be whispers behind your back. ‘Do you have children?’ ‘No – why not?’ is still considered completely appropriate conversational fare, and telling someone to mind their own fucking business will have you marked down as a difficult-social-outcast before you can spell judgmental. While, in my experience at least, the majority of Americans are more sensitive and tactful and give far less of a shit about other people’s business, I am still painfully aware of how strange I must seem.


As a woman there is literally nothing I can do in this world that would earn me the approval that giving birth would get me. My extended family, who look down on everything I’ve ever done with my life and think my career is a joke would suddenly hold me in all esteem they have denied me through every educational and occupational milestone should I suddenly announce a pregnancy. How in the fuck do you think that makes me feel?

There is no community for women who don’t want children. No Mumsnet for the childfree. No safe space, no support network to replace the friendships and intimacy we’ve lost to other people’s motherhood, and most of all no understanding that this may be something that is actually out of our hands. We don’t choose the things we care about in life, or the things we’re good at. As people we are all different, but when it comes to motherhood that established logic flies out of the window. Of course all women must want to be mothers because anything else is unnatural.

And yes yes I know this isn’t just targeted at me. Julia Gillard and the empty fucking fruit bowl. Theresa May. Kamala Harris. All shamed by the media for their failure to procreate. If you don’t give birth what can you possibly know about running a country? Or anything at all for that matter? Unless you’re a man of course. Because while fatherhood bestows its own form of inclusion and respectability, it isn’t considered the holy grail of male experience in the way that motherhood is revered to the point of sainthood. Of course not, men are too busy running the world, but that’s a rant for another day.


In this sliver of a minority, everyone has different reasons for how they feel. Mine seem to be a mix of nature and nurture, not that I should need to justify them – but of course I do. Growing up in an abusive home meant that I have no first-hand experience of how to parent properly. Seeing my elder sibling become a parent very young and struggle horribly, steeped in misery, poverty and often unable to cope, did not sell me on motherhood either. But ultimately the buck stops with me. I don’t relate to children. Frankly, I don’t really understand most of them. Even when I was one myself I found them confusing-their silliness, the constant questions, the toilet humour, the incessant noise. I grew up with my head in a book, all my Lego pieces in the correct segments of the box and a strong desire to be an adult as soon as humanly possible. I didn’t play mummies and daddies. I didn’t have a doll I pretended was my baby, and at no point growing up did I ever dream of having children of my own. I just didn’t, even when I had to pretend to ex-boyfriends that I did. I guess I was always unnatural.

As someone who has never had the luxury of a close female relative in their life who wasn’t an abuser, my female friendships have been everything to me, possibly too much, but unfortunately I’m not able to change the circumstances I was born into. I’ve been a true, loyal friend, and valued my friendships highly, always making time, providing support and being inclusive. I’ve never neglected my friends because I’ve been in a relationship, and going through the process over and over again of being unceremoniously let go because I’m not joining the great wave towards motherhood feels like I’m being stripped down to my bare bones. With no immediate close family there is no one to fill the spaces left empty. I often go for days without speaking in real life to anyone except my husband. The loneliness is as crippling as the judgement. Knowing this is my life now can leave me in an unending fog of despair. This is the cost of being true to myself.

So what should I do? Fake it and bring a child into the world that would, frankly, be unwanted, resented, poorly parented and most likely hideously unhappy just to gain the respect of my peers? Or stick to my guns and soldierly through life as a second-class citizen, denied the privileges offered up so eagerly to women willing to give birth? When you grow up being abused, you develop a keen sense of what a parent should not be, and selfishness is pretty high up there. What more selfish thing in the world could there be than having a child I don’t really want just so that I can fit in with everyone else my age? As a mother, I’d already have failed at the first hurdle.

Over and over I’m told what an amazing life-changing experience motherhood is, how I’ll feel different when they’re mine. No one understands that I don’t want my life changed and I don’t want to feel differently. Not to mention the fact that I don’t fancy taking that kind of gamble – if I don’t feel differently what will happen to the poor kid?


And yet. And yet. It’s hard knowing I will have to go through the rest of my life removed from other women, dismissed and looked down on, alone in my values, my aspirations, my experiences. Always being told ‘you don’t understand-you’re not a mother’. As someone who is intensely social and hates being excluded, my worst nightmare of being on the outside of society looking in has already come true, but there is nothing I can do about it. I see the warmth, the love, the acceptance that the world hands out in unlimited doses to women who become mothers. The indulgent smiles as tube seats are offered up, the conversation openers with strangers, the knowing nods and sympathetic sighs shared between women signaling that yes, they too are part of the great circle of life. They get it. They’re on the same team. There is no team for the rest of us, no special signals, nothing at all. I’m constantly lonely, removed from my peers who keep me at a distance for not speaking the language of motherhood. I feel less relevant, less human, less worthy of the space that I take up, the air that I breathe.

I was always told growing up that ‘if you can’t change the world, change yourself’ and believe me I have tried, but I just can’t. I can’t make myself fit in and be accepted and approved of in the way I want to be without going against my own nature, lying to myself and everyone around me, and potentially damaging another human being whose only reason for existing would be to stem the gaping wound of my loneliness, which let’s face it is a pretty shitty thing to do. So it is a life on the outside of society which I will inevitably slink back to, tail between my legs, clutching my shame at being unable to give the world what it wants. My failure as a woman, as a human, for which I will be eternally punished. Every day feels like another painful exercise in taking my medicine for daring to be different, even though it’s something I have absolutely no control over.

I’m so very very tired, and so agonisingly lonely. But most of you probably think selfish, unnatural women like me deserve that, even if you wouldn’t say it to my face.

The Racist Royal Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the documentary. Not because I’m not interested, and certainly not because I don’t care. Simply cos I’ve had a really busy week without a spare 2hours to spend listening to a story that, honestly, I feel that I could tell myself.

Meghan Markle was born just one year after me, and while officially we sit on the cusp between generations, when it comes to interracial relationships and the English, we frankly might as well still be boomers, cos at the end of the day it’s their generation, that of the parents and other influential family members of our prospective spouses, with whom we end up negotiating.

I would never have imagined having anything in common with a Hollywood actress, especially one as stunning and glamorous as Markle, but I don’t even need to close my eyes to sit, as she will have done, on the edge on the sofa, knees together, smiling painfully, heart pounding, as she looks into the eyes of her potential in-laws and feels right to the very core of her being that’s she’s been judged and found wanting before she’s even opened her mouth.

I wasn’t even going to bother writing this piece – why say what almost any Woman of Colour born before the mid-80s (and doubtless a few born after) who’s dated white men can say? Then bloody Prince William came out with his whole ‘very much not racist’ nonsense and I nearly choked on my beer. He might as well have said ‘some of my best friends are Black’. Who does he think he’s kidding? I am so happy that there really does seem to be a sense now, among younger people, of accepting love for itself, regardless of colour, sex or even class. But if you’re a Gen-Xer you will forever be stuck in that feedback loop of polite smiles, tolerant nods and sympathetic head-tilts, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that yes indeed, the hue of any potential progeny will indeed be the first thing discussed as soon as you leave the room. Because it’s fine if you’re friends, it’s good if you’re friends, it shatters any question of whether or not you’re racist – if you can count one or two People of Colour amongst your friends. But when it comes to being part of the family, breaching the white line demarcating the inner circle, well then it’s a whole other story. Because they might not say it out loud, but the first thought in their mind when they set eyes on you is how they don’t want to be the ones explaining to the neighbours why their little grandchild is a shade darker than everyone else’s. They might be prepared to fob it off with a shake of the head, oh you know what these young people today are like. But they’d rather they not bother. Easier to nip it in the bud, talk about slowing down, and tackle their discomfort at the source.

So you sit on the edge of the ugly upholstery in your least interesting outfit, lips thinned into a fixed grimace as you suck in every drop of judgement and disapproval, every loaded inference and undermining assumption. You swallow it down, along with the over-milked tea and slightly stale biscuits (these, at least, were better at the palace, one assumes). You go against every instinct in your being that tells you to stand up for yourself, to assert your strength and be proud of who you are and tell these awful ignorant people to get back in their racist little box. But you don’t. Because you tell yourself it’s okay, he’s worth it – you’re taking it for the team, he loves you, he doesn’t see you that way. He can’t help his family, what’s he supposed to do? You want to be together, don’t you? And you don’t want to antagonise them. He’s only got one family, it’s important that they like you. You can take it. You’ve been through worse. And you can go back to being yourself later. And you do. At first.

But every micro-aggression, every diminishing, belittling carp, every stare that lasts too long, they build up. Like tiny cuts, eventually you’re just losing too much blood. Each time, it becomes harder to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, reinhabit the real you. As if they are chipping away at you, piece by piece, with a view to re-moulding you in their image or destroying you completely – and they don’t really seem to care which. That’s the point at which you start to break. The point where even a lifetime of stubbornly facing down nasty little racists, not letting them hold you back, moving on from their grubby attempts to trip you up, stymie your progress, and shame you just for being alive – even all that preparation just isn’t enough to stop you breaking, to stop the gradual internalisation of their constant disapproval. That’s the moment you begin to doubt whether you should, in fact, be alive, as Meghan so clearly and honestly described. I feel her words to my very core.

Harry, by all accounts, got it right. He supported his wife, stuck to her side and he got her the fuck out of there. Full props to him. May god make all men as loving, loyal and smart. My many experiences with this type of family, unfortunately if predictably, all went the other way. No regrets here – Harry is a rare example of the apple actually falling far from the tree and any man brainwashed, ignorant or secretly racist enough to suck up the family was, retrospectively, so not worth my time. Because the English penchant for controlling ones children, always in their own best interests of course, is strong. So is their habit of demonising mental health issues. In my experience, the families were able to reign supreme by cleverly, subtly forcing me to breaking point, then using my desperation and despair to prove to their beloved son how obviously inappropriate and unworthy this unstable character was, and how obviously right they had been to protect him all along from these emotional dark-skinned women. Not that they were racist of course, but really, who wants someone with mental health problems in the family?

Harry, you really are a prince. You didn’t fall for the underhand gaslighting, the sneaky malevolent blindsiding that ‘very much not racist’ families have no moral issues resorting to, to keep the bloodline safe as milk. Meghan, you have the strength of Wonder Woman and Buffy rolled into one. You took on the toughest establishment in the world – the privileged white English family unit, and you won. You are a strong, proud Black, female David kicking the sad, outdated Goliath ‘firm’s ass for the whole world to see. My whole life, I wanted a way to show these people up for what they really are, call them out in public and make them accountable for their racism, their bullying and their deliberate, emotionally violent attacks on Women of Colour whose only crime is falling in love with their precious white son. And you did it – I love you. From now on, any family who pulls that shit will have to think twice. That’s not to say they won’t do it – I’m sure many will still have a pop. But in doing so, they will risk the much-deserved shame the royal family have brought on themselves. I’d like to think they will also risk losing their sons, that men will look at Harry and feel empowered and inspired to stand up for the women they love, instead of getting back in line and hanging them out to dry. Wishful thinking, yes. But on actually seeing the day when the racist chickens of the English establishment have finally come home to roost, I think I’m allowed a little bit of optimism.

Death Is Not A Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

They are cremating my mother today. It has been over three weeks since she died (everything in Swindon moves slowly), and I’m glad I waited to write about her death because the landscape of my emotions has twisted, warped and lurched with a ferocity I did not, but probably should have expected in that time.

Initially I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. A strange vortex of nothingness. The tornadoes of my usual emotional state were reduced to brief gusts of wind pushing dead leaves down the street. For someone for feels every little thing so deeply, it was both exceptionally peculiar and awesomely relieving to feel absolutely nothing. Unfortunately it did not last. As details of the funeral plans made their way toward me, the perpetual simmering spitting hate a victim harbours toward their abuser began to build and boil. The idea of her being mourned, of the truth of her life being rewritten in some absurd nod to ritual and decorum, her nastiness and cruelty glossed over because ‘you can’t speak ill of the dead’ began to make me rage, to make me despair, to make me wonder what the point of anything is when you can be such a consummately appalling person and still be seen as deserving of the same processes as actual good people. What the fuck?

Her face and her utterly unspeakable sing-song voice come to me at odd moments, as sharp and shrill as they ever were. Her absurd pomposity, grandiose language and blind reductiveness still make me want to scream. I can still feel the weight of her bullying, her selfishness, her complete and utter lack of understanding that the world did not revolve around her. The insane stress of walking on eggshells in her presence, waiting for something to set her off screaming, bracing yourself for the torrent of abuse you would undoubtedly receive, usually over something incomprehensibly minor. The debilitating pressure of trying to bridge immense chasm between the climate of nonsensical cliches she lived in and the real world was relentless, especially for a child.

My mother had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She also may have had either Bipolar or Borderline personality disorder. These are explanations, not excuses, and thankfully well-documented enough to have brought me out of the negative-feedback-loop of abusive situations I spent most of my life in, as a direct result of her behaviour. She took all her rage, her irrational violence, her furious frustration and pure, ugly hatred of anyone and anything that challenged her entirely self-centred narrative of the world out on her children. How to live around a person who is completely utterly toxic? All you can do is get out of their way. Unless you are a child, their child, bound to live in the shadow of their narcissistic delusions until you are old enough to escape. As the (significantly) youngest I was the most vulnerable. Like every abuser, she cleared a path for others to follow – beat me into a scrambled egg of a human being ripe to be taken advantage of. I grew up hating myself, internalising my role as an emotional and physical punchbag. I had nothing, no one to show me otherwise and flailed desperately in the world, falling repeatedly back into abusive situations until I finally sought out the help I needed.

One of the most challenging things about recovering from childhood abuse is being responsible for your own healing. It feels like unfairness compounding unfairness. Why should you have to fix problems you didn’t create? Why do you have to do huge amounts of work on your behaviours, your assumed norms, your emotional responses, when it was someone else who fucked them up? Why aren’t they doing the work, taking the responsibility? It feels like a tax on being a victim, an extra punishment. It feels like bullshit. Yet you have no other choice. Do the work or stay fucked up forever. And all the while the perpetrator walks free, moves through the world full of that same bullish, selfish aggression, never pays for what they did, never even admits they did anything wrong. Dying feels like an escape for them. A reprieve they don’t deserve. A free ride to presumed, assumed innocence. Because you can’t speak ill of the dead. More bullshit.

How to grieve for someone who taught you to hate yourself as they taught you to read and write? Who hit, kicked, slapped and spat at you when you were a fraction of their size? Who told you you were cursed and had bad blood before you even understood what those things meant? My grief is for the person I might have become with real love, real care, real parenting. I mourned my lack of a mother a long time ago, and I mourn it still. I ache at the loving bond I see between daughters and mothers, and I always will. That loss, that absence, is another cruel facet of her legacy. These last few days, knowing that she will be memorialised, I’ve felt the burn of an anger I want so desperately to put to bed. It is unutterably unfair that she still has any power over my emotions, that she is still able to disturb or unsettle me, to attack the work I’ve been forced to do to repair the damage she created. No, unfair does not even begin to cover it. The enablers, the wilfully ignorant bystanders, the blinkered do-gooders, those who feel they can profit from her death, either emotionally, financially or both, all the hideous hypocrites who are prepared to stand up and mourn her, to act like she was a decent person, a decent mother, I feel sick thinking about them. I feel sick knowing that, like everything other misery she has bestowed on me, there is absolutely nothing I can do about them. That once again, the onus is on me to help myself, to force myself to let go, to take on yet more responsibility for fixing damage that she has created.

It’s unlikely she ever fully knew or understood that she was a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad person. I doubt anyone with that level of Narcissistic Personality Disorder can. But while it’s easy to explain those behaviours away it’s a completely different thing to live through them, to have them shape your life, twist your perceptions and break you in ways that are truly nightmarish to fix when you’re not old enough to even understand what is happening to you. Her being dead can never, will never change what she was or what she did. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. Neither is mental illness. There are responsibilities you take on as a parent that are irrefutable. Another person’s life is, quite literally, at stake. It would be nice, positive, cathartic, to say that the damage my mother did died with her, but sadly abuse doesn’t work like that. Her death neither adds nor takes away from the damage she did in her life. It’s just a thing that happened to her, as it will happen to all of us.

My task now is to find a way to deal with this final indignity she’s exacted on me from beyond the grave. To recapture that halcyon nothing of those first few days after her death. There are so many things – people, places, experiences, emotions – to grieve in life. So much loss, so many memories, and a catalogue of missed opportunities. So much to really be sad about that expending energy, pain, anger, on yet another turn of the shitshow screw of being my mother’s daughter is something I have to be able to rise above, for my own sake. Let them have her. Let them say what they want, twist the truth around their little fingers to make themselves feel better, take what little money she had or do whatever it is their wretched little souls require to feel like they’ve done ‘the right thing’. Putting myself beyond their reach is the biggest fuck-you that I can give to them and to her.

My mother always had a list of things I’d ‘be sorry’ for when she was dead. Things I’d done wrong, things I hadn’t done, always centred around her. But I was right. I’m not sorry. I have nothing to be sorry for.

Are you really a unique snowflake?

The abusive nature of institutional constructs of success

‘I wanted to hate this place for its cruelty and power, but I find the beauty working its way inside me. I want to walk straighter, as if my own rhythm has been altered in some subtle way by the austerity and calm’.

Not my words, but those of Anna Small in her exceedingly clever musical-dystopian novel The Chimes. Although her Oxford, a locked musical fortress, is fiction, it captures the spirit of my alma mater so deftly that reading it transported me back to my days among the dreaming spires, breathing in the heady scent of learning yes, but also, undeniably, cruelty and power. The literary world is obsessed with Oxford, from Philip Pullman to Inspector Morse, Evelyn Waugh to Martin Amis, along with, literally millions of others. When you’re there it’s a thing too – the Great Oxford Novel. To an outsider even the concept sounds ludicrously pompous, and it is. But it’s that very pomposity, that sense of self-importance, that seems, by its very nature, to inspire so many words, even these. In the same way that a revoltingly egoistical rock star can make a million fans scream, despite their obviously obnoxious levels of self-involvement, so Oxford continues to captivate writers, academics, tourists and of course students – to hold them in its thrall despite its clear and present awfulness. The university, the city, the architecture, dress code, language (there are special words for everything), and culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a myth built on a myth so often repeated that it makes itself true. If you tell yourself and the world that you’re special, important, unique enough times, people begin to believe you.

Being a part of that culture is toxic. For me, my three years at Oxford were exactly like being in an abusive relationship. First, you’re set up to believe you’re not good enough to belong there. You have to audition, fight off competition, be sure to be at your very very best. You are told that making it in is everything – a sign of your worth, a marker of your status in life. If you don’t make it, you feel like a failure, and if you do, the institution gives you permission to laud your success over your peers. You are validated, told how clever and special you are. How you are now a winner – made for life, guaranteed the best of everything. The elite. But that love can and will be withheld if you don’t jump through the right hoops, if you don’t submit yourself entirely to the system. There’s no space for independent thinking, unless it’s independent thinking that isn’t actually independent because they told you to think it. No place for negativity, no support if you are struggling and any sniff of failure is met with censure and disdain. Perhaps you don’ deserve this love after all. Perhaps you’re not special. Prove it, prove how special you are. Show me what you can give me, show me how far you’re prepared to go to keep my validation. Sit, roll over, beg. The power the institution holds, the way it knowingly builds you up, preys on the weakness of impressionable teenagers, toys with your expectations, your dreams, your sense of self is cruel and dangerous. You are told you must be your best self all the time, and not even your own definition of your best self but someone else’s. You must conform and perform in equal measures. And they will slam your square peg into their round hole and tell you it’s for your own good, however much you scream.

Of course, for those naturally round pegs, the whole experience is a walk in the park. Their life experience up to that point has, mostly, already consisted of self-aggrandising pomposity, institutional validation and a strong sense of their own power in the world – all hail the British public school system. If you need an example just look at the UK’s current political leaders. But if you’re not one of them, if you’re not from the right school, the right family, the right mindset or, worst of all, the right level of intellectual snobbery, the skills and talents that you do have are constantly gaslit in an attempt to break you down and remake you in their image. By showing you how much love the institution can lavish on its chosen ones and then withdrawing it at will, by forcing unfair and unnecessary conditions that amount to cultural and intellectual blackmail on you, your spirit, your individuality and your ability to believe in yourself are systematically crushed. Then, as you sink into yourself, low and despondent, crushed at the having that balmy sheen of praise whipped away, they tell you that they are right, look how weak you are. Of course you didn’t belong there in the first place, how could they have made such a silly mistake. You were never deserving, not bright and shiny enough. Inadequate. Unworthy. Whether you’re trying and failing at being what they want you to be or just trying to be yourself and get by, they will come after you, kick you and laugh as you fall. You see the promises they made you, the future they told you to believe in, fall away and you’re left weak, small and confused – positively heart-broken.

We call out this kind of treatment when it’s dished out in intimate relationships, families, even friendships, but we still allow institutions to abuse and bully – particularly ones that are the beneficiaries of their own successful propaganda. Whether it’s Oxford, Harvard, the City of London or Sillicone Valley, powerful prestigious institutions inject their criteria for success and failure into you like a proverbial virus (no, not that one). And the sense of failure doesn’t go away – especially if you’re at a stage of life where you’re very mush still discovering and defining who you are. When you’re held to a standard, a set of ideals like that, rightly or wrongly a part of that dogma can stick in your brain, particularly if you’re a young adult. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life’ said the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie. And it’s true.  So what’s the point of a this? To say that beauty, power, even cruelty can be seductively aspirational, make you want to be better, different, than how you are, but for all the wrong reasons. Set you up for a fall but refuse to catch you. That dogmatic definitions of success are dangerous and harmful, and that it’s easy to lose yourself in a Jenga-tower of results-dependent affirmation. All of this. Or maybe it’s just me dredging up old memories and ranting. Which of course doesn’t make any of it less true or real or relevant. There’s still a discomfort, an unsettling seeping sense of failure when folks discover my academic background. A ‘but you went to Oxford, why aren’t you running the world?’ accusation that can still fill me with shame the same way that my tutors and my peers used to. I tried, but I failed. But even if I didn’t fail, I feel like I failed. False promises and gilded lilies – Oxford dishes out both in spades. I wish I could say it made me stronger, brighter, more savvy. I wish I had been able to walk taller instead of just wanting to. I wish I could know for sure if I really am a failure or have just been programmed to think I am.

The power of being part of a crowd

Why I miss the beautiful camaraderie of being physically close to strangers

Hello, my name is Ruvani and I’m a claustrophobic. Along with a whole swathe of other annoying phobias my risk-averse brain gathered up on the rocky road between the intrepid bravery of childhood and the sheer terror of adulthood, at some point I became a person who, along with small spaces, Did Not Like Crowds. While I’ve never been absolutely terrified off them – no avid gig-goer could be – crowds made my heart beat a little faster, put me on high alert. Willfully stepping into a tightly crowded space was only fine as long as I knew exactly where the exit was and kept it in my eyeline. One too many Dodgy Crowd Experiences may have been to blame. I recall getting nastily squashed against a wall at Notting Hill Carnival one year, and there was the rather scary moment in Ibiza when poor crowd control led to me getting lifted off the ground by the pressure of overexcitable humans. The idea of getting trapped, being crushed to death, or more likely to severe discomfort, has its own special chest-clenching grossness for me. Paranoia, yes – but irrational paranoia, definitely not. Getting squashed, trampled, stampeded-over may never have been a likely possibility at the many crowded events I’ve attended in my life (us good ol Brits know how to wait our turn) but it was always there in the back of my head, lurking in a corner, casting a tiny shadow over the fun.

But although crowds can be scary, they can also be incredibly wonderful. That’s why I persevered, always, with every kind of crowd, from nightclubs to music festivals to street parties, gigs, immersive theatre, and of course sports matches. You name it, I was there – diving in head first, with half an eye on the exit of course. The camaraderie of a crowd watching a band, the hive-mind hysteria of a bunch of ravers partying to a fantastic DJ set, the happy chatting with strangers in the snaking queue for festival toilets, the shared sense of place and purpose, the knowledge that everyone is there out of a love for the same thing – that’s what makes crowds amazing, joyous and life-affirming. Every one of the fifteen (yes, fifteen) Glastonburys I’ve attended has been populated with its own little miracles, folks helping each other out, getting each other’s back, sharing water and food, searching en masse for lost property, lifting each other on their shoulders. Whether I’m sweating in a nightclub, cheering for my team, headbanging in a mosh pit or queuing up tight for food, drinks or bathrooms, crowds exert their own energy, their own awareness of the moment. That each moment is a story, a memory, that you are all building and sharing together. Precious, unique and irreplaceable. Humans as physically close as they can be who don’t know one another but all want to be happy, want to create a positive experience, want to root for the same team. The yelling, chanting, shrieking in unison, the huge booming pulsating waves of love and excitement radiating from the heads and bodies squished up together, bobbing in synch, arms and legs akimbo with no thought at all to personal space.

Thinking about it now, it feels almost mystical, all that person-power, all that energy and life. With festivals, clubs and events banned, sports played to empty stadiums, the perpetual six-foot-scare-distance keeping us apart, I have never craved the warmth and intimacy of a crowd more. I dream of crowds, of hair in my face, elbows in my back, jostling this way and that, head ducking to get a better view, the sound of other people’s conversations, the access to their experiences as part of my own. I crave speakers and spotlights, the shared wave of anticipation that ripples through a crowd in the moments before a huge beat drops or a goal is scored. I miss hugging strangers when everything is going right for all of you at the exact same moment. When it’s your moment, your joy, but everyone else’s at the same time. The feeling of being so much a part of something, so very alive, of knowing you will always remember that You Were There, and so will everyone else. Those shared human experiences when being part of a crowd is like being part of a body, a single organism, one blissful beating heart.

Now, locked away, those moments feel more precious than ever. Each memory holds a bitter-sweet poignance, sharp with the not-knowing when we will ever again be able to return to those hallowed, socially-sacred spaces. The danger of closeness now means something so different. We turn our faces, our bodies away from one another, the newly-omnipresent fear of germs bearing down on us like a constant dull brain-ache. Just one of so many ways this disease has shifted life from colour to monochrome, another shade sucked from the rainbow of our existence. By separating us physically, reducing our shared experiences to shakey out-of-synch Zoom conversations, taking away any real physical sense of closeness to strangers, some essential threads of human connection feel lost, broken. The privacy and safety of home is an island, a walled castle, a lonely, reductive space where we separate ourselves and become less like or liking of everyone else. Our suspicion of contact, fear of contamination, divisions over how to behave and what our priorities should be right now feel like a psychological war zone, new and seemingly-insurmountable social and cultural barriers rising high on top of the literal physical danger of the spreading pandemic. Outside of our household bubbles, intimacy feels like a thing of the past. The ability to commune in a crowd, as a crowd, to speak with one voice, move with one motion, to be something larger, more powerful and more fulfilling than oneself through our physical and – in the moment – psychological closeness with strangers is a dear, precious recollection, a whisper of a dream. And I realise I’m more afraid of losing that intimacy forever than I ever was of standing in a crowd.

11th September 2020

There’s more than one kind of isolation

The absence of safe spaces when you don’t belong

Where do we go when we need a break from the constant tussle, the emotional and psychological pressure of living in a world where everything is some kind of battle? Mental retreats, or safe spaces may exist in the shape of a family unit, a close group of friends from school or college, a religious community or political organisation. But what if there isn’t a space with your name on it? What if you’re the person who slips between the margins, neither fish nor fowl, and there’s nowhere you can just exist without question?

I’ve written a lot here about the need for tolerance and acceptance, and those are exactly what the world needs right now to get back in order to re-establish some kind of sanity in our political and social relations. But putting tolerance and acceptance out there all the time is hard. It’s tiring. And sometimes you just ache for a space that’s yours – a space of agreement and mutual understanding where you don’t have to calmly fight your corner, where certain givens can just go unsaid. More than the constant, relentless bad news and divisive decision-making surrounding the pandemic, the daily car-crash-bombardment of international horror stories leave me yearning for a place to shelter, a place to not be questioned, not have to explain myself.

The disjuncture of having no one in your life whom you grew up with, whose experiences match your own and whose opinions can be relied upon as a safe place of agreement, a shelter from the storm of divisiveness we’re constantly battered by in this ever-fraying world. For someone like me who exists without tight bonds to family or community, without a strong, well-informed racial or ethnic identity and no ties to my past or where I grew up, there is no such safe space. The constant sharing, deep, intense bonds of adolescence give way to the constant uncertainties of adult friendships and relationships, and nothing is safe or certain among people of differing backgrounds. Tiptoeing around subjects, or full-disclosure honesty at the risk of confrontation, rejection or both are exhausting ways to interact. The absence of a safe space where the soul can rest and recuperate was bad enough before the world started going completely to shit. Now it’s a gaping hole in my psyche (another one) that I have no other option than to just suck up, another thing I need that I just have to manage without. Whether it’s climate change, having children (and how the two are related), taxation, education, gun control, unemployment, abortion, the police, the military or any other contentious topic you may think of, the lack of a space I can enter where there is the safety of having at least a basic form of agreement feels like yet another tax on just not belonging anywhere.

I was good at being a young person. I was good at sharing. I was good at pontificating on the ways of the universe late into the night, setting the world to rights, exclaiming yes, yes, I totally get that! And oh my god you just read my mind! The squeals of mutual understanding, the sense of being seen, being heard, the heart-lifting realisation that you are not actually alone in your thoughts and beliefs, that there are others, that you are a part of something, not a lone crouton on the edge of a soup bowl, sinking ever-deeper into a viscous mass that’s trying to subsume and destroy all the things that make you you. Those are moments, the places, that make living in the world more bearable, yet as an adult without ties and connections that run old and deep they are virtually absent, found only at the bottom of a bottle, or something stronger. Feeling out of step with the universe, feeling out of place and disconnected are not new feelings for me, but that doesn’t make them easy to live with. Seeing people huddle in their tribes, hunker down with their cliques is hard, especially after being unceremoniously rejected from so many of the aforementioned social sets for being too bloody different. When Oscar Wilde said ‘Be yourself, everybody else is taken’ he clearly had not encountered a gaggle of White upper-middle-class women from the English Home Counties. Just saying.

I envy and despise in equal amounts the rich White men in their gentlemen’s clubs – their safe, private spaces where they can close the door on the modern world, pat each other on the back and bitch about political correctness gone mad and how much better things were way back when. The egregious irony of them not only continuing to hold all the power but having enviably comfortable, socially acceptable private spaces of their own in which to bemoan any small inroads the rest of us may make into the world is not lost on me.

I’m sick of reading magazine articles extolling me to ‘find your tribe’. Do these people not understand how frustrating it is to be shown a prescription for loneliness that seems to work for everyone else except you? Has it even occurred to them that some people just don’t have a tribe, and it’s not their fault? That due to circumstances beyond one’s control, it is possible to have a set of beliefs and experiences that will set you apart in one way or another from virtually everyone you will ever meet. That you must live your whole life on guard, waiting, expecting to disappoint anyone whom you’re honest with, that one stray comment will get eyebrows raised, invitations rescinded, doors slammed in your face or worst of all, elicit peals of mocking laughter. And that you have to take all that with no one to run to, nowhere to go to say fuck, those bastards, they just don’t get us, because there is no us, there’s just you, out on the limb that is your life. Disconnected in every way and battling through another day on your own. No tribe, no family, no safe space, shared history or ideology. It’s all so tiring, each micro aggression more draining than the last. Running on empty with nowhere to refuel. Yes, this may seem like a small thing to moan about when the whole world is falling apart and people have much bigger problems, but it’s my blog and I can cry if I want to. Being different sucks, whether there’s a pandemic on or not.

13th August 2020