Life as a Baited Bear

My experience of racist bullying and PTSD growing up in Britain

Right now I’m crying. I’m crying over scenes happening on the other side of the world. I feel sick and panicked. I feel helpless and furious. Why should I be crying because of a bunch of ignorant fascist thugs proudly proclaiming their racist jingoistic ideology on the streets of London today? Why not just shrug and ignore them? After all, they’ve always been there. Why ruin my day, my husband’s day over a group of stupid nasty bigots on the other side of the pond? Tune them out, forget about them, move on to the next thing.

Except I can’t. Every time I see those faces, those gurning, leering sneers I know so well or hear those vicious bitter chants filled with hate I go back in time. I go back to when those same faces, those same voices were targeted at me. Targeted day in, day out. A permanent ringing in my ears, a pounding in my head. A presence I could no more ignore than if I’d been beaten with a stick, which I sometimes think might have been preferable. There was always a distance, an otherness. I wasn’t invited around for tea like the other kids were. Little comments, funny looks. Sitting on my own in the playground. Teachers always saying my name wrong. But it was in Year 4 that it became something else. We weren’t allowed to move seats during the school year, so once my colour became a target there was no escape. I was nothing more or less than a baited bear, chained to hot coals and dancing in agony for the amusement of the audience. Constant, relentless persecution. If I didn’t react, they pushed harder. If I did, they laughed and started again. No respite, no way out. All day and every day.

I stopped sleeping. I became sick with the fear of what awaited me the next day. I sat at the foot of my bed praying all night for it to stop, for something to happen, anything that would free me. I still have that raging, painful insomnia. I binge-ate chocolate for just a moment of distraction from the sheer misery of my life. I hated myself. Every time I looked in the mirror all I saw was my brown skin – the disgusting thing that made me different, the thing I couldn’t change. The marker of my grotesque otherness I would have to carry with me for the rest of my life. I was terrified. And I wasn’t wrong to be. It never let up. I got used to my daily dose of being called gross and hideous. I internalised that no one would ever love me because I was so dark and ugly. I expected to be referred to as poo if it was a good day, otherwise worse. Of course I could never have a boyfriend. Obviously I’d have to take the odd punch. Anyone who spoke to me risked guilt by association. I was pitifully grateful for the few manipulative, abusive pseudo-friendships I had.

How can you grow a sense of self-worth when the root of your soul is constantly being pissed on? How can you believe in yourself when everyone around you is telling you that you don’t deserve to be alive? How can you love yourself when your ugliness is shoved in your face every day? And how can you possibly fight against the smug pervasive certainty, the confidence, the absolute cast-iron self-assurance emanating from all of your assailants and their silent allies that they are one hundred per cent in the right? There is no room for argument, no space for dissent – they know in their hearts and their minds that they are right to hate you because, after all, you have dark skin. You are the one who is different, who is other, who is therefore inherently lesser. They know it, so it must be true.

When I see images of proud British racists, I see those same faces 30 years later. They’re probably in the crowd. No one has told them they’re wrong. Quite possibly no one ever will. They are the beating heart of racist Britain-undiminished, unsilenced and triumphantly enjoying themselves. They still believe that people like me are worth nothing. Me crying about it isn’t going to stop them, but sometimes I can’t stop myself. Because their attitude stretches beyond the bullish neo-Nazi minority. They are enabled by the middle-class British establishment that has successfully kept ethnic minorities at arm’s length, limited our participation in arts and culture, kept us off the national curriculum and ensured that we have enough visibility to pay lip service to diversity without ever having to change anything. Racism in the UK is so structurally embedded that when the thugs rear their ugly heads the establishment shrugs and ignores them. They refuse to acknowledge that they are merely the head of the snake, because to do so would flag their own complicity. The children who did those things to me weren’t just the kids of NF extremists. They were the kids of doctors, lawyers and journalists. And they were all in it together-the great equalising act of bullying the brown kid. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the complicity and latent prejudice of the teachers. And if you think that things are better now, think again. Look around you. The white British stranglehold on everything from history to fashion may be being questioned right now, but in a few weeks when this all dies down how many kids will there be being told that they don’t belong in Britain?

13th June 2020

There’s No Such Thing as an Empathetic Racist

Why we need protective legislation to enforce justice and equality

This week, the sheer raw anger, the exposed rage that was so fresh and bitter has steadily simmered into something less agonising but equally potent – a huge, resounding call for systemic change that will not be silenced, will not be ignored. Millions of people have taken to the streets worldwide, affecting real change in the defunding of the Minneapolis police department and the tearing down of statues commemorating slaveholders in the US and the UK. But as we continue to push forward, the White far right are pushing back: KKK vigilantes have attacked protesters in Seattle and Virginia and threatened to bomb protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, while protesters have been killed or hospitalised by police across the US, including here in Austin. Yes, progress is being made but this is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. White supremacists are angry and frightened by the gains we have already accomplished, but anyone who has encountered racism first-hand knows that these are structures that won’t just go away.

I keep thinking about why. Why some White people just cannot seem to understand the basic concept of equality? Why they get the same cold, hard, dehumanised expression on their faces when confronted with People of Colour asking for their human rights, how they can justify the violence of their language and their behaviour when encountering other human beings who are a different colour from them? How can some White people not understand or at least imagine what it feels like to be judged, bullied, rejected, persecuted and murdered because of the colour of your skin? How fighting back is the only possible means of survival. Surely this is obvious? But it isn’t. Privilege, it seems, often has an inverse relationship with empathy.

Because if the beneficiaries of that privilege open themselves up to empathy, if they really enable themselves to feel what it’s like to be oppressed, to be threatened, and ultimately to be killed because of the colour of their skin, they would have to confront the reality of giving up that privilege, and they do not want to. By shutting down their empathy, burying their heads in the sand, the White far right are silently acknowledging how hard it is to give up that privilege, that they know what’s at stake and they will fight with all the cold-hearted ignorance they can muster. And history shows us that this is not going to change by itself. We can’t just sit back and wait for every racist White person to become friends with a Black person who single-handedly overturns centuries of bigotry and prejudice, the way that Hollywood would have it. In real life racist beliefs are harboured and cherished and passed down from generation to generation as principles to live by. How else could we still be living in an such a deeply racist society in the year 2020?

Racist structures and beliefs offer a sense of place and power. How can we possibly incentivise the White far right to give that up voluntarily? We are asking them to relinquish every inbuilt advantage society has offered them. To retrain their thought processes to challenge structures of bigotry that are deeply ingrained into their history, their culture, their psyche, solely for the benefit of others. We are asking them to exercise empathy. But they don’t want to hear it. This is completely counterintuitive to the entire ethos and ideology of the White far right. Empathy is not in their playbook. And once you take empathy out of the equation what you have is one group of people clinging to an idea that allows them to believe they are worth more than another group, and they like that sense of worth, they like how it makes them feel and who it tells them that they are.

Every act of aggression, every misplaced denial, every word spoken without empathy shows us that the White far right want to keep perpetuating the same old tropes of cultural superiority that allow them to exert their status over those whom at some point in history society deemed to be inferior to them because of the colour of their skin. That they will not give up without a fight. That they will manipulate and reframe the debate to portray Black people and their allies as the aggressors, that they will literally try to Whitewash history. The journey towards a truly global and egalitarian world where everyone is equally valued and recognised isn’t going to happen out of the kindness of their hearts. Those are hardened fast to protect their social and economic advantages, in the same way that capitalism has always been able to profit – by dividing the working class by race, gender or religion and pitting them against each other to jockey for the little bit of power so generously handed down to be squabbled and fought over. The White far right have staked their claim and they are not giving up on it.

Legislation, and only legislation can affect real change, although even supposedly watertight legislation like the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments have been circumvented, abused and misinterpreted. But the stronger, more powerfully and more completely we legislate the less scope, the less space there is for the White far right to reassert its agenda. We need to make racism illegal. Really illegal. On a Federal level, an unchallengeable level. Behaviours may not immediately alter attitudes and perceptions but they guarantee safety and offer means to recourse in a way that no moral argument can.

I think a lot, write a lot, about my own complex relationship with my own race, my experiences of racism and the deep, complex structures that legitimise racism in our society. I get lost in my own thoughts, caught up in the narrative of the things that I know, that when confronted with a situation that I do not know, I have not lived, I don’t always know what to do. I might not always do the right thing or say the right thing. I might be clumsy or insensitively over-conflate my own experiences. I hope not. This isn’t about me, but I’m in it as much as everyone who has ever been the victim of any kind of prejudice is in it. Those of us from other minorities should not be detracting from the focus of this fight and should not be co-opting the agenda. We need to act as allies, as does everyone who cares about breaking down the institutional structures that are oppressing Black people and protecting the perpetrators of racist violence. Being an ally means seeing and recognising these structures and patterns and confronting them wherever we see them. It means challenging, pushing back against every assumption, every action that’s lacking in empathy. It means utilising our own experiences of prejudice, bigotry and racism to understand and support the fight that’s on our doorstep, exercising our own empathy to help highlight its absence among those who continue to subjugate and silence Black voices.

These base acts of white supremacist violence are not going to stop, and the belief and value systems that enable them are not going to dismantle themselves. This is now a pitched battle on both a physical and ideological level and we can’t be intimidated into giving up. We cannot back down and allow the status quo to be reintroduced. Whether or not empathy can be learned and hate can be unlearned feels like an academic question, because quite simply this has not happened. The battle for hearts and minds goes on, but the structural change that will bring down racism and White privilege has to come first.

June 9th 2020

Information is Power

Why censoring our media damages our future as well as our present

Once upon a time I studied history. I studied it because I loved it, not because I had some great plan for a fabulous high-powered career as a historian, but because the past has always fascinated me. Other places and other times, the ways that other people lived and the things that they lived through often held more of a grip on my attention than the dim, grim real world, and although I dutifully kept up with contemporary events, I was much better versed in the political intrigues of the Early Modern period than the day-to-day goings on in Westminster. The past is a fascinating place, made all the more so because it really existed. Or did it? Every story, each event, is a reality with more than one side. Picking over sources, examining them for context and bias, evaluating their weight and creating as true a picture of events as possible is a huge part of being a historian. Like reading a novel and gauging each character’s motivation, so each source has a life and identity of its own. History does not grant access to the truth, but it incorporates the range of truths necessary to discover the full story of any story. Of course, the version of events that gets accepted into the public imagination most often depends on who controls the narrative.

Every school child knows that history is written by the winners. Everything we think we know is based on the information available to us, what was written and what was allowed to survive. It doesn’t take a great enquiring mind to understand that every lesson we are taught is viewed through a prism of right and wrong constructed by contemporary moral and cultural values. Richard III became a murderous hunchback as Shakespeare curried favour with the granddaughter of his usurper. Napoleon was a megalomaniac who overreached himself militarily. Of course, we know the Nazis were bad because they really were bad, but as we see in dystopian television dramas like The Man In The High Castle and The Plot Against America, we may all have ended up holding that knowledge secretly to our hearts between salutes, heils and goose-steps. The Soviet and Chinese communists rewrote their own history books to reflect their ideological rejection of all past societies and punished anyone whose narrative differed from theirs with years in labour camps, and the Khmer Rouge, in a ludicrous feat of revisionist psychosis, decided to set the clock back to Year Zero and begin history again. About as clever and rational as genocide. Oh wait…

I’m veering off all over the shop here, but what has pulled my mind back towards the meaning of history, the need for continued narratives, diverse narratives, contradictory narratives, is the terrifying path we seem to be sliding down right now. We used to think that fake news was all we had to worry about, but with the orange despot’s latest attack on all forms of media that, apparently, should be shut down for daring to question his immense wisdom, who have the gall to suggest readers look into actual facts rather than accepting a blatant pack of lies shoved in their faces, we need to think seriously about what history will say about us, what record there will be left of what people really thought and felt, what was really happening and how we got ourselves into this ghastly mess we’re trying to live through. By attempting to shut down debate, to quash alternative opinions and label any attempts at invoking facts that contradict state propaganda as anti-democratic, our society is literally turning in on itself. We have become the snake chewing on its own tail.

Every war we have fought, every sanction imposed, every negotiating table we have steered towards a democratic resolution is being systematically undermined by this sweeping destruction of our own democracy. The limiting of information to party-sanctioned hyperbole is at the very heart of the communist and fascist ideologies we have spent the last hundred years fighting against in one form or another. How can no one see that we are becoming the thing that we purport to hate? There are so many things wrong with our society, but the limiting of information and undermining of facts that we are currently at risk from is terrifyingly toxic and dangerous, because without free speech and free reportage we won’t even know how many of our other freedoms are being taken away. If we really want to live in a society where dissidents are spirited away by unnamed security forces in the middle of the night without a word and the pleas of their families are never heard or acknowledged we are going the right way about it. Trump is well on the way to ending up with his name on the same list as Franco, Pinochet, Stalin, Pol Pot and of course Hitler. Information is power. Free speech is enshrined in the constitution of this country, but for how much longer? As respected media outlets die from lack of funding and our peer-to-peer social networks face the possibility of censorship, who will tell the other stories, the unofficial stories, arguably the real stories, and how will we preserve them for future generations? And how long before I end up on a blacklist just for writing all this down?

Disapproval and Polarisation in our Pandemic of Discontent

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Disapproval makes me nervous. I hate people hating on me. Some folks thrive on argument and controversy, but I am a fan of the smiley-cuddly-quiet life. I didn’t write for a terribly long time because I found the hostility that I contended with every day just from walking in the world as myself too exhausting to allow me to deal with a whole second stream of criticism. Being different, whether accidentally or on purpose, is still considered an act of provocation. Yet, being a writer requires a thick skin. You can’t please everyone all the time, and in our digitally oriented world of instant circulation and viral shaming anyone can get their feelings or opinions nailed to the wall a million times over just for having the sheer audacity to share them. The internet makes writers of us all, leaving us all open and vulnerable to criticism, disapproval and shaming.

For the argument’s sake, I’m going to call this Phase Two. The initial terror and panic have been replaced by blazing anger, gnawing fear and damning vitriol. Everyone, it seems, is a Snowflake or a Karen (covidiot didn’t really stick, did it?). The internet has always (at least in my experience) been an angry place, but as the battle lines over reopening are drawn there’s so much hate and hostility on both sides that tuning out of politics and tweeting about puppies can feel like the safest, sanest thing to do. The current situation is laying open our differences in brutally visible and tangible ways, with new polarising stories constantly breaking and public policy uncertain and unpredictable. Politics and religion, those classic conversational minefields, have already stirred up huge social discontent in our lives, pitting friends and family against one another through the whole Brexit-Trump debacle of the last four years. Now the days of Brexit seem positively halcyon as folks are publicly shamed for walking two-abreast, derided as ignorant disease-spreaders, mocked for being paranoics or accused of suppressing civil liberties. This is not a time where any of us can gain wholehearted approval for anything we do, say or think.

Right now, talking (and writing) make me nervous. With frustrations running high as the debate over reopening intensifies and we are bombarded with increasing numbers of conflicting studies and diverse expert opinions, it’s hard to know what to think, never mind what to say. Untrustworthy news sources are the icing on the powder keg. Fake news has gone from a source of horror to a joke to an accepted part of everyday life, allowing us to choose what we believe and creating an ideological battleground where everyone claims that science is on their side. With each of us affected differently by the crisis, we all have a divergent take-away and even among intimate friends and family unexpected differences of opinion are emerging. Small things that we may not have noticed or cared about before become sticking points. Some people are immediately easier to converse with than others, and it may not be the ones you’d expect. But how to get there in the first place? Sounding out safe conversational ground can feel like a dance across a field of social landmines that could explode into a cloud of shaming at any moment. We’ve all been shocked at things our friends and relatives have said, as they undoubtedly have been by us. Even those of us who want desperately to keep everyone happy are unable to open our mouths (or our browsers) without putting somebody’s back up.

Most of us yearn for a fair, tolerant society where different viewpoints are valued and included, but once you throw death and poverty into the mix, the pressures of survival force us to push for what we believe will meet our needs safely and in the quickest, simplest manner. Empathy dissipates in the face of righteous panic, making our divisions more potent and dangerous, and at times it feels safest not to say anything at all. When this is all over, how will we go back to communicating openly, knowing all of each other’s hidden weaknesses and prejudices? Can we ever look at one another the same way again? Will we ever be able to trust in the objectivity of the information we’re able to access, and how will the balance between individual and societal needs be restored? Will any kind of approval or consensus become an oxymoron relegated to history? When the only certain thing is uncertainty and it’s hard to trust anyone or anything, the future seems a very bleak place indeed. If this really is our version of the Black Death then we may still have the Dark Ages to come.

Ending the Shame-Blame Game

Pandemic-poverty and social change

Being as terribly, terribly British as I am, I hate talking about money. Other than the usual everyday fuck-it-I’m-broke statement that has blanket-covered my finances since the dawn of time, I tend to get squirmy and uncomfortable if anyone outside (or sometimes even inside) my immediate family wants to get down to financial brass tacks. Cos we just don’t talk about that sort of thing. Having spent long periods of my life either un or under-employed, as well as growing up horribly, embarrassingly poor, I’m also used to the weight of financial worry permeating my every heartbeat while trying to go about life as normal and coping with being the poor friend/relation with as much of a smile on my face as I can manage. The real kicker is that for once I had just about got my financial ducks in a row before this whole thing kicked off, but now, like 26million other folks in this country whose livelihoods depend on tourism, hospitality, entertainment, fashion, beauty, culture, fitness and god knows how many other industries, I am well and truly up the spout. I probably should be panicking more than I am, and I definitely should be buying less beer, but for some reason my usual panic buttons just aren’t kicking in. it may be because, for once, I’m not alone in this, and I don’t just mean having lovely JB in my life. This time, I don’t have to pretend not to be poor. I don’t have to pretend that my life and my income aren’t fucked. I don’t have to smile and lie while my stomach does backflips over how I’m going to make it through the next month, and I don’t have to look away awkwardly when someone asks me how things are.

I’m not saying I’m glad everyone else is in the same boat as me – I wish none of us were in it. I wish there wasn’t even a boat. I wish the world could go back to normal in a goddamn heartbeat. I think what I’m saying is that for the first time, I’m not ashamed to be poor, I don’t feel like it’s my fault, like I did something wrong, that I’m a deficient human being because of the way our society tells us that if we don’t have money it must be because of something we did, something we need to fix about ourselves and our lives. In this situation we can’t fix anything. We can’t make jobs that simply are not there because they are not safe, and we can’t suddenly become experts in things we don’t understand. Yes, some of us could and probably will retrain, but one fact that has come out of this situation with enormous clarity is that no sector (with the exception of healthcare, up to a point) is completely safe – who knows what the next disaster of biblical proportions will entail? Right now, a world without the internet or even electricity doesn’t seem impossible. Anything really can happen.

Being poor has always made me feel that I’m worthless. Not having a stable, respectable career has made me feel lesser and ashamed. Investing hard in my working life and seeing it fall apart around me way before any of this happened nearly broke me to pieces, so I know better than anyone how hard this is for every person who thought they knew what they were doing with their life and suddenly had it all taken away. The world isn’t fair, it just isn’t, and hard work does not necessarily pay off. With most of us (there are of course the obvious exceptions) in something vaguely resembling the same boat, for once no one is talking about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, getting on our bikes or showing bloody initiative. Finally, the economy is being seen for what it really is, a mostly arbitrary system with a fluctuating list of winners and losers whose status depends primarily on factors beyond their own control. The concept of a universal basic income is no longer being derided as commie propaganda, and medicare for all is winning new advocates daily. In the UK, the NHS has now acquired a semi-religious status when just months ago it was frittering out of our fingers into private hands without the majority of the population batting an eyelid. The difference between needs and wants is being thrown into sharp relief, and the responsibility of the state to its people is no longer a just concept to be debated, it is a reality which requires immediate action.

As our economies shrink and unemployment skyrockets, talking about money, about being afraid and uncomfortable, about feeling helpless and angry, is no longer shameful or embarrassing. The correlation of poverty and fault is being shown up as nothing but a construct of the successful and the privileged, a tool to abrogate state and corporate responsibility. A stick to beat the unlucky with. Being poor doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you are lazy or stupid or worthless. It doesn’t equal lacking life skills or making poor career choices. All it means is that you have been unlucky, that you have lost this roll of the dice, and maybe the one before, and the one before that. Yes, some people are better able to cope and pull themselves up from those losses than others, but even being blessed with that characteristic and/or having someone in your life to nurture it is down to little more than luck. As much as I would like to believe that something good will come out of all this suffering, that real change is afoot, history clearly dictates otherwise. Undoubtedly, once this is all over, the powers that be will do their best to sweep our memories of this moment under the carpet and reinstall the same old creaking economic structure of haves and have-nots, waving individual incentives under our noses, and each of us will run straight back in like children determined to snatch the biggest portion of candy, wilfully oblivious to the poison it contains. For now at least, we are all in this together, so lets not be ashamed of our poverty and our fear and let’s demand solutions from our leaders that reflect our value as human beings.

Why I’m going Back to the 90s

Embracing the Art of Survival by Nostalgia

One of the ways JB and I are dealing with All This is by taking several steps backwards and immersing ourselves in the halcyon days that were The 90s. I know, based on the stupid amount of time I’m spending on Twitter, that we are not the only ones to seek refuge in what was not just a simpler time, but for our generation (tag end of GenX), the only period of real hope that we lived through. I’ve written a fair bit about the difficulty of growing up in the grim grizzly grey of the 80s, and how the racism, capitalism, classism and poverty of those years shaped me, but have woefully neglected the huge impact of what came next. Sometime early in 1994, I had my Pleasantville moment (if you haven’t seen it, do) and my world slowly began to shift into colour. Less a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe and more a slow, burgeoning build laced with a huge sense of anticipation, things around me that had felt distant and impossible and most often agonisingly unbearable began to offer up the smallest possibility of change. When Tony sings ‘Something’s Coming’ at the start of West Side Story, I can almost see my younger self sauntering down the road wearing a bright vintage minidress and clogs, hair swinging in the wind, on the cusp of escaping for good the vice-like grip of my brutally domineering mother and finally making my first group of actual friends.

I shall, and unapologetically so, return to further cultural references to describe the power of the cultural change that occurred in the early-mid 90s that enabled me to, in a very real sense, be alive for the first time. What made me suddenly become relatable to others wasn’t an overnight personality overhaul but the arrival of new sets of cultural markers around which our generation sparked and fused, and in which I was a genuine believer. Nirvana and the grunge scene offered me my first glimmer of a world that I could understand and belong to, and enabled me to take my first wobbly steps out of nerddom, like a real life female Marcus from About A Boy (if you haven’t read it, do). The heady days of the mid-90s Britpop revolution that followed transformed everything further – suddenly I was part of a movement, a real one that was on the news and everything. We thought we were living out the 60s all over again, we felt so important and potent and alive, like one sweating, screaming, pulsating force of nature, unified in our passion for the songs we knew better than our own thoughts. Naming every member of Menswear, Sleeper, Shed Seven and Elastica became a test of character, and high-tailing it to HMV to purchase the limited edition CD of each new release was 100% de rigeur. I have never paid so much undivided attention to music, immersing myself in every breath, every heartbeat. Lying on my bed with my eyes closed I would listen to each album over and over, then call my friends to spend hours debating favourite melodies and phrases. I can still tell if a Britpop record is even slightly out of time, and I totally kill this stuff at karaoke. My first gigs, Blur, Pulp, Oasis, felt semi-religious, all of us bound in communal hysteria, all feeling, knowing that this was something beyond ordinary. Yes, as Pulp themselves said, Something Changed.

As well as music, there were the films and TV. Tarantino was our god and we watched, re-watched, bunked off school to watch, dressed up as the characters, danced around to the soundtracks, covered our school-books with images cut from magazines and endlessly recited quotes in tandem. We were in love with Keanu Reeves and in perpetual mourning for River Phoenix. We became obsessed with Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, and thought we were dead sophisticated for immersing ourselves in the original Cool Britannia by watching old Michael Caine films. On TV it was The X Files, This Life and Friends, everyone bursting to discuss the latest developments the second the credits rolled, lazily imagining our own lives at the geriatric age of 20-something and selecting whose hair-do would suit us best.

Our outfits screamed knock-off 60s chic, a mish-mash of charity-shop finds (suddenly back in fashion) and whatever we could afford from Miss Selfridge from our crap-Saturday-job pay once we’d bought our Hooch and Chardonnay. All of us would pile into the same changing room, throw ourselves down on the ground and try things on for hours, so high on life it’s a wonder we even bothered drinking at all. Life suddenly felt like everything it was supposed to be, holding hands and singing aloud as we stumbled home barefoot in the early hours, sitting around the edge of the bathtub together rinsing our feet while trying not to fall in, and giggling stupidly long after we’d collapsed into our sleeping bags. I had finally found the hive mind I had craved as a child, and it was one of my choosing, one I believed in with all my heart.

Of course things moved on, as they do in life, and just a few years later I found myself looking back, and, to quote Hunter S Thompson, I could see the high watermark, the place where the wave finally broke (If you haven’t seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, do). Nonetheless, it makes complete sense that this is the moment I want to be in right now, the pure feelings of hope and joy whose essence I want to escape into by reimmersing myself in the cultural trappings of that time. I can forget about the in-fighting, the silly rows and endless bitching, and of course the unholy amount of puking, and just remember the beautiful shining glow of a world where (to quote HST again) everything was right, and we were winning. Nostalgia might be nothing more than an empty bubble of perfumed air, but right now I’m happy to keep breathing it in if it helps me deal with the sheer poison of living through the reality of the present.

Isolation, Instinct and Adapting to the Apocalypse

The World Turned Upside Down

Being in isolation has given me plenty of time to think about, well, isolation. What being isolated means in our society, and why we’re finding it so tough and so counterintuitive. When John Donne said ‘No man is an island’ he pretty much hit the nail on the head. Being human is being a pack animal, and we instinctively associate isolation with failure, rejection, and ultimately a lesser chance of survival – ie being the runt of the litter. Socially, there’s no getting away from the tight bond between isolation and punishment. Whether it’s a kid being sent to the naughty corner, or an inmate sentenced to solitary confinement, enforced isolation is synonymous with penance, with breaking the spirit. It means you’ve done something wrong. There are more subtle connections. Not even the most dedicated introvert wants to be Billy No-Mates. When we describe someone as unlikeable, antisocial, or an inadequate joiner, the words are loaded with judgement, with disapproval, with spite. To be different or poorly socialised and therefore isolated from others makes the act of bullying almost acceptable in our society. Whether it’s the playground or the workplace, we are coached to fit in, assimilate, or risk the pain and stigma of isolation. Similarly, the social disapproval (covert or overt depending on your background) that comes with being single tells us that to self-isolate is wrong. Cultural norms are backed up with governments’ fiscal measures favouring married couples and families, and should you dare to go on holiday by yourself, expect to pay a single traveller supplement – there is quite literally a tax on isolation. Punishment indeed.

In the situation we currently find ourselves in, however, isolation comes into its own. You might say that it’s having a moment. Any fan of dystopian fiction knows that in an apocalypse, isolation is your friend. Norms are flipped on their heads as the unthinkable becomes reality. Safe spaces can only be found far from the diseased/zombified/murdering hoards, far from the influx of aliens/vampires/demons that are terrorising the earth. Those left will be the ones who made it out, who got away. And who are these isolators? Conspiracy theorists holed up in makeshift nuclear bunkers filled with guns. Swiss bankers sitting on the remaining Nazi gold who have hollowed out the Alps. Politicians who wave the banner of isolationism, often at great human cost, arguing for self-protection. Religious zealots looking down on worldly living, pained in their moral superiority. All believers in a fearful society, expecting the worst and preparing for one kind of judgement day or another. Oh how we’ve laughed at their morbid paranoia, their survivalist zeal. But could this in fact be their moment, could they all be right? When bad becomes good and the act of isolation, society’s default punishment, becomes the right thing to do both for ourselves and for each other, does it really mean the End Of Days?

Of course, enforced isolation on this scale is not without its own share of unevenly distributed punishments. Introverts, some might say, are also having their moment, staying calm and being productive, while us extroverts gnash our teeth and waste hours on social media trying to recapture some semblance of satisfactory levels of human interaction. Mobility is restricted unevenly, based on geographical location and level of risk, leaving many older people completely alone and afraid. Women are more at risk, both from the threat of domestic violence in a locked-down home and of exposure, as they are less likely to be able to work remotely, holding the majority of high-risk service and care sector jobs. Class and income divisions, always bubbling close to the surface, are thrown damningly under the spotlight as the rich jet off to their second homes while the poor are crammed under one multi-generational roof, heightening the risk of exposure and sickness. Some forms of isolation are indeed less equal than others, but when was punishment ever doled out evenly?

Isolation and punishment, isolation and fear – all of this leaves many of us are wondering right now what exactly it is we have done wrong? How did we fail? Why are we being punished? Is this really Mother Earth sending us to the naughty corner for burning too many fossil fuels or eating too much meat? Or is it just one of those things that happens, and we’re simply indulging in an all-to-human need to find an explanation for? Let’s face it – another down-side of isolation is that it leaves us with way too much time to ponder the mysteries of a life we would otherwise be going about living, hence the impetus to churn this out at all – back in the real world, enforced isolation would be the last thing on my busy little mind. In the meantime, as we sit in isolation contemplating the end of the world, it continues to turn and we continue to adapt, make do and survive, whether we want to or not. That same instinct that would normally encourage us to shun isolation is kicking in and saving us from ourselves, making us live the unliveable, accept the unacceptable, and push on, even though the world has, indeed, turned upside down. Isolation may be a punishment but it is not a death sentence, and we are indeed survivors.

The Corona Rollercoaster

I hate theme parks. Rollercoasters and all that make me puke. The lurching, disjointed motion, having one’s body pitched and jerked and turned upside down is just so not for me. But even more than the physical sickness, what I really hate is the fear. The terror of the uncertainty of what will happen to me in the next unknown moment as well as the sheer panic as it actually happens. No, no thank you. I’ll get my adrenaline rushes over a pint or two and some good conversation. But back to the rollercoasters, that fear, that pure utter terrifying misery of being inescapably strapped into place and having no control over what will happen next, of everything being completely out of one’s control. That’s pretty much how I’m feeling right now.

As with rollercoasters, some people thrive in a crisis. We all know someone who’s rubbing their (sanitised) hands together, smugly aglow at the prospect of witnessing the biggest human disaster for the best part of a century. The people who don’t just pride themselves on being positive, who actively sought out crises back in the Real World just to have something that they ‘simply had to soldier on through’. Bet they all love rollercoasters, but maybe, just maybe, this one may be just too much. They may find themselves as helpless as the rest of us. Me, I thrive on certainty, stability and consistency. Managing a constantly evolving shapeshifting crisis like this without totally losing my shit is a battle to be fought from one minute to the next. The single most reassuring thing is knowing I’m not alone in my abject terror. And the fear, for me, isn’t fear of getting sick or dying – which I know makes me both lucky and possibly arrogant. It’s the fear that the whole world as we knew it, that Real World we lived in, could be gone forever, could be torn down so quickly that we’re feeling nostalgic for the life we were living just a week or two ago. What the hell is going on that we could lose so much so damn fast? That rollercoaster is throwing the human race, all of us, around so hard we may come off the rails and crash into an unknowable abyss from which we may never recover. Of course, it could all be over in a matter of months, and life could be, if not exactly the same, a decent replica of what’s gone before. The not knowing, the minute-to-minute not knowing, is making it hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to even move sometimes. None of us chose to live through this, and having the choices we’re so used to completely taken away is one of the most brutal side-effects of this whole situation. For me right now, any minute that isn’t completely shitty is worth hanging onto. Trying to make those minutes is hard, it’s not always possible, sometimes everything is just too much, it just is. As someone who has always lived a lot in the past, accepting the reality of the present, of living in it and being unable to do shit about it is a huge challenge. It’s being buckled in tight and thrown around against my will. It’s the stuff of dystopian nightmares. But we all know it. We are, at least, all there together.

Having anxiety and depression for once seems if not irrelevant then almost not worth mentioning – survivalists and disaster-mongers aside, I think pretty much everyone is feeling anxious and depressed right now. It’s literally the new normal. Being a massively social person, living between two countries and having my income tied into tourism means that distancing, isolation and travel bans are taking a huge toll on my mental health in a way they may not be for everyone, but others have greater health concerns or family difficulties or businesses at risk. It’s not a competition, it’s a state of zero-sum fucked-up-ness. Thinking back to just last week, the week before, I already miss the mess and muddle I thought was my life, the before to this after, the space where we really were all living our own lives and going about our own business before this universally equalising catastrophe hit with the force of a goddamn meteor and forced us out of our separate realities and into a huge shared rollercoaster that no one can control. We barely have time to mourn our old lives as we readjust daily to an ever-morphing new reality that’s forced itself upon us with breathtaking ferocity. Humanity feels like a giant organism with each of us a single cell, separate but together in this, trying to deal with it in our own way but also as a unit.

All of this may seem laughable with time, when things are much better and I seem histrionic, or so much worse that I reek of naive optimism. Where we are now, being plunged uncontrollably from left to right and just gripping onto each moment as tightly as we can, trying to regain some sense of balance, is a terrifying place to be. We need to (virtually) hold each other tightly as we brace ourselves for the next shock.

The Homegoing That Wasn’t

How living between two cultures left me searching for a place to belong

Home. Surely one of the most evocative, powerful words in any language. Everyone has an idea of what home means to them, be it the home they have, the home they want or the home they’ve been told they should have. The word can bring up sensory memories of days gone by, hopes and dreams of a future yet unwritten or, as in my case, a gaping aching empty hole that has always desperately needed filling. My parents, despite living in the UK for longer than they lived in Sri Lanka, still referred to the island of their youth as ‘home’. The jarring cold, the lack of family, the basic cultural disconnect and relentless racism that imbued our everyday life meaning that although they wished desperately to belong in the Mother Country, that one word could still transport them back to a place and time that were actually theirs, a place and a feeling I tried to imagine, an idea of a soothing warmth and acceptance I had never experienced. Somewhere to just be normal.

At the grand old age of 23, I had never been to Sri Lanka. In fact, I hadn’t been to Asia at all. Having suffered through four years of university with all the white folks around me bleating on about their gap yahs in exotic locations, I felt provincial and unworldly, my brownness somehow tallying up with my backwardness, a lack of location in a culture I supposedly belonged to. Meanwhile my white peers held forth as pseudo-experts on countries they’d visited for a few months, places where they had ‘found themselves’. As if having their own culture farmed out around the world wasn’t enough, they felt they had the right to adopt the culture of us brown people too. All the weed-smoking, bongo-playing, henna-sporting be-dreadlocked idiots preaching about the benefits of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and Buddhism were so ridiculously entitled in their cultural appropriation, yet I had no resources or experiences with which to challenge them. The unsettling feeling that they knew more about my supposed home than I did only added to my sense of dislocation.

When an opportunity finally arose for me to travel east, I jumped at it. Never mind that I had to go by myself, unblessed with those university ‘friends for life’ with whom most folks my age shared their adventures, I was ready to embrace my South Asian heritage and off I went. Young and naive (obviously), I anticipated a joyous discovery of my spiritual home. After over two decades of exclusion, racism, and bigotry, with no cultural landscape to call my own, I couldn’t wait to arrive into a sea of people just like me. The reality was heartbreakingly different, and although the intervening years have modulated much of that jarring first encounter, it will always stay with me as the moment I realised I existed between two worlds but not in either – a ghostly sensation I still retain.

As my plane touched down in Colombo for the first time, it looked exactly as I’d imagined. Arriving from South-East Asia where I had travelled across Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and mostly been treated like any other Western backpacker, I felt acclimatised, overly confident, primed and ready to claim my own little corner of the continent.  The thick, hazy air, tall, dirty palms lilting in the breeze, every building dating back to at least the 1970s and more people and vehicles than could feasibly fit into any allotted space all felt expected and familiar. I’d been navigating similar landscapes for months, and the mix of feeling like a seasoned traveller combined with the sense of returning to my roots created a dangerous combination of assumption and expectation, the kind that comes directly before a fall. Needless to say, 23 year old me went about behaving exactly like myself. That is to say, exactly like someone who grew up in the UK with virtually zero knowledge of Sri Lankan culture, language, or social mores. And of course, everything was wrong. I was stared at and spat at for my clothes (skimpy, it was hot and I was young), called a prostitute for my pink hair (I thought it was cool), was unable to communicate with most people my own age (Singhalese, which my parents never taught me, having replaced English as the national language), and frowned at every time I drank (so, a lot). Ultimately, I found myself too culturally white to be truly brown in as much as I’m too physically brown to be accepted in a white culture.

My family, though more tolerant, found me puzzling at best but more often ridiculous. I had to be taught how to eat with my hands, liked to sunbathe in the garden (‘what do you want to make yourself all black for?’), slept til past noon and heaven forfend I leave the house without a chaperone. My people, it seemed, were not my people at all. You may query my lack of cultural insight, my crass insensitiveness, my blatant ignorance, but these were norms I had simply never encountered, a whole new set of rules to adapt to and behaviours to learn when I had expected to finally arrive somewhere where I could just be myself. The disappointment was crushing. To be rejected in my true form in both the country where I was born and the place of my heritage felt like being branded an international failure, a person with no home, no place to belong. So many second or third-generation immigrants seem to come away from their homegoing experiences filled with a sense of belonging, of their history, their roots. I just felt like a lost child, inadequate, abandoned and helpless.

It wasn’t a lost cause. My beloved late aunt was my beacon of hope, the one person who understood me and took me, quite literally, under her wing. Although she was a strict, fiery Sri Lankan matriarch who would never have let her own daughters dress or drink like me, she was an educated, well-travelled woman who grasped the nature of my situation and loved me fiercely exactly as I was. The world will always be a dimmer place without her. My father’s old friends are also an amazing bunch, full of tall tales of their misspent youth shared over plentiful whisky, without the dreary expectations and strictures that seemed to permeate Sri Lankan culture during its insular civil war years. As they pass away in increasing numbers, I’m filled with so much sadness at the loss of so many special individuals, but also of a generation who retained so much hope and joy and camaraderie.

Things are easier now. Since the war ended and tourism increased, I no longer stand out like the sore thumb I once did. And of course, I am older, a little wiser and better able to modulate my Western excesses, at least in front of those they may offend. The prevailing cultural snobbery against ex-pats still exists, but although I’ll still get ripped off every time I take a tuk-tuk, I no longer get harassed in the street on a regular basis. That said, Sri Lanka still doesn’t feel like home. We may have adapted around each other to reach a set of workable compromises, but we are not entwined as one in the way I imagine ‘home’ would feel like. And although my connection to the UK is stronger now than it ever was, it still isn’t my home either – I’ve suffered far too much prejudice and exclusion to ever feel like I truly belong there. Living in America, the traditional home of the homeless, seems like a good solution but of course it is much too early in my tenure here and probably too late in my life to assert that this, either, is home. If home is the place you belong, the place you are accepted, the place where you are safe and whole, that you crave when you’re gone and kiss the ground when you return to, it seems that I simply do not have one.

February 20th 2020

The Self-Hating South Asian

Everyone is, in my experience, racist. This does, of course, depend on your definition of racism-mine being that everyone harbours assumptions and stereotypes, both consciously and subconsciously, about people from different ethnic backgrounds. Many of these assumptions and prejudices are often true. If they are true, is having them no longer racist? No. Absolutely not. Presuming to know something about a person based purely in their ethnicity without actually knowing it as a fact is racist, whether the thing you purport to know is true or not. Sorry folks, that’s just the way it is.

I have no doubt this applies to most, if not all, POCs, but from my experience, being a South Asian in the UK is to be subjected to a thousand cuts of micro-racism every time you go anywhere or do anything. Some of those snicks come from other South Asians. Some come from your own family. Some you might not even notice. Some you may well commit yourself. The nasty stabs of envy I feel when I see a successful South Asian in the media, the idea that space for us is so limited that they are in a place that might have been mine, the will to know how they circumnavigated the white stranglehold on our cultural industries, those are all racist responses. Successful white writers are so ubiquitous I don’t even notice them.

Once you start to analyse your actions and reactions and those of people around you, having racist feelings, thinking racist thoughts, making racist assumptions can feel overwhelmingly ingrained into the fabric of our lives. That’s because it is. When you try to challenge and unpick every thought or comment that could be considered racist, you may well find you don’t have time for much else. Just think about it. For a minute. Bet your head hurts. Mine certainly does.

Right-wing commentators don’t like their heads hurting, so they coined the phrase ‘playing the race card’ to describe the attempts of POCs to call out instances where prejudice and racism have negatively affected our lives, claiming that we’re nothing but snivelling, whining and inept, held back by nothing more sinister than our own personal inadequacies. Sometimes, even among our own, the same thing is said – particularly among the older generation. Ah, if so-and-so can make it, then obviously you didn’t fail because society is prejudiced, obviously you failed because you weren’t good enough, because you did something wrong. When those closest to you are disbelieving you, questioning your competence and telling you that you have a chip on your shoulder, well, that’s going to give you a bloody chip on your shoulder if there wasn’t one there already, which, let’s face it, there probably was. And who do you believe – the voice in your head that tells you you’ve been wronged or the voices around you telling you you’re over-sensitive or unlucky? Always being told that you’re wrong when you know that you’re right, being told the facts staring you in the face are a figment of your imagination, that black is, quite literally, white – well, it can make you feel like you’re losing your fucking mind.

Society is racist. We are all racist. But we refuse to call a spade a spade because it’s too messy, too inconvenient, too much bloody work, and because those at the top, those who perpetuate the system because they win from it, do not want to give up their advantage, and we are too busy hating ourselves, turning in on ourselves to fight them. As a South Asian, I was always told to keep my head down, not rock the boat, tolerate the slights, the digs, the unfair disadvantages. To prove my worth by working twice as hard to achieve half as much, to lean into the system and break down prejudice by wowing white folks with my general brilliance, dazzling them with my talent, and, to re-use a phrase I have used before, to be the proverbial dog playing the piano. You don’t want to be the whinger, you don’t want to be the one who ‘cries racism’, because if you were really good enough you wouldn’t need to, would you?

But what if you’re not brilliant, as I certainly am not. Then what? What if you’re good enough but not exceptional, hard-working but not lucky. What if you have a name white people can’t pronounce and your CV gets chucked in the bin before it’s even been read. What if you did everything right, tried your best, worked your hardest but just had the wrong bloody face? What if, after all of that pain and disappointment, no one even believes that it wasn’t your fault. Carrying around the enormous burden of this constant external and internal denial of the fundamental biases in our culture feels like Promethean curse. At times, I don’t know how much more I can take. Plenty of white people succeed at life who are far from exceptional (just look at our current political elite), but there’s only room at the top for the best and the brightest brown folks. It’s a cruel, brutal catch-22 that inevitably ends in a swirling avalanche of self-hate.

Because of course, over time, those external voices become internalised. Because if everyone else is saying it, it must be true. And then, not only are you a failure, you’re a delusional failure with a chip on your shoulder. You hate yourself for failing. You hate yourself for being delusional. You hate yourself because part of you knows you’re not delusional. You hate yourself because no one will take you seriously. You hate yourself because you sound self-pitying and whiny. You hate yourself if you call prejudice out, you hate yourself if you don’t. You hate yourself because you cannot change the world, you cannot break the system and you cannot change your sad brown little self, so you hate yourself instead, because what else is there left to do?

February 2020