The British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ and the Colonisation of Emotion

I’m a very ‘emotional’ person. At least, that’s what I’ve always been told. And living in the UK, we’re conditioned to believe that being ‘emotional’ is a bad thing. When have you ever heard anyone being described as ‘emotional’ in a positive way? The word is chock-full of judgement, disdain and even disgust. Expressing, or even admitting to feeling emotions is a weakness, a fault, something to be ashamed of. Emotions are as much a part of the human experience as eating and breathing – every action we take or that is taken around us inspires a response in our brains, so why is shutting that response down prized as the sign of a good person, a strong character, someone better, more acceptable than those of us who engage with the reality of our experiences? This is, to me, a white-British cultural stranglehold on emotional expression, and extension of colonialism that goes right into our heads and tells us how to feel and how to express those feelings in order to gain approval in white British society. It’s the emotional equivalent of doctoring our names for the English tongue (which I’ve already covered extensively).

It’s been exhausting living in a society that expects you to adjust your expressions of sadness and anger to make them acceptable and palatable to others, especially when you’ve been raised in a family where crying when you’re sad and shouting when you’re angry are normal. Bursting into tears in public, even among friends, can result in awkwardness, disapproval and even mockery, but why shouldn’t you cry when you’re in pain? And heaven forfend that you shout and call someone out if they do something bad to you. No, you’re supposed to seethe calmly and do something nasty and backhanded later – this is the behaviour the Empire was built on! Rather than being able to actually prioritise your own feelings and look after yourself and be looked after on your own terms to meet your own needs you are forced to conform to the dominant stereotype of what is and is not a socially acceptable form of behaviour. If you don’t do this, you risk being criticised, ostracised, belittled, demeaned and even accused of madness. Being told that ‘there’s no need for that’ or ‘you should just get over it’ is cultural bullying-no more, no less. It is nobody’s business to dictate the validity of anyone else’s emotional expression. Unfortunately, the outdated concept of the ‘emotional foreigner’, that staple of TV sitcom humour, is alive and well. Just because most folks are PC enough not to voice it in these terms these days, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. The idea of the English ‘stiff upper lip’ as being superior to ‘childish, foreign’ displays of emotion is aggressive, condescending bigotry. It is also extremely unhealthy as the pressure of enforced emotional silence can lead to self-harm and suicide. We’re all on board with the fact that calling women ‘emotional’ is straight-up sexist, so why is it still okay to push outdated colonial motifs of emotional gagging as the desired way to respond to difficult situations? Could it be because, frankly, our white middle-class elite just don’t want to know about other people’s problems cos they’re just too damn selfish to get involved? I think it might.

Ahhh, the Western fetishisation of ‘not getting involved’. If someone is crying, walk away – they might be crazy, or even if they’re not, why trouble yourself with their problems? Oh, and give them a filthy look so that they’ll be ashamed of daring to show their pain in public. That’s the way to do it. When have you ever heard a South Asian auntie (or uncle) say they weren’t going to get involved, or it isn’t any of their business?! South Asian culture is built on getting involved – yes, sometimes a little too much (‘do you want me to find a nice husband for you?!’), but it is what it is, and the idea that those behaviours and responses are wrong and need changing is something that white people have grilled into us. Oh, confrontations are bad, loyalty is bad, taking a side (that’s not your own) is bad. Having a fucking opinion is bad. We should all be glacial vanilla anodyne acolytes. Especially if you’re a women. Especially if you have brown skin. Cos no one wants to be the Angry Brown Woman do they? Look how ridiculous they look next to the nice Silent White Women? Making a fool of themselves shouting and drawing attention. This is why we’re better than them. This is why they can’t be trusted. Not one of us, you see. This ideology of silent tolerance is yet another othering stick to beat us with, another tool of cultural oppression. It has also created a culture of uncertainty, never knowing if someone really likes you, not being able to trust people because no one is expressing themselves honestly, and feeling isolated because our friendships aren’t really that close. Loneliness is pervasive because no one wants to look needy or risk the judgement that comes with asking for help, and betrayal and backstabbing are the routine responses to dislike or disapproval. What a nice world that stiff upper lip has created.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that East is better than West – anyone who’s had elder South Asian friends or family get all up in their business knows just how frustrating and suffocating that can be. It’s the assumed, inherent superiority of what is undeniably a profoundly unhealthy way of responding to emotions, and the way that this entrenches existing forms of cultural suppression that needs to change. Being described as ‘emotional’ should not be an insult. To acknowledge having feelings and to express them as they are should not be looked down on. I want to take a punch at that stiff upper lip and wipe the smirk right off it cos there is no Empire anymore.

January 2020

Got My Name Changed Back

January 2020

So, I’m starting with a cheeky nod to the fabulous Pistol Annies because even though this has been psychologically tougher than it should have been, I want it to be ultimately empowering, like the good ladies sing. This year I’m entering my fourth decade and really want to leave behind as much of the detritus I’ve collected up over the last 40 years as possible. Seriously, my list of new years resolutions is longer than The Irishman. Top of the pile is to finally shed a particularly ugly diminutive of my given name that has followed me around since childhood, chosen by my parents and co-opted by anyone and everyone who came into contact with me from the age of zero to 27.

You might think that asking folks to call you by your given name isn’t a big deal, but when that name is an unpronounceable counterintuitive mess that even most of my fellow Sri Lankans struggle with, the situation is a little bit different. Growing up in the racist, cultureless black hole that was Swindon in the 1980s, having a name like that only added to my awkward visibility, so reducing it to a simple one-syllable moniker that even ignorant North Wiltshire folk could spell may not sound like the worst idea. Ah, but there is the rub. This particularly ungainly non-word was most notable for its ability to rhyme with a substantial array of playground insults that progressed to teenage slurs then graduated to student pseudo-jests. Giving a child a name that rhymes with poo is literally the cruellest thing parents can do – Life Of Pi’s Piscine Patel got off bloody lightly in comparison. Surely, you say, adults wouldn’t sink to such base depths, especially not in London? Try being regularly greeted by a chorus of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport and having to pretend to laugh along with everyone else so that you’re not one of those humourless Asians. Yeah. That.

So, when the choice is between being a good sport, a team player, and giving white people a name they can pronounce even though it stuck in my miserable throat, or being one of those difficult Asians who makes everyone else’s life harder by insisting on sticking to their weird multi-syllable name, I’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place my whole life. Back in the 80s and 90s the onus was very much on us as immigrants to fit in. Teachers did not consider it their responsibility to learn the correct way to say my name and brutalised it with impunity and without apology. Of course, they didn’t bother halting the poo taunts either. That was just how things were if you had brown skin. By the time I went to university, I had it so ingrained in me to put up with being called my gross diminutive that even though I cringed every time I said it I never had the guts to challenge the supremacy of the English idiom. One thing I did learn at university is that having such a ridiculously infantalising name meant that no one took me seriously. Thus, when I (eventually) entered the workplace, I girded myself up and insisted, come hell or high water, that people call me by my full name. It’s both boring and exhausting having to constantly correct people’s pronunciation, but by the late 2000s even the doddery upper-class white men I worked for were aware that they had to at least try. Political correctness, innit.

Progress, you may think, but nothing in life is that simple. Unfortunately my friends from university as well as my family dug their heels. They didn’t want to change. It was too hard. How could they possibly be expected to remember? Did I really have a right to make this imposition on them? Couldn’t I just leave things as they were? Seriously, that’s how low my own comfort with my own name has been valued. And yes, like the nice compliant (read defeated) soul I was I said yes, fine. Cos I didn’t want to be one of those Asians. Fortunately, I’ve left most of those people behind now, but that nasty little name has hung around like, yes, you guessed it, you-know-what on a wall. Years have passed, and while I’ve kept my head (and my real name) up at work, my social circle has become so mixed that even new friends end up defaulting to that ghastly diminutive as they hear it from older friends. It feels like an inescapable backwards spiral pushing me down into being a person I don’t want to be. Yeah, my given name sucks but at least it has some weight to it, and at least hearing it doesn’t send me ricocheting into PTSD from years of bullying and torment (of which my name was just one part, I’m sure we’ll get to the rest another time).

2020 is going to be the year I put this sorry mess to bed. It’s the year I’m going to risk stirring up disapproval and become one of those Asians. Yesterday I sent out a missive to my nearest and dearest issuing a polite but firm request that that horrorshow of a name be retired for good. I’ve even made up a snappy new moniker for those who really can’t get their tongue around my given name. So far responses have been pretty positive, but it’s early days and I’m dreading the inevitable stand-off with head-in-the-sand elders, but in taking back my name I’m trying to take back a piece of my identity that I’ve had no say over until now and define it rather than it defining me.

So there you go. I got my name changed back.

Dirty John and Domestic Abuse

A domestic abuse survivor on why the show’s realism matters

NB – Contains spoilers

Watching Dirty John is hard. It’s scary and jarring and utterly disconcerting in the way it prods at thoughts and feelings I had almost forgotten about. The show is by far the most realistic televised depiction of the exact type of intelligent, strategic emotional and psychological abuse, which inevitably degenerated into physical abuse, I experienced over a five year relationship. The pinpoint accuracy of the process of love-bombing, the exuberant charm, perfectly pitched flattery, caution-to-the-wind head-over-heels emotional intensity that feels like everything you’ve ever dreamed of but never dared hope would come true, all laced with a cleverly subtle vulnerability to make you feel so needed and so special. It’s sociopathy as an art form. Eric Bana as John perfectly masters the tiny facial shifts that become increasingly familiar as you watch helplessly as the sociopath morphs from one incarnation of himself to another: the tragic, jilted ex husband, the bashfully-in-love charmer, the humbly over-achieving professional, none of which are real of course, but all of whom draw you into a web of lies that you ultimately become so unwillingly complicit in propping up that locating a single strand of truth becomes virtually impossible.

If this sounds far-fetched, one of the greatest strengths of the show is the way it breaks down this process for those who have been lucky enough not to experience these toxic people in their lives, without diminishing the intensity or severity of the con or degrading or ridiculing the victim. Connie Britton’s Deborah is a beautiful, successful woman-a self-made millionaire and loving single mother who is simply looking for love. She is smart, savvy and in control of every other aspect of her life, but her heart yearns for the completion of a life partner and the joy of a loving relationship. Like so many of us she is lonely, and that loneliness creates a vulnerability that allows Bana’s smooth-operating con artist to walk into her life pitching his stream of carefully calibrated lies and deceptions that make her believe she has finally found her white knight.

Of course, this is the easiest part of the story to understand-any human with a soul can see how easy it is to fall in love with the idea of a person that they have successfully peddled to you-a love created under false pretences. The challenge comes when Deborah discovers John’s secrets and begins to unpick the truth about his extremely unpleasant past and the con that she has been fed. Why does she stay? What could possibly possess her to remain with someone who has not only lied to her consistently about every single aspect of his life, but has a proven history of violence, sociopathy and drug addiction? How can she justify going back to him when her family, friends and law enforcement are all telling her to get as far away from him as possible? This is where the show really comes into its own. We see Deborah not as pathetic but as sympathetic. She believed in this man, in this love, with all her heart. She wants and needs it to be true because she has framed this narrative and taken it on as her own. He may have created the story, but he has sold it to her so effectively that she now completely believes in it, and to give up on it, to give up on him, would mean giving up on her own story-the story she wants for herself and her life. It would mean admitting she’d been conned, but more than that, she is terrified that nothing else will ever be as good, as fulfilling, as perfect as the story she’s been told. As Deborah uncovers the truth and confronts John, he throws himself on her mercy, lacing the facts she has with more lies to diminish his responsibility and throw doubt over reality. He also manipulated the power balance in the relationship so successfully that Deborah begins to feel in control. She feels strengthened by John’s pseudo-confession and the power it ostensibly offers her to accept or reject him. The sense of self she attains from taking on the role of his saviour is, if anything, at least as intoxicating as the initial process of love-bombing, and the scene where we see her nursing him through his cold-turkey withdrawal, taking charge of the situation and making herself indispensable to him is so real and recognisable to anyone who has been in this position: you feel that leaving someone you love when they are so vulnerable would be cruel and unfair, and you don’t even want to leave because you believe you are curing them, and that they will be a better person because of you and for you. At this point you are so hooked you are almost like an addict yourself.

We, the audience, are painfully aware that John is continuing to lie and manipulate Deborah, as well as continuing to use drugs, and any of us who have been through this know, this is just the start of the process. How many times you go around the Ferris wheel before you realise that nothing will ever change may vary, but the turning of the wheel remains the same. The lies, tricks and traps that are laid out for you, the subtle process of separating you from friends and family, expertly executed by John as he uses online stalking and intimidation to attack Deborah’s children as they try to guide her out of the relationship. It is easy to understand how and why friends and loved ones may end up distancing themselves from such a patently toxic person, for fear of being damaged by their behaviour as much as frustration with the victim’s perceived complicity. The very nature of that complicity does, in fact, make the victim more vulnerable and in need of help, but of course the cycle of lies, abuse and pushing other people away means they become increasingly less likely to receive it. Once the trap is set, breaking out of it becomes more and more impossible as you have fewer and fewer external resources to rely on, and ultimately more and more to lose in terms of self-respect and sanity. Taking the huge step of admitting that you are being conned and abused requires extraordinary levels of strength and courage, something that is often overlooked by people who have not been in this position, and Dirty John’s acknowledgement of this difficult reality is another of its huge strengths.

The complex role of family complicity in domestic abuse is also very well-handled in Dirty John, albeit in a bit of a Hollywood-ised fashion. We see Deborah’s very religious mother Arlane as a source of both strength and weakness to her daughter. While Deborah and Arlane have a close relationship, Deborah’s need for Arlane’s approval can cloud her judgement, and Arlane’s particular interpretation of Christianity, which has enabled her to publicly forgive and exhonerate her son-in-law for shooting and killing Deborah’s sister does not exactly provide Deborah with a strong moral compass to look to when dealing with abusive men. When you are in an abusive relationship and you go to friends and family for support and guidance, when they tell you to stay with your partner because they love you, because you shouldn’t be alone, because they like them or because you made a vow when you married they are letting you down-full stop, end of story. Whatever their motivation, be it illogical optimism, wilful ignorance, misplaced loyalty or sheer laziness, they are still letting you down. As we see how Deborah’s family history helps to enable John’s position it is striking to note the difference between Arlane’s response to the relationship and that of Deborah’s children who see right through John very early on. This difference in generational perspective is encouraging to me, and I’d like to think it’s an indicator that the bad old days of the older generation believing that any relationship is better than no relationship, especially for a woman of a certain age, are coming to a close. It can be very difficult to ask for help when you’re in an abusive relationship, and once you’ve built up the courage to go to someone, being told to be grateful for what you have cos you probably won’t do any better is a huge blow that can set you back months or even years. Your friend or family member is basically doing your abuser’s job for them.

One of the most striking things about Dirty John is the realism in the little details. The show is loosely based on real events as covered by the LA Times, and the writers exhibit exactly the correct balance of delicacy and perception required when presenting such harrowing events for those involved and anyone with similar experiences. When we see Deborah starry-eyed with love, and John slowly testing out his powers of metering it out, feeding her attention and affection until she becomes as hooked as if she’d eaten the fruit at Goblin Market, it is agonisingly familiar. When we see him flexing his emotional muscles, forcing her to take his side against her daughters for fear of the withdrawal of that love, there’s a painful stab of memory of your own version of that situation. When Deborah misses him so much that she goes back to him by choice, even though she knows about his violent, criminal history and lies about it to her children we’re squirming as we remember the untruths we had to tell to cover up our weakness and shame. While part of the watching process is cathartic, another part is agonising-raking up feelings of helplessness, horror and fear. Watching won’t sooth your PTSD but it will make you feel less alone, less stupid, less like a victim and more like a survivor. And for those who are fortunate enough never to have been in this situation, it will help you to see survivors as they really are-strong, courageous and ultimately ordinary. Dirty John is a cautionary tale, but it’s a tale that could happen to anyone. Whether you’re a Newport Beach millionaire or a London office worker, you can end up looking for love in the wrong place. If this show helps one person spot an abuser before they get their hooks in, or one friend help another out of this situation it has more than served its purpose-making a real, horrible human situation recognisable and understandable.

December 2019

The Greying Of Colour

What a Tory government really means to POCs and all minorities

Everything was grey. The weather, sludgy wet mist that never seemed to lift, a constant cold damp nudging a constant runny nose. The buildings, hideous concrete slabs designed to be built on the cheap rather than please the eye. And the politicians, every time you turned on the telly, there was another palid grey wrinkled face in the same shiny grey suit spouting the same dry grey words with the same empty grey meaning that nothing was ever going to change for the likes of me and mine.

If you’re too young to remember the 80s and early 90s, you’re lucky. If you’re a person of colour, you’re not just lucky, you’re blessed. The cultural watershed that began in the mid-90s and crescendoed with the election of the first Labour government of my lifetime in 1997 was lifechanging to anyone who wasn’t white. Slowly at first, and then sharply, jubilantly, the world grew into colour. After the hopeless inevitability of prejudice, difference, othering and often blatant abuse condoned by nearly two decades of Tory leadership came the glimmer of possibility, the change in perception that at last, finally, people of colour didn’t have to be afraid anymore. We were no longer expected to walk with our heads bowed, not daring to look strangers in the eye, knowing that being too visible, too forward, could draw unwanted attention, aggression, violence.

Enduring a childhood of being called Paki, blackie, curry-muncher, darkie (among the milder insults I received), not to mention the constant ridicule of my name and constant comparison of my skin colour to either chocolate or excrement, all of which was not just accepted but positively encouraged by a Tory government, I was, not unreasonably, crying with joy when the Labour landslide came in. And when Labour brought in legislation making hate speech a crime, my life changed completely. I could walk with my head held high knowing that anyone who thought it was acceptable to use racially defamatory language against me would end up in a police cell. That, my friends, is empowerment. Having the law on your side to protect you, really protect you against both verbal and physical bigotry, against hating yourself because hate towards you has been so normalised. If, as people of colour, we want to continue to exist in our society free from fear, free from hate, we need the protection that only a Labour government will offer us. Those grey-faced bilious rich white men are back, calling us pickaninnies and letter-boxes, publicly shaming us for existing as ourselves just like they did in the 1980s. Blink and we’ll be told once again that there’s no such thing as society. I for one don’t want to go back knowing my place, or even pretending to. I don’t want to wait out another storm of conservative hatred, watching emboldened gammon-faced thugs jeer at minority groups in the street, mock us for our dress, our voices, our names, our faces, our culture, our language, our very existence. I don’t want another generation of young people of colour growing up afraid, mired in self-hate, not understanding what they did wrong to be hit in the face over and over by a lack of acceptance from a society they want to call their own.

The Labour Party is not perfect. Like so many other hopefully folks of my generation, I got a rude awakening when Labour slapped tuition fees onto my degree, took us into an illegal and unjustifiable war in Iraq and broke our trust in innumerable other ways. I swore I would never vote Labour again. And for a long time I didn’t. But three years ago everything changed and in a single, tragic, night, all the bigots who have been hiding in the woodwork for the last 20 years have dusted off their St George flags and really believe they can take control of our country again. I can’t bear to see the pendulum swing back the other way, knowing how long we waited, how hard we fought, and how much there is to lose. Keeping this vilely regressive incarnation of the Conservative Party out of office is the only way to safeguard minority rights, as well as our NHS, social and public services, and the principles of equality and justice for all. I’m praying we don’t end up back in that grey hell I’m honestly still recovering from.