Two summers ago, just after my 19th birthday, I said no to my family for the first time and cut them off forever.
Prior to settling in the suburbs of East Anglia, my family – my parents and I – had moved around India, Saudi Arabia and the UK. By the time we had permanently moved into Essex, I was enrolled at my local grammar school, at which I had three friends of colour from the ages of 11 to 18. I endured enough racism from students and teachers to fill multiple books. But I think that is a fundamental experience for all students of colour, especially those growing up in the white countryside. At that time, I was aware of my race and of the existence of racism but did not have the words to describe or understand racism in its true sense. The micro and macroaggressions went over my head. But as I grew older I began to get the feeling there was something different about my experience.
When I spent time with my white friends and their families I noticed that they spoke to each other. It was very strange. Whether in their houses, over the phone, or in the car, I noticed that my white friends would talk to their parents and vice versa – about small things, such as needing lifts, and big things, such as their feelings. It shocked me that these conversations were reciprocal, and so ordinary. One would say something and the other seemed to listen and respond appropriately.
One of the most surreal experiences I ever had as a teenager was to watch my friend ask her dad if she could change the channel that he had chosen on the radio while driving home from school one afternoon. I remember listening with surprise as he said “yes”, and she then proceeded to move through the different channels for what felt like an eternity. Every time she moved through a station and onto the next, my confusion turned a little bit more into terror. Wasn’t he going to shout at her? She had dared to not only speak to him, but to challenge his choice, change the channel and take her time choosing it too. Nothing happened. I put this down to the idiosyncrasies of white people. I had grown up watching white people eat plain boiled carrots and wear their shoes inside their houses. I figured this was another strange habit – for children to be rude enough to question their parents.
This observation repeated itself many times. My white friends went on family holidays and out for dinner with their parents. My white friends ate dinner with their parents at home, all neat around a table. My white friends celebrated birthdays and holidays with their parents. My white friends saw each other’s parents at events. My white friends interacted with their parents on purpose, even when they didn’t absolutely need to. I hid from my parents as much as I could. I moved around my house as quietly as I could and spoke as little as I could because my house was a house of mirrors in which anything I said or did, no matter how small – an accidentally loud footstep, being in the wrong corridor, or a spoon in the wrong drawer – could be distorted, taken out of my control and twisted into a reason for violence. My parents lived together but did not speak to each other, and ignored me for months at a time unless I was needed as an “emotional punching bag”, as my mother described me. This is just a small facet of the abuse I survived as a child at home.
I did not know then that it was abuse. No child does. Abuse works partly because the abuser is able to groom their victim and society around them. It might sound nonsensical that I was able to deny my own reality and assume that love between parent and child was a frivolous white trait. But my parents consistently told me that the way things were was the Asian way, and to fight it was to deny my heritage and choose whiteness. Missing Calcutta, and still considering myself Indian, this prospect was my worst fear. I realise now that this was a subtle but common method of threat and indoctrination used by abusers. I had only one other Asian friend for reference as to how families that looked like mine functioned, and I thought she was the strange one, when she laughed with her mum and had back and forth conversations with her. And white people were always treating me like I was savage anyway. I believed everything white supremacy fed me, about brown people being backwards, emotionally stunted people who marry their daughters off at the age of 13 and aren’t really human. So I came to adopt that strongest of coping mechanisms: denial.
Coming to university was a wake up call. I had chosen my course partly because I knew I would be surrounded by brown people for a long time. I spent my first Diwali at university (and my first in years) at a friend’s. I was shocked. She teased her parents, disagreed with her parents, asserted herself to her parents, laughed with her parents, without any hint of punishment. I started to piece the lies together. I started to grieve, in fragments. I know now that none of the families I observed over the years, white or brown, will have been happy, functional families. But at the time, I thought that what I had been denied this whole time, the reason for my pain and difficulties, was this idealistic family where everyone loved and supported each other. And at the time, I thought the problem lay with me and that this happy family was still in my grasp if I could just do better.
I did not want to be disrespectful. I did not want to be white. I did not want to be an angry person. I was raised to believe as a woman of colour that I was both too feminine for anger, and too hypermasculine to command anger without emphasising my lack of femininity, my aberrant darkness and hairiness. Anger was for men, and white women, and people bigger and better than me. I was raised to believe as a woman of colour that anger was something done to me, a privilege that others held, but never a birthright afforded to me. So I stayed. I phoned. I went home for every holiday, albeit as little as I could. I doubled down on my silence and my fear, more submissive and receptive to every act of violence than I had ever been, hoping that if I could absorb enough of my parents’ anger, one day there wouldn’t be any left anymore and they could be happy with me instead. My submissiveness was even lauded, by some people who knew as little as I did, as obedience and respect for my parents. I continued to avoid living my truth because it posed a great risk – one of change, and of questioning everything I knew.
I had grieved many times before, but it was always grief turned inwards, expressed as self-hatred. For the first time in August, towards the end of my first year at university, my grief was externalised. I started to grieve for this idealistic family I did not have and would likely never have. And at my most powerful, this grief sublimated into anger. For the first time, I allowed myself to listen to what I needed. The voice came from my stomach. It was my truth speaking to me. I did not want to heed it. I hated it. I had spent most of my life going to great lengths to belittle it. Listening to it was the most terrifying and the most powerful thing I have ever done.
It is now one and a half years since I have spoken to my family. In fact I do not consider myself to have a family. Until recently I have always considered this to be an untethered, traumatic place of limbo. Because my parents would not speak to me, I lost my mother tongue. I grew up fluent in Hindi, Tamil, and Bengali. Now I understand Hindi and Tamil but when I want to speak I don’t know how. I can feel those tongue stumps trying to shape my soul’s words but they flop around like dying fish. Sometimes I still dream in Hindi but I cannot understand what I am saying. White people at school would incessantly ask me about my languages. As I got older I didn’t know how to say I can’t speak anymore because my parents don’t talk to me. Losing these tongues has been one of the most embarrassing and painful experiences of my life. The ability to communicate and the right to be heard is fundamental to wellbeing.
I feel uncomfortable around my predominantly white friends from my home these days – because I don’t know how much they know about the abuse, or about how much race affects me, when this lonely intersection between abuse and race will never affect them. On the other end of the spectrum, I always feel like a fraud when I am around people of colour, especially brown people, because I do not know the language or the food or the music or the celebrations of either the Indian or the diasporic experience anymore, having raised myself in the white countryside. Talking about abusive parents of colour is a catch 22 because either white people (especially white mental health professionals) take it as gleeful proof of the savagery of people of colour, or people of colour pretend it doesn’t exist at all, sweeping it under the rug of obedience instead.
White people inevitably always ask me about where my family and I are from as way of small talk, because not-white is the only thing they can think of when they see me. People of colour inevitably always ask me about where my family and I are from because it is a way of survival and connection. No matter what answer I give it’s an awkward affair. I actually don’t really know where I’m from, in a factual sense. I know that I lived in many places within India, the UK and Saudi Arabia. Because my parents didn’t speak to me, I don’t know where I stayed, or when, or for how long, or even why. I have glazed memories and some film photographs to go by. My understanding of my own history is blurry.
I think partly because of the dismemberment that colonialism and racism have enacted against people of colour in the diaspora, at a geographic, somatic and psychological level, we have very strong senses of community and family. Where do I belong when I have no family? Where can I come from if I have no home? For these one and a half years I tried to answer these painful questions by forming bonds with people who were not right for me and thus continuing to suppress more of my truth. Too brown for white queer circles, too queer for brown circles, always too something or not enough for someone. For these one and a half years I have been vacillating between grief and anger, both turned inwards and resulting in self-destruction.
Last year, as Christmas rolled around, I was nervous. Christmas is always a triggering time of the year related to many traumas, including the painful neglect of my parents. I planned nice things for myself on each day in the week before Christmas and especially on the day. I am prone to long depressive episodes and fully expected that I would enter another one this month, based on past history. But this Christmas day I woke up and I didn’t feel pain or heaviness in my stomach. I didn’t feel the absence of a family stabbing at me. Instead, I felt pride. I got out of bed. I made myself cereal. I fed my cat and petted him. I watered my plants and inspected their new leaves. I made art and sewed some cushions. I looked around at my little flat and the life I have carved out for myself, against all these odds and without these things considered so fundamental – a family, a community, a home to go to. Over the two years since I left my home for university, I have learnt to speak my truth and thus made myself my own home, wherever I go. I have learnt to listen to and honour that voice within my stomach rather than quash it for hope of something that is not actually realistic or common. I have learnt that although my pain originally arose from being denied a family, it is compounded every time I seek something to fix that unsolvable problem from the past, instead of accepting my reality in the present.
Upon reflection, as much as belonging in a community is integral to being a person of colour in the diaspora, so is the heritage of displacement. When I think about my heritage and my origin as being one of continued resistance to and survival against forces of fragmentation, racism and colonialism, I feel strengthened. I feel connected to myself. Queer people have historically always created their own families and communities when faced with rejection for living authentically, queer people of colour even more so. When I think of it this way, in my little flat, and think of this truth carrying me through all the transience of the future – amidst all the ups, downs, new little flats, and new terrains – I feel settled. As long as I am speaking my truth, as long as I am surviving and as long as I am there for myself I will truly be home.