Run as far and as long as it took to protect myself and my family.
When Trump promoted the hate of the far right group Britain First, and my own Prime Minister responded weakly, she made me feel scared. Unsafe. She made me feel unprotected from those who would do me harm and who didn’t recognise my right to exist.
I am a child of British colonialism. My mother is Irish, an economic migrant. My biological father Iranian, a foreign Naval officer trained by the British military for their own purposes.
If Britain First had their racially pure way, I would not even have been possible. Never mind my marriage to an Israeli Jew and my child of the world, my wonderful daughter.
So yesterday I panicked. I spent a long evening curled on the sofa, a deer in headlights shedding fast tears while my husband who has severe depression, tried to cheer ME up. It worked enough to bring me precious sleep until 4am when my mind awoke just enough to let the fear creep in again. So I decided to write it out.
I’ve always felt different in my own nation. The place I was supposed to belong was constantly questioned. “But WHERE are you from?” was a necessary question to be settled to people’s satisfaction upon meeting me. My Irish-ness wasn’t the thing that gave me away. It was always my Iranian-ness that called my status into doubt. My skin colour. Not my accent, not my cultural difference. Just the darkness of my skin compared to others. Occasionally out of frustration I would make people guess.
They would never guess right. The only people that ever did were Iranian themselves. Even my features influenced by my Irish genes wasn’t enough to trick their highly attuned Iran-dar.
That my fellow Brits could judge me and find me lacking because of something so basic to my being is tough to take. But it became so ordinary, so normal that I couldn’t even separate it out from who I was. I’d laugh along with my doubters and make jokes about being a double terrorist whammy. “AND I’m from Brixton!” I’d add just for the extra nervous giggle. A joke at my own expense, especially because I actually grew up in the neighbouring Camberwell. But to anyone who lived outside southeast London, it was all one big mystical ghetto.
But the jokes and the questions did their damage and shook my sense of rootedness, made me feel like an exotic plant in the wrong kind of soil. Eventually that feeling drove me to seek out a wider sense of belonging. It taught me the superficiality of the bonds of the national tribe. It gave me the clarity of being on the outside looking in and gifted me an awareness of the dangers of hitching your wagon to one culture or identity. My empathy for others blossomed.
When I got cancer I could have raged at the injustice of it. But I didn’t, not for long anyway. I think that’s partly because I never felt entitled to justice. Racism had prepared me for that. It laid the first bricks of an unfeeling universe as a porous foundation to build my identity on. Cancer found an open doorway to walk into my life. It didn’t care if I was a kind person or a mean person. It didn’t care what I had suffered or if I’d inflicted suffering. Cancer, like racism, didn’t care if I was loved. Or who I am.
Ultimately the universe doesn’t give a shit about any of us and we will all suffer, rage, love and die. Our pain and our existence will go mostly unknown and unheard. It’s an unimaginably hurtful thing to face when you’re the main character in your own story.
I have tried to transform both things into strengths, into ways to empathise with others. But it’s never guaranteed that these kinds of life experiences always end in resilience and empathy. I was lucky.
When I was facing death from cancer, when I consciously stare death in the face now. In a dark room at 4am, when you’re alone and a threat feels existential. When there’s no comfort. The touch of one human to another is all there is. One human voice, singing or speaking when you have little strength to summon your own sounds to fill the void. When I let the unfeeling, uncaring universe into my awareness, I hunt for love. I seek it out and it brings comfort and focus. Because actually that’s the only thing that holds any meaning. When you’re stripped of all your skills, when you’re laid bare of all the parts of yourself. When you’re a body, just flesh in this world without respect for your struggles, in a universe that doesn’t care about your pain.
I think the people who would do me harm suffer from that same existential terror. Everyone on this planet is walking around holding that awareness of a unjust universe in their guts. For some, it’s a tickling darkness at the edge of their vision. For others, a vortex of chaos inside their very being.
We all feel it.
Sometimes it produces hatred and anger and rage. Sometimes the urge to hit out at anyone who comes close, anyone in the immediate vicinity. Or shut down, protect, keep insulated. Some have been swallowed whole by despondency and despair. I feel those things too and last night I wanted to run as far away as possible. To drag up those ill-fitting roots and plant them anew in more hospitable soil.
So I used that mental trick to cope with racism, with cancer, with death. I remember back to the stripping down, the physicality of flesh and the absence of identity. The trick to finding meaning and purpose in an uncaring world is to deeply feel, to exquisitely care.
Until the darkness does finally come for me. When division, hate, fear and belonging all fall away.
Until then I must hang tight to love, care both for self and others. Neither racism, nor cancer will strip me of that.