Offense.

Offended, offensive.

Being offended or giving offense is not just about words and racist slurs. It is about much more than that and it is often non-verbal, implied and impossible to describe. It is the sly glance, the wink to a friend, the smile or grimace as a conversation or situation unfolds. It is the moving away, the not paying attention, and just waiting for you to stop speaking, so that they can say what they want to. Offense is the stoppering of ears, the refusal to listen as you try to say, “this is real, this is going on, this is what the situation is.” Often, that hurts more than the casually flung “cunt” or “Paki” comment, because those are from people who you can try and push away and ignore as ignorant and nasty.

Often it is easy to turn the situation around and blame the offended party as imagining it, of being thin-skinned and not taking it in the nature in which it was said.

I suppose for me the worst offenses are three-fold. Racial, sexual and in this I include gender, and ability or disability based. And often, these three intersect, layered one upon another.

White-explaining, silencing, suggesting it might be best to not say something even though you know you should are all ways of giving offense to the marginalised and the disenfranchised. It is gentle, polite, invisible.

Feminism is often for white middle-class women. We the working-classes, the people of colour, the ones with disabilities do not fall into their neat world, what we want is always too much, too extreme, too difficult. Why do we the awkward squad always shout and rock the boat?

Calling someone a racist in turn is seen to be the worst insult, much worse than the first salvo of when someone says something racist in the first place. So many often begin by saying things like “I’m not racist, but…” or prefacing their story by saying “I have a black friend, so I’m clearly not racist but…”

I think we need to accept that our society is inherently racist. Learning to not be racist is possible, but it means unlearning things we picked up unconsciously. I know I learnt racist insults as a child in Sri Lanka. It is by no means the prerogative of white people alone.

It is nearly impossible for a person who isn’t of the majority to understand what it means to be one of the minority or marginalised. And a moment’s exposure is nothing to having to live like that, day in, day out, always on guard for attack or abuse, always the token, always the odd one out. I have never been part of the majority. Not in Sri Lanka where I was often mistaken as Indian, not in Poland and definitely not here in Britain.

I know that I seriously talked to my husband about changing my first name after the terror attacks in Manchester and London. My Muslim name made me worry. Would it make me the target of reprisals for what went on, even though I’m not in any way a practicing Muslim? We joked about how I should if ever put on the spot ask for a bacon butty and a pint of cider to prove my “I’m not them, I’m British” credentials.

We joked, but it was because I was afraid. Afraid that each time a non-white criminal inflicts a terror attack on innocent people, the perpetrator is identified by his religion. It makes me wonder, as it does many others I know, why white criminals aren’t named by their faith, but by their mental-health status.

Perhaps there’s something about being born in the periphery, always looking in and knowing one can’t ever fit in seamlessly into the centre. I remember when I was a young woman, I’d not really left Sri Lanka then, only been to India and Singapore, and my dear friend from Europe asked me, really earnestly, “What I was doing in Sri Lanka.” I was like no Sri Lankan he had met in his year-long sojourn to our island. I think I tried to explain how I was from the city, how I was a product of the convent school system with parents who were Eurocentric, from a family that was for the most part westernised. But he knew all that. That wasn’t the point. And I think it was then, on that beach in Trincomalee that the sister of my heart and I truly began planning my escape to Europe and self-knowledge.

But running away didn’t cure the feeling of not-belonging and alienation. Poland was great, I was the exotic anomaly and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t belong. And that position of not-belonging eventually gets old and there comes a time when one is forced to stop trying.

I have stopped trying.

I will never be Asian enough or Muslim enough or Sri Lankan enough to have those labels and yet, I will never be able to pass as English either. I’m forever British, a sign, symbol and walking billboard of Empire, the Raj and all that it entails.

Thomas Macaulay wanted to build a people who were English in education, in thinking, in everything except in colour. I claim that awkward place, I straddle as Salman Rushdie says, two stools, sometimes comfortably, but often precariously, one bum-cheek half balanced on either seat, half-arsed, neither fish nor fowl. Offensive, offended.

Are you tired of trying to fit in? Do you want to find your authentic self and reinvent yourself to claim your place? Do you feel a real sense of urgency to see results? If so, please do get in touch. I’m offering a free 45-minute consultation session. In this conversation we will discuss:

  • What’s not working
  • What you are being called to do
  • And how we can create an action plan.

You can reach me at grow@tasneemperry.com

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