Until a couple of years ago pretty much all my friends were white. It wasn’t intentional. I grew up in a fairly white town (Colchester), went to a fairly white university (Oxford) and journalism is hardly the most multicultural industry. It has become a joke among my friendship group that I’m the token friend, useful for defending against accusations of bigotry: “I, uh, can’t be racist because I actually have a Sri Lankan friend called Pravina.”
But recently I have come to meet more people of colour. During Covid I made friends over Instagram with a girl who is half St Lucian and spent her teenage years in Somerset. We bonded over the experience of growing up at odds with the beauty ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes, and our confusion over things inverting in our twenties, when we could be fetishised as women of colour, especially on dating apps. Then, earlier this year, I lived with a Pakistani woman. White friends often have no idea why I might not talk as freely with my parents about my love life as they do, or, worse, they presume my relatives would bludgeon me into a forced marriage. My flatmate, though, had tread those lines with the same delicacy, revealing information about her boyfriends selectively, at carefully chosen moments.
Perhaps I had struggled to make friends with fellow second-generation Asians because I felt many I came across were in one of two gears, neither of which appealed to me. The default setting is to unquestioningly accept the norms helpfully laid out by our community: to enter a stable job, get married to the first person we date and so on. But in trying to escape such cultural constraints – and stereotyping from our white peers – there is a temptation to go fully into reverse: to go around proclaiming how much we drank last night, and how we “actually only date white people”.
Then last year I became close to a friend of a friend who is of Saudi descent. She is the sort of person who holds her ground when challenged, but feels no compulsion to throw her weight around unnecessarily. She is quietly subversive – it took me a year to find out she plays in a punk band and flirts with psychedelics. She has shown me that rebelling against people’s expectations is better done through actions rather than words.
Finally relating to so many people in my late twenties has loosened a knot I didn’t know had been in my chest since childhood. I wonder if it has happened now because there is increased openness between people of colour. Growing up, we were trying to feign whiteness, hiding our shared history so we wouldn’t get lumped together – at primary school the other kids assumed me and my sister were related to any pupils who were black. If there was an appreciation of our heritage, it had about as much depth as The Kumars at No 42. One friend’s parents used to, adorably, cook curry for me when I visited for tea, as if I might have an anaphylactic response to fish and chips.
I recently travelled to India – departing with my suitcase half empty – and returned with my summer wardrobe for the next few years: violet nightdresses stitched with the same trim used for saris, paisley and floral jumpsuits, and bejewelled crop tops. It made me realise my most treasured clothes are not boutique items I’ve bought in the January sales, but £8 outfits I’ve found in clothes stalls in Asia and South America.
Somehow, a one-size-fits-all piece that I have plucked off a hanger – and bartered for with a shopkeeper – fits me better than something I go Goldilocks about in Zara, trying three sizes until I find the one that’s just right. There is something to be said for straps and strings and stretchy elasticated waistbands.
Perhaps I just enjoy the memories attached to such clothes – anyone who did a gap year in south-east Asia has a fondness for their elephant-patterned harem pants: “Oh these old things? I got them when I lost my backpack in Laos – funny story that…” But on the UK’s dreary high streets it’s hard to find such riotous colours or wild prints. For me, these are what evokes joy when it comes to clothes. And when you do track them down in a shop like Monsoon, it’s not quite the same. As my mother says, “Why should I buy a pattern that my mother country did originally, and pay ten times the price for it?”
[See also: Baby Tech preys on parents’ guilt]
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis