How does it feel to be constantly regarded as a potential threat, strip-searched at every airport? Or to be told that, as an actress, the part you’re most fitted to play is ‘wife of a terrorist’? How does it feel to have words from your native language misused, misappropriated and used aggressively towards you? How does it feel to hear a child of colour say in a classroom that stories can only be about white people? How does it feel to go ‘home’ to India when your home is really London? What is it like to feel you always have to be the ambassador for your race? How does it feel to always tick ‘Other’?
Bringing together 21 exciting black, Asian and minority ethnic voices emerging in Britain today, The Good Immigrant explores why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you, doesn’t truly accept you – however many generations you’ve been here – but still needs you for its diversity monitoring forms.
Inspired by discussion around why society appears to deem people of colour as bad immigrants – job stealers, benefit scroungers, undeserving refugees – until, by winning Olympic races, or baking good cakes, or being conscientious doctors, they cross over and become good immigrants, editor Nikesh Shukla has compiled a collection of essays that are poignant, challenging, angry, humorous, heartbreaking, polemic, weary and – most importantly – real.
Despite stop and search statistics, our attitude toward refugees – our ex-prime minister David Cameron having once referred to people running for their lives as a ‘swarm’ – and the general acceptance in our country that a person with a white-sounding name will get the job over a ‘foreign’ one, there’s this weird sense here in the UK that racism is an ‘American problem’. That those gun-toting police, murdering black men and women is the sort of thing that could never happen ‘over here’, though of course it does. Guns or no guns, racism is as ingrained a part of our society here in the UK as it is abroad, and comforting ourselves with the notion that we’re not as bad as the US is really not helping.
What is helping, I think, is work like The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has gathered a diverse group of writers from all different ethnicities, backgrounds and career paths to analyse experiences of racism in the UK. Shukla’s own essay, which kicks off the book, tackles cultural appropriation, in particular the use of ‘namaste’ , a word that actually means hello, but has become ‘a bastardised metaphor for spiritualism’ adopted by white people (of whom I have to admit I am one. To me it meant only ‘yay yoga’. Education is a lifelong endeavour). What follows is a collection without a weak link. Each writers’ voice is strong, full of feeling – whether that’s anger, amusement, sadness, frustration, etc. – and unique. The collection weaves personal stories together with statistics and studies to create an experience that is as empathetic as it is informative.
It would be impossible to do justice to every essay in the this collection without writing a blog several thousand words long, so I’m going to focus on just three essays in this outstanding collection.
Trust me, and buy it.
“You Can’t Say That! Stories Have To Be About White People.” – Darren Chetty
Chetty has been teaching primary school children for 20 years in multicultural, multiracial and multifaith communities. In that time he came to notice that despite encouragement, the majority of children of colour in his classes would only ever write stories with white protagonists. In this essay he incorporates his own teaching experience with studies and essays written by others to explore this phenomenon. By analysing children’s literature and pop culture, Chetty weaves a fascinating piece that demonstrates the nonsensical way in which the viewer of so much mainstream British pop culture is assumed to be white, and the effect that has on children in minorities.
One of the most depressing of Chetty’s experiences while doing this work was the often aggressive response of other teachers. As I mentioned, here in the UK we like to pretend that we live in a society that is somehow ‘post-racial’, and this is no more obvious, Chetty writes, than in the way we insist on seeing children as ‘colour-blind.’ He says:
“If children were writing stories where the race of characters was varied and random, there might be some merit in claiming that children are colour-blind. However, even the strongest advocates of racial colour-blindness do not argue that all people are white… and English. They argue that race no longer matters. If that’s true, why are young children of colour writing exclusively about white characters?”
Next time someone tries to tell me stories aren’t important, I will wave this essay in their face by way of response.
Flags – Coco Khan
Flags is sbout the time Khan, an Asian woman, woke up after a one night stand to find herself in a room draped in Union Jacks. Her immediate assumption was that the cute blonde white guy she’d met was, in the cold light of day, a secret, hair-having skinhead.
This is an essay about sexual liberation and race, and where the two things intersect. After growing up being taught that sex was shameful, and something that men could have without concern but women would always be punished for, Khan was determined, in her young adulthood, to form a new narrative.
But she kept facing the same ignorance. Men assumed they knew her through ill-informed racial stereotypes, and she began to question whether they were attracted to her because she was attractive, or because was ‘a brown-shaped thing that will do’. Flags is a gutting look at the racial stereotyping women of colour face can from their sexual partners, and the assumptions that are forever made regarding their autonomy and sexual identity.
“On dates I would tolerate the vaguely insulting stereotypical questions, patiently answering, ‘No, I have never been promised to a man I’ve never met. Actually I can barely cook at all.’”
Khan’s essay is a unique take on the ways in which we so often other and dehumanise people of colour, and put individuals in a position where they are somehow expected to behave as ‘an ambassador for their race’.
Airports and Auditions – Riz Ahmed
“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”
I didn’t pick this just because I have a crush on Riz Ahmed.
It’s (probably?) my favourite essay of the collection because, it seems to me – as a white girl who hasn’t never experienced any of what she’s talking about – to do a really great job of encapsulating what it must be to experience life as an Asian man in a country full of people who assume you’re a terrorist. Ahmed compares auditions with the interrogation room: “They’re places where the threat of rejection is real. They’re also places where you’re reduced to your marketability or threat –level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels.”
Turns out that ‘random searching’ isn’t so random. I imagine this comes as a surprise to nobody.
Ahmed talks in blunt terms about the way that this constant labelling by outside sources affects a person’s soul, and how, over time, he has figured out ways to ignore it, though he shouldn’t have to. He can, on a good day, view his perpetual racial profiling as the total farce that it is and maybe even laugh about it.
He ends the essay on an interaction he had with another young Muslim guy, an airport staff member who happened to be conducting the ‘random searches’ that day. This guy was particularly apologetic and a fan of Ahmed’s, so by way of comfort, he shared that he always gets searched when he flies, too. Ahmed writes:
“We laughed, not because he was joking, but because he was deadly serious. It was the perfect encapsulation of the minority’s shifting and divided self, forced to internalise the limitations imposed on us just to get by, on the wrong side of the velvet rope even when (maybe especially when) you’re on the right side of it.”
The Good Immigrant is timely, important, frustrating, funny, sad and hopeful. It’s a fantastic read that asks you to look critically at the way we treat people of colour in the UK, and the damage done by racist stereotyping and a media that still largely caters to a white audience.