Rating 5 stars
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by 21 British writers who “explore what it means to be Black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today”. It was published by Unbound in 2016. In the six years since it first appeared in print, the world has moved on and the white devised acronym BAME is rightly seen as reductive now.
On the back cover is a question that each of these essays seeks to answer: “What’s it like to live in a country that doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?” It’s a question that is rooted in something one of the essayists, Musa Okwonga, said to the editor, Nikesh Shukla; the same something that gives the book its title.
… the biggest burden facing people of colour in this country is that society deems us bad immigrants – job-stealers, benefit-scroungers, girlfriend-thieves, refugees – until we cross over in their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.
It’s hard to read, because the other thing that has happened in the last six years is the strengthening of one of the most right wing governments the UK has possibly ever seen. It’s a government that in the days running up to me reading this collection declared its intention to process all immigrants to the UK, whether refugees or otherwise, in Rwanda. This “off-shoring” deal is the culmination of the work to establish a hostile environment that began when Theresa May was Home Secretary. It’s a declaration that Britain doesn’t like immigrants and doesn’t want to give future migrants to our shores the chance to be classed as a Good Immigrant.
Britain is the final stop in my virtual tour of Europe. I almost couldn’t be bothered to act the tour guide and persuade readers of this blog post of the positives of my country, but that felt defeatist. I am ashamed of my country’s current government and the face it shows to the world beyond its shores. I am ashamed of my fellow citizens who embrace the politics of this government and voice offensive and exclusionary opinions.
If I were to show you around my country, I’d take you to Manchester, where I live, and share the story of Peterloo and the march to universal suffrage with you. We’d take in the Pankhurst Centre and the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square.
The Working Class Movement Library is home to collections about the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, so we’d catch a train and take a hike to visit the place where our right to roam was kept alive.
As an aside, these areas of history feel quite current, as the right to protest was still under threat with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill ping ponging between the Houses of Commons and Lords as I read, then passed into law as I finished, while a recent campaign to extend the right to roam to include rivers, woods and greenbelt land, mostly in private ownership and protected by trespass laws, has been effectively rejected through the winding up of a government commission before it has reported on the matter.
The Good Immigrant shares the stories of British citizens whose history also lies beyond Britain’s shores. The history of immigration includes the history of slavery, so I’d take you to Liverpool to visit the International Slavery Museum and then on to London to explore the history of the African and Caribbean diaspora in the UK.
I’d try to show you that, despite the accepted narrative of our nationhood, we are a place that includes people who welcome others and join together to fight oppression and bring change for the good of all. It’s how I prefer to think of my country, but I know that it’s not 100% true. The writers of the essays in The Good Immigrant see a different side to Britain. They also know that it’s not 100% true.
The essays cover cultural appropriation, the casual racism that is just as damaging as overt hate crime racism, the weariness of being a person of colour before being British, the range of expectations placed by white people on people of colour to be a particular way, turning them into a homogeneous mass rather than individuals.
The writers are from a broad spectrum of immigrant communities in Britain. Each essay had something new to say to me, but it was the essays by people from communities that are less represented in the media that educated me the most. It is growing easier to find novels, histories, articles, op-eds and other writing by black and brown British writers. I am less aware of similar literature from Turkish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese or other communities outside the Indian subcontinent, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. This collection brought writers from some of these communities to me. It’s on me now to seek out more.
Chimene Suleyman’s essay is particularly powerful, a personal account of brutal racism in Cyprus and endemic racism in Britain. Her grandfather was tortured and murdered by the Greek fighters in the civil war that followed the Greek Cypriot coup in 1963. The Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 led to Suleyman’s southern family relocating to the north, to a house so recently abandoned that it still had dead bodies inside. Her parents moved to London, where Suleyman was born and grew up British but not really. She tells of a time when a work colleague of her father rang the house and expressed disbelief that she didn’t speak the same “ridiculous foreign mess” as her father. She points out that the mess is actually the tone deafness of white people who can’t be bothered to listen properly when someone speaks with an accent. This is a failing that I’m aware that I have and I try to counter, and that I was shocked to discover is a failing a close relative shares that underpinned their EU Referendum vote, because they perceive that there are too many people working in their sector for whom English is a second or even third language and my relative finds them hard to understand. When they told me this, it was part of a conversation about how offended they were that people who voted remain assume that they are racist because they voted leave. No, I’m not joking. For me, my failing is also around finding it difficult to remember names that aren’t Anglophone names, something else that Suleyman talks about in her essay.
Vera Chok’s piece explores the largely unreported racism against people from countries that have been classified variously as The Orient and East Asia, people that she, as one of them, feels free to define as ‘yellow’. Chok is from Malaysia and is of Chinese ethnicity. I knew next to nothing about Malaysia until I read her essay, but I did know about the racism and fetishisation of ‘yellow’ bodies, particularly female bodies, because I have had friends over the years whose ethnicity falls within the East Asian definition (Asian in the US), as well as white male friends who liked to fetishise them. Chok talks about her own experiences of the expectations of men (white and black) around who she is, without them even knowing her. It’s dehumanising.
The essay by Wei Ming Kam focuses on how people of Chinese ethnicity are invisible in British culture, “perceived as ostensibly successful, assimilated into British society and self-reliant.” She picks up on the ‘Tiger Mom’ trope as feeding into that perception, pointing out that pushy parents come in all ethnicities, including white, but East Asian pushy parents are a step too far. It made me think of friends I had at university who were studying subjects that would prepare them for a career in finance, which is one of the careers popular belief says Chinese people are suited to. I was studying the same subjects, pushed in that direction by my school, which was focused on hot housing success, as defined by how much money you should strive to earn. It also made me think of the friend I have in the US, where the Chinese community is known as ‘the model minority’, who since the pandemic has shared more on social media about the other side of popular belief about Chinese people, the persistent demonising of Chinese communities as ‘The Yellow Peril’, who exist to undermine Western freedoms. As Wei puts it, “Integrate well. Move upwards in society. Be praised – until people worry that you’re doing too well, and then they remember that you’re foreign.”
Something else in Wei’s essay that surprised me, in the fact that I have never thought about it before, is the lack of Chinese politicians. She speaks to Jiaqi Hou of the British Chinese Project, who explains to her that Chinese candidates exist but are never selected because the political parties don’t believe they will be elected. 30% of British Chinese aren’t registered to vote. Hou puts this down to a combination of language barriers, a workforce predominantly employed in the night time catering sector, the historical exclusion of Chinese people from other forms of employment, and a deep distrust of civic authority, particularly the police.
Miss L is an actor writing under a pseudonym, perhaps to protect her reputation a little, although her description of drama training and the limited roles available to women of Middle Eastern ethnicity made me wonder whether her being critical of the racism and chauvinism embedded in the writing and casting process would impact negatively on her chances of being cast. It struck me that the directors she includes in her essay would not be able to distinguish one Middle Eastern actor from another. From the white man who tried to shame her for not knowing languages other than English, despite Miss L being English as well as not being from the communities who speak the languages he assumed she knew, to the white female director who cast herself as the Middle Eastern character she auditioned a number of actors for, Miss L demonstrates how blinkered the drama industry is. And then she describes the roles available to her, summed up as “a prop in a hijab”. In a casual reference to being part Iranian, part Iraqi, part British, followed by a reference to auditioning to play a Syrian lawyer married to a controlling husband, Miss L draws together the full range of prejudice she faces in her workplace – the presumed homogeneity of Middle Eastern culture, the lack of roles for women that don’t involve the presumption that all Middle Eastern women are in arranged marriages, and the lack of leading roles for women who aren’t white.
There are lighter notes, as some writers try to mask the anger they feel with humour. I suppose sometimes being a British person of colour is a ‘laugh or you’ll cry’ experience. Daniel York Loh shares his memories of World of Sport on Saturday afternoons in a way that chimed with my own memories, made me laugh with his perspective of the show and then made me recognise how oblivious I was to the racism in the wrestling segment. Loh focuses on Kendo Nagasaki, a masked, nominally Japanese character who was anything but. I also remember Fit Finlay and his fierce manager Princess Paula, a Mancunian who took on a Sioux persona complete with feathered headdress and overexaggerated firebrand warrior characteristics.
Going back to how things have accelerated over the last six years, Kieran Yates’s essay acknowledges that this escalated period of rejection began with the Cameron government that followed coalition. This government used an “aggressive rhetoric of adhering to ‘British values'” and Cameron himself “specifically target[ed] Muslim women for their poor language skills”. For Yates, “the rhetoric encouraging us to prove our allegiance to the country’s best interests, makes the place I call home feel less safe for people who, largely, look like me.” Successive Tory regimes have ramped up the rhetoric and the current regime has managed to find a Home Secretary whose parents came to Britain to escape persecution, but is still viciously happy to pull up the drawbridge of fortress Britain.
Yates also makes the point that “the demonising of language is a depressingly familiar narrative” with a regular cycle of proposing enforced English lessons as a way to force integration. We’re back to my close relative who believes that poor English language skills are a reason to shut people out of Britain. If you absorb enough of this rhetoric from the tabloid media and Facebook, it eventually becomes your opinion, I guess. I don’t know. You can be well educated, intelligent, reach the top of your profession and still be an idiot.
The essay by Sabrina Mahfouz interested me for different reasons. As well as sharing her experiences of racism associated with her fashion choices and her skin colour, Mahfouz talks about fashion’s relationship to nationality, ethnicity, colonialism and immigration. It interested me because of the textile collections I look after at work. These collections include fabrics designed for the British Raj from the 1820s onwards that were heavily influenced by traditional Indian patterns and fabrics, West African wax prints from the 1960s designed in Britain and sold in Nigeria and Ghana, and fabrics for the British domestic market in the 1920s and 30s whose designs are heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture. Mahfouz makes the point that, while cultural appropriation is “a very real, very sinister thing” and “Cultures who are left devastated by Western power and policies … are constantly used as sources to ‘inspire’ fashion trends”, it’s also possible to look at fashion through the lens of “its impact on the identity of immigrants and the children of immigrants in the UK and the impact of immigration on current British fashions.” She goes on to say that”nothing can be called ‘British’ without including the huge array of cultural influences that make Britain what it is, but sometimes that is not what it feels like.” I took this to mean that fashion is a process of people seeing something that they like and mixing it with something else they like to create something new, that it is mostly a benign process, but that sometimes it can be a negative, particularly when a dominant culture appropriates something deeply representative of another culture unthinkingly and in a way that weakens its significance for the originating community. An example is Isabel Marant’s wholesale lifting of the design of the Mixe community’s traditional Tlahuitoltepec blouse in 2014. As this legal article points out, “Marant … did not seek the Mixe community’s permission to use patterns from the … blouse …, nor did she outsource the creation of the blouse to Mexico. Instead, they were manufactured in India and sold for a hefty price of $365 each.”
Mahfouz’s essay ended too abruptly for me. I wanted to read more on the subject. In the absence of any scholarly articles to quote, Mahfouz attempts her own scratch research based on top selling fashion items on Amazon, which she then suggests possible immigration stories for. I’m not in work at the moment, or I’d be interrogating JSTOR to see if there really aren’t any research papers on the impact of immigration on modern fashion. Researchers have made good use of the collections at work, but maybe not in this specific area. Something to discuss with our curator when I’m back at my desk, perhaps.
The final essay is by Musa Okwonga and contains a paragraph that, even as a white person, I completely understand.
I decided to leave the United Kingdom. The decision was heartbreaking. I never thought it was something I could do. I had long since realised that if there was greatness in Britain, then it lay in its everyday citizens, and not in its institutions. Britain was not great because of its papers and politicians who relentlessly denigrated us, it was great in spite of them. Britain was great because of the spontaneous community spirit you saw as soon as a small town was flooded, because of the volunteers who turned out in their tens of thousands to act as stewards for the Olympic Games. But that wasn’t a spirit that I felt my country was doing nearly enough to nurture.
There are still great things about Britain, but it feels as though the popular media and the government of the day are conspiring to dismantle them.
This is an excellent collection of essays. I wish I could say that it filled me with hope. It shows how little things have changed in the 51 years I have been alive, and even how some of the positive changes are starting to go backwards again. It shows how race, as well as class, is a construct intended to shore up the privilege of those who believe power naturally rests in their hands, and how diversity initiatives are a way of making the privileged feel better about themselves.