“For people of colour, race is in everything we do. Because the universal experience is white.“
The good immigrant is a collection of short essays, described by the editor, Nikesh Shukla, as “A document of what it means to be a person of colour now”. Nikesh Shukla is an excellent writer himself (adult and YA fiction – he also does ace writing advice); I’ve also heard him interviewed a few times and enjoyed his forthright insightfulness, so I was keen to get my hands on this collection that he curated.
All the contributors offer insights on issues around (to name but a few) identity, othering, speech and language, feelings of belonging and displacement, representation, and privilege in the context of a racist society. There’s a diverse range of voices in terms of ethnicity; less so in terms of profession – the contributors are mainly writers and performers – so the issues that dominate the volume tend to reflect that professional perspective. It’s an easy read in that the essays are brief and personal, with an emphasis on lived experience rather than theory. This makes it all the more effective in conveying how much shit people endure in their daily lives for simply not being white.
I don’t know where to start with reviewing such a broad collection without discussing each piece in turn or cherry-picking the stand-outs; naturally, some grabbed my attention more than others, but I could read it again and different stuff would hit me. So I’ll look at the over-arching theme of the ‘good immigrant’, what that means, and why white people need to get this.
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 into their consciousness, through popular culture, winning races, baking good cakes, being conscientious doctors, to become good immigrants.
Being a good immigrant means you have justify your place at the table or be seen as being on the take; having to adapt, hide, or lose your culture and language and identity in order to fit in, yet be made to feel that you never really will; smile when white people mock your accent or name or background or appearance; shrug off their (mis)understanding of your culture that they insist is correct; put up with demeaning stereotypes; accept getting race-limited roles in which to work, write or perform; be grateful for any glimpse of representation no matter how one-dimensional or stereotypical; remember that the white experience is the universal experience… just for starters. Despite the sparky and sometimes humorous writing, each essay and each new depressing / appalling / absurd experience hammers home the weight and relentlessness of it all. It’s a constant. A really really shitty constant.
We live in a time when it’s socially acceptable to blame immigration for any and every social ill. That means demonising and dehumanising immigrants, so that ‘immigrant’, ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum-seeker’ become dirty words – add ‘illegal’ for effect, if you like. The irony of this book’s title is that most of the writers are British. These aren’t accounts of arriving in the UK and trying to start a new life here; these are people who were born here, have always lived here, have English as their first language – but who still have to live up to the expectation of ‘the good immigrant’, and are still made to feel that they don’t belong.
Being anti-racist isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Reading and learning is a start. Thanks to Black Lives Matter, white people are finally realising how little they understand, and books that talk about the reality of living with systemic racism are in big demand. Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (who contributes to this volume) became a top bestseller in 2020 three years after its initial publication for instance, and that just never happens. The good immigrant is another essential read for anyone wanting to educate themselves – and if you don’t you should.