Book Review: The Good Immigrant

“good immigrant and bad immigrant, refugee and benefit scrounger. This keeps us in our place, humans bickering, focusing on their differences, distracted, and at each other’s throats, competing and separating”

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, where twenty-one British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. Many of the entries express anger at how the authors feel they are regarded and treated, especially by the white population. As I consider how to express my thoughts in this review I wonder if I will choose words acceptable to those who suffer the prejudices articulated. Language can be a tricky beast when dealing with contentious issues.

What is not in contention is the discrimination faced by so many descendants of various races and ethnicities. Although not universal, the problems they face are widespread and disturbing. Some of the authors have assimilated more than others yet all have experienced lazy assumptions based on stereotyping. Skin tone and other features, including how they choose to dress, have resulted in career limitations and, at times, threats to safety.

I picked up the collection in the hope of better understanding the immigrant experience, especially as viewed through the eyes of those of the second and third generation who were born and raised in Britain. The anger and frustration they feel at the way they are too often treated is understandable. It is harder to think of answers to some of the questions raised.

The subjects focused on in the essays vary and some are more on point than others. I found a few to be somewhat rambling although raising valid issues. There are attempts at finding humour. There is recognition that differing cultures – of all shades – are not always understood beyond their enclaves.

“I learned quickly that there are certain jokes the white community can’t ever really find funny because the punchline means wading through gasps of horror or sympathy, or worse, lengthy explanations whenever you make a quip about skin lightening, arranged marriage or hate crimes. Learning the comedic levels of rooms is part of the immigrant experience”

Those who travelled from another country to make their homes in Britain did so with a variety of aims. Some came for economic reasons, other to escape life threatening situations. There is talk of gratitude and the need to prove oneself by demonstrating an admirable work ethic. There is disappointment at the realisation that this will not be enough for many.

In certain examples explored, cultures are retained within the home even when beyond there are attempts to assimilate. For some there remains a hankering back to where the wider family originated, a wish to adhere to their traditional expectations.

“We are happy to change and adapt even something so fundamentally important to us as language in order to start sinking into our new homes. In death, though, so far they’ve all returned to the ‘motherland’ and had their ashes spread over the Ganges. There’s a religious element to that of course but, in choosing this way to be laid to rest, it suggests to me that this diaspora, these brave wanderers, always yearned for home no matter how successful they were at integrating abroad.”

In several of the angrier essays there are mentions of the impact of Britain’s historic empire building. This is blamed, amongst other things, for the damaging perpetuation of the Indian caste system. I didn’t understand this particular argument, nor the wish to hold current generations responsible for the actions of their distant forbears.

“you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for.”

The lack of visibility in the media along with problems of acceptance of people of colour is blamed on many things including the fictions told of historic racial variety within the British population. It is pointed out that people of African descent stood guard on Hadrian’s Wall.

“America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multi-culturalism but the myth we export is an all-white world of Lords and Ladies.”

Oppression, discrimination and the increasing violence encountered from white supremacists are all discussed. The hate detailed is distressing to read.

“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 did not understand the desire to import cultures that appear to limit individual freedoms and nurture it within families. Surely such perpetuation of difference makes assimilation more difficult?

There were complaints about appropriation – of clothing, music or language. Is the wish to copy not a compliment, a sign of admiration? I guess I have not understand the problem being articulated.

Other essay collections such as Nasty Women and Know Your Place I found empowering, recognising many of the situations explored. Thus I am left with a feeling that I am missing something key from The Good Immigrant.

The final essay is powerful as the author had been through an elite, British education yet still felt rejected by the society he had worked so hard to fit in with. In the end he chose to leave, to make his home in Berlin. If immigrants or their descendants take this option, understandable when considering how too many are being treated, the UK will become a lesser place for those of all shades who remain.

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound.

I purchased my copy of this book at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.