I just realized I finished this review without saying anything about the book, so I’m back with a short summary.
This book groups together 21 essays from minority ethnic people in Britain today, talking about how their ethnicity impacts their every day life. Some of them are famous – actors, comedians, journalists, bloggers -, none of them were known to me.
The essays are raw and real, and paint an incredible picture I believe everyone needs to see. And they caused me to reflect deeply on my own life, and my own prejudices.
I was born in Brazil. I have 2 passports: one attesting to the fact that the land in which I was born embraced my father, and a second one proclaiming I am Portuguese, proving the country where my father was born embraced both me and my mother. All of us have dual citizenship, and while Brazil will always be home, it is mostly my Portuguese heritage that allows me transit around the world with relative ease.
For quite a few years, I’ve been an immigrant. I moved to France after university and stayed there for 4 years. I lived in Paris, a city where most inhabitants, French or not, consider themselves to be immigrants on some level. Very few people consider themselves to be Parisian, they either came from somewhere else “à la campagne“, or from a different country altogether. And there are so many foreigners living in Paris I felt right at home, even if most of my friends were other expats.
I went back home, and 10 years after I first set off to live in Europe, I packed my bags again, this time to the English midlands, where I’ve been living for about a year now. Although a little hard pressed to find the diversity I have come to expect after years in cities like Paris or London, my social circle profits from the company’s qualified labour needs, and is filled with other expats, mostly German, but also plenty of latin american and eastern european, and the advent of websites like internations.org, which afford me the opportunity to meet like-minded people, so-called “citizens of the world”.
Even throughout the entire Brexit debacle, and the election of Donald Trump in the US, during the myriad of racist and xenophobic propaganda I heard and discussions I engaged in, I have never been personally discriminated. And it’s shocking to suddenly realize there is a simple reason for that.
I am white.
I’ll ignore that technically, were I in th US, I might be classified as “latina”, because the fact of the matter is that regardless of my dark curly hair and ability to tan, I have spent the past 15 years of my life in somewhat cold places and it has afforded me a rather pale complexion. Maybe not British pasty, but “white” nonetheless.
And I don’t think I ever really understood just how much priviledge this brought me.
I heard once someone say that Brazilians are “good immigrants”, because we don’t “form ghettos”. For years, I wore this sentence like a badge of honour, not really understanding the undelying assumptions there. I avoided other Brazilians, wanting to “integrate” myself in the local culture, never realizing that it would never happen. I would never really become anything but what I was. I might have thought it was alright for me, who was only temporarily somewhere else, but negating your own culture in favor of acceptance into another supposes that the other culture is somehow superior to yours, and it’s a futile exercise at best. One cannot expect immigrants to deny their roots because life has brought them elsewhere, and then label them “ghetto” when they do not comply.
I heard the good vs. bad immigrant spiel again when joking that the UK was voting to kick me out of the country. And again when talking to an Australian friend who lives in the US about the Trump elections. Pro-Brexiters and Trump supporters would tell us that yes, they wanted to close their borders, but not us. We were not the immigration they wanted to stop. Because we work, and we’re highly educated, and we pay taxes. And the part that was always left unspoken, but was always lingering just below the surface… because we’re white.
There is a type a colour-blindness, I discovered reading this book, that only comes with being white and priviledged all your life. People don’t question our motives. I may not have been consciously racist, but the simple fact that I didn’t notice the level of prejudice and discrimination going on, shows how I’ve taken my own freedom and priviledge for granted.
After reading essay after essay of these so-called immigrants, most of whom have actually been born in the UK, sometimes to british children of actual immigrants, I started to notice how lucky I really was. Both to have been born in Brazil, a country who took my actually immigrant father in as its own, and who never questioned the legitimacy of my claim to itself.* And to have been born white, in a way that makes me blend in and escape scrutiny.
In the UK, I noticed people have a very set view on when an immigrant family becomes English. And I think the answer to that question might be never.
A quote fom the last essay in the book struck me because it summed up what I had written a huge paragraph trying to explain: “It was as if, even though we had been born here, we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour.” (Musa Okwonga)
I sometimes catch a lift from work with 2 guys from my department, and once I asked them where they were from. Mostly because one of them speaks much better French than English, and is actually an immigrant. But the other one told me he was from India, and I later discovered he’s the third generation to have been born in the exact same town I live in right now. And it shocked me. How can he not consider himself to be English by now? How can others not accept English as an answer? And it wrecked me that maybe by posing the question, innocent as I might have been, I reinforced this awful segregation with my own prejudices.
And I realized I still have a long way to go myself. It’s a daily struggle to not allow myself to be guided by stereotypes, and most days I lose. But I guess we’ve all got to start somewhere.
So, long story not so short: you should read this.
*This is not to say that there is no racism in Brazil. There is. A lot of it. Sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes openly broadcast. It’s there, as sure as the rising sun, ingrained in every aspect of our culture, but if I was to start on that, I’d never finish this “review”.