Bingo square: Underrepresented
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by writers, actors, and journalists about what it’s like being a minority in the UK today. A UK which sees you as someone who isn’t to be trusted, unless you’re winning an Olympic medal or are a great footballer.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and if I do it’s seldom short essay collections, but I mostly enjoyed this one. There are some excellent essays here, my favourites include Kendo Nagasaki and Me by Daniel York Loh, about the frustration of not seeing yourself reflected in popular culture and the disappointment of discovering your hero isn’t what he seems. Flags, by Coco Khan, about not wanting to be someone’s ‘I shagged an Asian girl’ story and the weight that brings. Shade by Salena Godden, about all the different shades of skin (and acknowledging the absurdity of some people lightening their skin while others seek out deeper and darker tans). And Musa Okwonga’s The Ungrateful Country, about trying to fit in and be the perfect example of a black person, and having it thrown in your face anyway.
And I especially enjoyed Airports and Auditions by Riz Ahmed, where Ahmed is often singled out for extra security checks at airports and how he navigates them, and Bim Adewunmi’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Tokenism. A quote from Ahmed’s essay stood out to me: “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. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth they export is of a racial melting-pot solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.”
I’m from the UK. I’m white. I grew up in the north in the 80s and 90s, which wasn’t especially diverse, then moved to London in the 2000s, which is of course far more multi-cultural. For a long time I thought racism was a thing of the past (easy for me to say, huh?), or if not completely gone then left in the hands of those clinging on to an old way of thinking. Those people were to be pitied. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised I was naive to the point of blindness. That maybe I didn’t want to see what my country was really like. To see what the people around thought and felt about immigrants or just those who didn’t look like them. I’d like to say I’ve had my eyes opened over the last decade or so, but even now, I was shocked by the vote for Brexit. I’ve been shocked by all the people emboldened by this vote, coming out of the woodwork with their hatred and anger. It doesn’t feel like it’s my country. And in some ways it’s not, not any more. I’m an immigrant now. But because of the colour of my skin I get to walk easily among my new home. I don’t even have to call myself an immigrant if I don’t want. I can be an expat. Those moving to the UK who aren’t white don’t get to do that, or at least not as easily.
I don’t think there was anything surprising in these essays, but it’s maddening that racism is still so prevalent, that those who have been born and lived and worked in Britain their whole lives can be made to feel so other. I don’t know when or if that will change. It feels like it’s only going to get worse as the UK insulates itself from the rest of the world.
I had one tiny irritation with the book, and that was with the layout of the info about the contributors at the beginning. They’re not in order of appearance (though some are), they’re not alphabetical. Reading the essays and going back to learn more about the writer was frustrating. I wonder if they rearranged the essays before publication but didn’t update the about page.