When I first saw the Twitter-splosion of The Good Immigrant on my timeline I was intrigued but not overly fussed. Sure, a book about BAME immigrants in the UK is important, but I wasn’t bothered by it. Thinking back now, that was a terrible decision to make at the time. In hindsight, I can honestly say that my own white understanding of the world meant I wasn’t particularly interested in a book about racism in this country.
How awful is that?
But the positive reviews kept coming, the voices of the people said how important it was to read and it was the win as the reader’s book of the year from Books Are My Bag that finally convinced me that I had to read this book.
The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays and stories of what it means to be from an immigrant family in the UK. Covering experiences from all Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity backgrounds, it explores the inherent racism that currently exists in our society and opens the question to all readers: what exactly are we going to do about it?
I had no idea.
I had no idea how utterly awful it can be to have different coloured skin in this country.
I had no idea how voices and opinions and ideas are suppressed every day if you aren’t white.
I had no idea how hurtful cultural appropriation can actually be.
I had no idea how inadvertently racist I was.
Yes. I hold my hands up to that last point. I try to be as caring and inclusive as I can be. I always try and show a smile and some subtle way of my acceptance of someone if they’re non-white or wearing a hijab. And yet, after reading this book, I’ve realised just how many things I’ve done and said could be hurtful to someone else, or demeaning, or degrading. That is the nature of White Privilege. I wasn’t trying to be racist, but I am so used to being white in a white society I couldn’t even see that what I was saying could be offensive to someone else.
Over the past few years, people have argued that a lot of this stuff is political correctness gone mad – that having to constantly watch what we say or do so we don’t offend someone with a sensitive constitution is just ridiculous. After all, they never complained before the internet, did they?
This attitude is not acceptable, and I see that now. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about common decency. It’s about treating others how you would wish to be treated. Pain, humiliation and degradation is not a joke to some people, it’s their whole life. Who are we to say how someone should feel about a comedy imitation of their accent? White does not mean entitled: not now, not ever.
There are some truly stunning essays in this book. Darren Chetty’s exploration as a teacher trying to show kids that BAME characters can exist in fiction is eye-opening and devastating. Wei Ming Kam discusses the under-representation of Chinese and East Asian minorities outside of the local takeaway. Actor Riz Ahmed details some of the most ridiculous checks he regularly goes through at airports, just because of his name and the way he looks.
The essay from stand-up comedian Nish Kumar had me laughing out loud and reading entire passages. It wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised just how the humour had cut to the heart of a racist problem, how misidentifying someone’s culture and beliefs just because of someone’s skin and then using it as a ‘funny’ meme around the internet is actually not a funny business at all.
I don’t think it can be overstated how wrong I was not to pick this book up sooner, and how important a read it is. It’s a chance for those from a BAME background to hear their voices speaking up, and an opportunity for those who are not to listen, pay attention and do something about it. We’re all just people in the end, trying to live alongside each other in this world.
Why can’t we just be nice to each other for a change?