The Good Immigrant review – an unflinching dialogue about race and racism in the UK

A successful sportsperson is a ‘good’ immigrant; only some minorities are considered ‘model’. These essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, cast a sharp light on ‘othering’ in the UK

According to its editor Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant is “a document of what it means to be a person of colour” in Britain today. In 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working across literature and the media, the book highlights the standards by which immigrants – first or second generation, refugees and asylum seekers – are either accepted into, or judged to be apart from, a dominant culture determined by whiteness.

It’s a kind of unspoken deal at the heart of multiculturalism that immigrants are perceived to be “good” or “bad”. A black or Asian Olympic gold medallist or the winner of a reality TV programme is considered a “good” immigrant by a host nation wanting sporting success or culinary entertainment. “Bad” immigrants are “job-stealers” or “benefit-scroungers” or, worse, potential terrorists. Sparked by a disgruntled comment below an interview in the Guardian, Shukla’s crowdfunded editorial project emerged from the “constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space, to show that we have earned our place at the table”. Against the unspoken backdrop of post-EU referendum hostility towards “foreigners”, Shukla points to “the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country to this day”.

The essays interrogate a British national culture trapped in a post-imperial state of nostalgia. There is a strong sense throughout that a white universal experience is a fiction against which black and Asian writers must racialise themselves for a reading audience. Several essays speak to the myths of the Asian “model minority” or a “monolithic blackness”. For Wei Ming Kam, “being a model minority is code for being on perpetual probation” as well as denying an individual’s complexity. According to Reni Eddo-Lodge: “It is up to you to make your own version of blackness in any way you can – trying on all the different versions, altering them until they fit.”

Varaidzo, editor at the online magazine gal-dem, writes: “There is no one way to be black. Our worst performance is entertaining the idea that there is.” As well as anatomising subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism, The Good Immigrant engages at various points with the identity politics of language, authenticity and cultural appropriation: even – controversially no doubt – white practitioners of yoga repeating “om” and “namaste” while understanding little of their meanings.

Chimene Suleyman movingly traces the origins of names – her own, her family’s – across linguistic and political borders from Cyprus to the UK. “Words, names, and their noises are careless in England. They are not put to use in the way that obstructed communities have learned to pronounce every violence put upon us as though it is sacred. We carry our trauma in every word that we say.” As Suleyman rightly suggests, “standardisation is the backbone of empire”.

The legacy of imperialism, including its racial hierarchies, is deep; with the current approval rating of the British empire at 43%, this seems unlikely to change. Suleyman identifies British cultural deafness to historical violence: “It is there in the white men and women who do not understand, to the point of frustration, why we still walk with the noose of our ancestors around our necks, as we cannot comprehend how they do not carry the indignity of their ancestors tying it there.”

Along with Suleyman’s essay, Riz Ahmed’s “Airports and Auditions” is a standout piece. Ahmed, an increasingly well-known actor, is twice subjected to extensive visa scrutiny when travelling between the UK and the US and is repeatedly searched and detained by officials on both sides of the Atlantic, largely due to assumptions about his race and religion. “You see,” he writes, “the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They’re also places where you’re reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels.”

We should recognise both the courage that has been shown in producing these essays and the contradictions that necessarily exist across them. While, inevitably, some are better crafted and more convincing than others, The Good Immigrant helps to open up a much-needed space of open and unflinching dialogue about race and racism in the UK.

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound. To order a copy for £12.29 (RRP £14.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Sandeep Parmar

The GuardianTramp

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