You may have seen The Good Immigrant in the window of your local bookstore. You may have been struck by its front-cover provocation: “What’s it like to live in a country that doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?” Strong to say the least, some would say alienating, but is it worth reading what’s inside?
Having heard about The Good Immigrant on the radio, I’d done some research and found that the book itself has an inspiring back-story. Published by crowdfunding on Unbound, it was chosen as Book of the Week on Radio 4 and has since become a bestseller.
The book itself collects 20 essays by different people on their experience of being an ethnic minority in the UK today. The stories are beautifully written and often very funny, and a sharp reminder that everyone has different experiences to bear when they come to work. Reading a personal story about the reality of being BAME, after all, stays with you longer than any research report.
So what insights can those of us working in diversity gain from these stories?
Diversity role models matter
There are a number of role models that appear in The Good Immigrant. Daniel York Loh, a playwright and actor who describes himself as half-Chinese, writes about how he chose a villainous Japanese wrestler as his own hero as a child, and how much his hero’s fights mattered to him. Darren Chetty writes about how, as a teacher, he suggests his pupils use the name of a family member in their stories, only for one child to reply, ‘Stories have to be about white people!’
But we also have to be mindful that it can be a burden to be a role model. Poet and broadcaster Musa Okwonga writes powerfully (and hilariously) about how he felt he represented black people as a child at his private school: “I became an unofficial ambassador for black people. There were so few of us in the boarding-school that I felt driven every week to prove that we could be just as good as our white counter-parts”. He was 11, and carrying all that responsibility.
Unconscious bias and stereotyping have real consequences
Miss L writes about how, after three years of drama school, the head’s advice about what parts she should go for amounted to ‘the wife of a terrorist’. Riz Ahmed – celebrated as part of a new diverse generation of actors currently reviving the Star Wars franchise to stellar acclaim – writes about how he sees going through airports in the same way as going to an audition. He feels the need to put on a show, just to make the security ordeal manageable. In his eyes, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. The threat of rejection is real. He also talks about the effect of typecasting, and how you yourself end up internalising the role written for you by others. These two essays alone make a compelling case for taking action on unconscious bias.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, messaging matters
Giving close consideration to whose stories we tell, and whose pictures we choose, is vital if we are to demonstrate the value we place in diversity. Wei Ming Kam starts her essay with memories of how her mum would point excitedly at the TV every time she saw someone Chinese on screen. And when talking about his role as part of a Pakistani family in Eastenders, Himesh Patel writes, ‘I know there are people from various South Asian backgrounds who felt represented by the family’.
The importance of diversity monitoring and action-planning
Ultimately, those of us working towards more inclusive cultures at work need to do more to demonstrate that diversity monitoring is a very real, very important activity for our respective businesses. When used effectively, diversity monitoring can provide the evidence base that informs robust action-planning and provokes genuine culture change. Going back to that questionable book cover, it blares out how the country ‘needs you for its diversity monitoring forms’… Oh dear! Put the cover aside. This book can help you bring the business case for diversity to life – thanks to its humour, eloquence and humanity.