Let’s face it, modern political discourse on migration is failing us, normalising inflammatory and dehumanising rhetoric in the quotidian. (Britain First’s recent election broadcast, anyone?) Immigrant stories are increasingly reductionist and politically expedient, measured solely on our relation to ‘Britishness’.
A few weeks ago I saw Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, address this issue at the Museum of Immigration as part of the London Book Fair, when she emphasised how people of colour in the UK are either not integrated, or never integrated enough to be considered British. As a London-born Muslim woman this was particularly poignant, as ‘integration’ sometimes feels like an unachievable ideal. My Britishness used to feel as if it were a given, but nowadays I feel like it’s an identity I will always be on the peripheries of. For so many people like me, there is a palpable feeling of ‘disintegration’ occurring as a result of diatribes in mainstream media.
Many first-generation immigrants saw integration and, in turn, acceptance as an aspiration for their children to fulfil. For their children and following generations, though, this has not always been plain sailing. But whose fault is it?
Slavoj Zizek’s most recent Channel 4 News interview inadvertently suggests that the problem doesn’t lie with migrant communities. Zizek argues that instead of integration, what ‘we’ need is ‘polite ignorance’ and a ‘degree of distance’. If people subscribe to this approach, one wonders who the onus for lack of integration then falls upon. How often do we read about non-BAME communities failing to integrate? The answer is very little.
The question of integration is always framed with an inherent biased against immigrants. Calling for a more ‘muscular’ approach to integration, Trevor Phillips’ documentary What British Muslims Really Think discovered that one-fifth of Muslims had not entered the home of a non-Muslim. Is anyone conducting research on how many non-Muslims invite Muslims into their homes? I thought not.
With no framework and little public policy on how integration is defined or measured, at what point can immigrants be accepted as ‘assimilated’? The question is entirely subjective, but historically we know immigrants have always been adept at ‘integrating’ new cultures and languages into our identities.
Presenting The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded anthology of essays which he has commissioned and edited, Nikesh Shukla discussed his own contribution to the volume on immigrant identity beyond what he defines as the usual confines of ‘falsehood, stereotypes and anxieties’. Shukla describes the difficulty of negotiating multiple senses of belonging and language and how these translate into multiple voices or presentations; from the voice you speak to your family with to the slang-infused voice you use with friends to a posh telephone voice – or, as Shukla put it, the one ‘used for literary events’! With so much adaptability in our everyday lives, surely migrants and their families have nailed it?
A feedback form at the event asked attendees to describe what felt like home. For me the answer will always unequivocally be London. Not London now, but the London that I grew up in – you know, the one David Cameron told us had failed. Like so many others I have now been priced out of the London borough I was born and raised in. Like so many Muslim women, I have been racially abused and spat at on the streets I call home. I’m careful to stand well away from the platform on the underground since a fellow Muslim woman was pushed into the path of a train on the Tube line I once used daily. Yet similar to the first generation of immigrants before us, our story is not given credence in the mainstream. When you switch on the TV or open a book, we exist only in the binary of good Muslim/bad Muslim, good immigrant/bad immigrant. In reality, immigrants live in the intersections beyond these simplistic monoliths of racial and social construct. Experiences vary with each generation, from the first generation onwards. We are not just perpetually suspended between two cultures; our stories and cultures are constantly evolving. There is no singular narrative – our existence is complex, our voices nuanced. We are integration made manifest.
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Sabeena Akhtar is a London-based mum, writer and blogger at thepocobookreader.com. Specialising in reviewing Post-Colonial literature and books by PoC, she is also interested in the legacy of Empire, Islam and women’s issues. You can find her on Twitter @pocobookreader
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