Immigrants don't need to integrate, you do

Immigrants don't need to integrate, you do
Comment: Integration - an already problematic concept that should be abandoned in favour of acceptance - is a myth, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
6 min read
29 Aug, 2018
Londoners enjoy the dodgems at an Eid celebration in the park [Getty]
Ruqaya Izzidien's debut novel The Watermelon Boys is released on 30 August by Hoopoe Fiction.

There's no such thing as integration for immigrants and their descendants.

Growing up in rural Britain - Wales, to be precise - I was the poster child for immigration.

My teachers liked me, I was a prefect, I captained my team in the Eisteddfod - an annual traditional Welsh competition. I won ribbons on Sports Day, attained high grades and did after school activities. I did everything they tell young brown kids to do.

It never occurred to me that I was the only one who considered myself just like everyone else.

But once I was far enough away, several years later, somewhere between Cairo and Gaza, after a Facebook exchange with an old classmate who told me magnanimously that he knows I'm a good person so I don't need to apologise for whatever it was that some Muslim had done, a file opened in the back of my mind.

For months it began to fill with memories I'd shrugged off, pooh-poohed or not given a second thought to at the time.

Like when I was 19, lying on trolley in a hotel conference room in central Durham. A needle in my arm, and a bag of my O+ swishing around somewhere near my hip. 

You're never just a teenager when you're brown in the countryside

I knew that donating blood made me act oddly, that the gore of it made me giggle uncontrollably. I tried to redirect my need to make a noise, by babbling, rolling my tongue ridiculously and popping my cheeks. It helped.

The nurse walked up to me to check on my sack of blood. I stole a look at it and it only made me babble more.

"You speaking in your language, are you?"

Because a nervous brown teenager prattling at the grossness of giving blood must - of course - be speaking her native language.

My language is English, dammit.

It would be years before I realized the true extent of the education I received, both from the melanin-deprived Durham University and from my small comprehensive school in Wales. I was good at memorisation so I did well in exams, regurgitating whatever I'd put on my spider diagrams in the weeks before. But none of it has served me as well as the education I got from peers and teachers.

When I was 12, one teacher plopped a new student from Jordan in front of me and instructed me to translate. It was the first time he'd ever talked to me. I did not speak much Arabic (I later learned it at university and living in Cairo).

Later that year, when we were sorted into sets by ability - I was put in the lower set for classes where I landed the highest marks. I had to bring a parent in to request to be pushed up a set in four subjects. Five years later I left school with top A-Level grades.

There is no question that my hijab, my skin colour and my innate foreignness - despite being born and raised in the UK - is what got me put in lower sets.

And then there was the fetishisation. "Tell us what your hair looks like," my Spanish teacher instructed. "I thought it would be long and beautiful." 

"Are you poor?" Asked the Geography teacher in front of the whole class, "large families are usually poor."

"Where are you from?" Said my classmates of five years. "Say something in your language." 

My language is English, dammit.  

At my birthday party: "Aren't you supposed to be a good little Muslim?" I liked cake; there was nothing little about me.

A 12-year-old classmate who had prematurely developed the unsolicited counsel skills of his gammon elders: I really think it's time you move on from your religion.

"What do you eat in your country?"

"I didn't expect someone like you to be a fast runner."

"Your arms are so hairy. Your eyebrows are too thick."

"Tell me about your hair."

"Your hair."

"Your hair."

And when I left the school premises I was not transported into acceptance either. I still had to prove it - when I went shopping, when I crossed the street, when I spoke to people on trains.

"I SAID, IT'S BUY-ONE-GET-ONE-FREE," the shop attendant told me. Obviously it had to be that the brown girl can't speak English, not that the white girl can't count. I pointed to the rings on the counter. One. Two.

"You're pretty for one of those, aren't you?"

"Your English is very good."

English is my language, dammit.

And the less said about the 'get-that-thing-off-your-head' the better.

You're never just a teenager when you're brown in the countryside. You're the ambassador, the novelty. The 'other' to measure their 'us' against.

Read more: Ban Boris, not the burqa

The term integration is bandied about like it's a magic elixir: If the immigrants and their children would just speak English and go to the school fete and the village show, then xenophobia would disappear.

The term integration is bandied about like it's a magic elixir

But integration - an already problematic concept that should be abandoned in favour of acceptance - is a myth, at least as we know it.

Instead of telling the foreigners to assimilate, Britain, you should take a long hard look at yourself. Because participation does not bring minorities acceptance.

In order to achieve harmony in Britain's multicultural landscape, it's not immigrants who need to integrate, it's the white majority. Until the majority stops treating people of colour like a curiosity for their entertainment, the country will be stuck in an existential crisis in which British children grow up as outsiders.

When I was 13 I longed for a simple life. To be anonymous, to look like everyone else around me. To pass one day without being reminded of my skin or my scarf. So there I was, Iraqi by heart, British by upbringing. Blood of both but belonging to neither in truth.

Today I'm older, more rugged, and far less patient. When you ask me, unsatisfied with my answer of Wales to the where I'm really from question, I'll tell you the name of my village. Llanybydder.

"Is that in Africa?"

I kid you not.

Now when they ask me to "Say something in your language", I tell them I wrote a book in my language. English.

And it's out today.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Timesthe Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.