Don’t pay the dream tax

Somdeep Sen

In August 2003, I flew from India to the United States to go to college. I landed in the dead of night at Syracuse Hancock International Airport where I was picked up by a taxi for the two-hour journey to Canton, New York. The driver interrogated me about India: ‘Does everyone speak Indian? Is everyone poor? Is the food all spicy? Why do you worship cows?’ I did my best to answer his questions, but he seemed bothered by my accent. Eventually he gave up trying to understand me and we rode in silence for the rest of the journey. I felt like a failure, embarrassed that I wasn’t comprehensible to those who had graciously allowed me into their country.

Over the next few months, as other students found my demeanour and accent either amusing or inconvenient, I asked myself: ‘How can I become one of the “good immigrants”?’ The answer seemed simple. I must become like the white American students. I strived to ‘clean up’ my Indian accent, mimicked what I thought were white people’s mannerisms and mocked my own culture. But I couldn’t change the colour of my skin. When I realised they would never accept me as one of them, I gave up trying.

Last month, the Danish politician Özlem Cekic invited the BBC cameras to come along when she confronted a man, identified simply as Stefan, who had sent her hate mail. She seemed determined to convince him that she was one of the ‘good ones’. She regularly meets such ‘haters’; she calls the interactions ‘dialogue coffee’. ‘I hate everything you and your kind stand for,’ Stefan had written. ‘We want a world without Muslims. A peaceful world without you pigs destroying our values.’ He said his words were ‘meant as an eye-opener’. ‘Nasty vermin,’ Cekic replied. ‘That’s what you called me.’ The conversation lasted for one and a half hours. ‘These people are impossible to integrate,’ Stefan insisted. ‘They don’t want to contribute to this country in a positive way.’ Cekic stepped away from the cameras. Unfazed, Stefan continued: ‘And cost us billions and billions of kroner. How do we deal with this in a social and economic way? It’s just bad business.’ The video ends with Stefan saying ‘I’m not sure that we will meet up again.’ Cekic says: ‘I hope that we can meet each other. He said yes, so I will come again.’

In The Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla writes: ‘The constant anxiety we feel as people of colour to justify our space, to show that we have earned our place at the table, continues to hound us.’ The assumption behind this anxiety is that immigrants and people of colour encroach on a space, a place at the table, that they have no right to. The American comedian Hasan Minhaj talks about the ‘dream tax’, the ‘small’ price that immigrants agree to pay to live and prosper in their adopted homeland. Minhaj’s family home was attacked after 9/11. ‘These things happen and these things will continue to happen,’ his father said. ‘That’s the price we pay for being here.’ In 2008 I was attacked by three neo-Nazis in Budapest. ‘Things like this happen,’ my father told me over the phone from India. ‘Just keep to yourself, don’t provoke them and concentrate on your work.’

Cekic’s meeting with Stefan may have looked like an attempt to persuade him she was one of the ‘good ones’. Trained as a nurse, she was one of the first Muslim women to sit in the Danish parliament. But nothing she has done, or could do, would ever convince Stefan to accept her. Watching their interaction, I saw more than an individual asking for or justifying her place at the table. Cekic represents a generation of immigrants who know what they deserve, and what they don’t. And they are certain they don’t deserve to be called ‘nasty vermin’. Minhaj calls this ‘the audacity of equality’. ‘We’re done justifying our place at the table,’ Shukla says. When Stefan told Cekic she should go home, she replied: ‘I am home. And when Stefan said that Muslims are the source of Denmark’s socioeconomic troubles, she said: ‘I’m sitting here thinking it’s crazy you think you have the right to talk like that. Just because I’m Muslim.’

Many of the comments on the BBC video on Facebook commend Cekic for her calm demeanour in the face of such vitriol. I find it strange that the victim’s response to bigotry comes under more scrutiny than the bigotry itself, but perhaps we should focus on the response – not for being ‘calm’ or ‘polite’, but for being uncowed. Stefan claims to worry about the economic impact that immigrants have on Denmark. Maybe what really disconcerts him is immigrants who refuse to bow their heads and pay the dream tax. Instead, they look the bigot straight in the eye and demand to be treated as equals. This is what today’s ‘good immigrant’ looks like.


  • 8 August 2017 at 2:52pm
    IPFreely says:
    These timid xenophobes want to define everybody as 'like us' or 'different to us' Their prejudices emerge from those dark corners of their psyche that have their origins in the stories that they heard as children. They believe quite sincerely that skin colour determines character and that intelligence is measurable. The days when immigrants were classified according to their ability to write in English may be theoretically long over, but eugenics is still thought of as a way of classifying people's characters and abilities. A "good immigrant" passes a eugenics test. The rest are just not acceptable. They are left on distant islands, or to drown in the Mediterranean, or are classified as potentially dangerous because they have a religion.

  • 9 August 2017 at 5:14am
    ksh93 says:
    It's a shame when such episodes occur, cabbies and almost by definition members of the non-professional classes, are trotted out as paid-up members of the societal "basket of deplorables". The intellectual godfathers who poisoned the public mind generations ago with their "terrible simplifications" tend to get away scot-free. One such venerable scholar is Bernard Lewis who counseled American policy-makers for close to 70 years (Dick Cheney is said to hold him in particular regard) and coined the catchy slogan "Clash of Civilizations". His intellectual fellow-traveler, Samuel Huntington popularized this slogan by writing a book with the same title. Near the end of his life Huntington's animus flowed freely toward Hispanic immigrants to America and their reluctance to mimic the mannerisms of Anglos.

    One is reminded of what a Jewish German scholar wrote in his diary about his fellow professors and the willing role many of them played in the rise to power of the very worst demagogues:

    • 9 August 2017 at 1:27pm
      IPFreely says: @ ksh93
      Has Klempner been translated into English? His diaries give an amazing insight into the III Reich and its grotesque banalities.

    • 9 August 2017 at 1:28pm
      IPFreely says: @ IPFreely
      I meant Klemperer of course.

  • 16 August 2017 at 12:46am
    davidovich says:
    Look this is all very well but it runs the other way too. Working class people find they can be conveniently dismissed as racists whenever they have a complaint about an Indian, etc, professional, while the complaints of migrant workers are simply dismissed out of hand by everyone. The hypocrisy would seem to be almost deliberate, almost strategic. For working class people it is an infernal shackle-hemmed in by racists on. the one hand and classist numpties on the other.