Don’t pay the dream tax
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.