“Oh, but you’re not that kind of immigrant.”
Someone said that to me once, years ago. They were going on, complaining, immigrants ruin everything and take government handouts and don’t try to get jobs and don’t try to learn the language and don’t care about integrating, and yeah, ruin everything! And so on. I listened a while, in disgust mostly, but not really shock, I mean, it’s a pretty typical line we’ve all heard before. But then I just couldn’t listen anymore.
“Um, hey, hi, you know I’m an immigrant, right?”
“Oh, yeah, haha, but you’re not THAT kind of immigrant.”
Hee hee, haha, wink wink.
I’m not? What kind of immigrant am I then?
Well, the clearest answer is that I’m white. And when you understand white privilege, you see that right away it won’t be assumed I’m THAT kind of immigrant.
I’m of Italian descent on my mom’s side, so I have a Mediterranean look to me. Mostly that falls into the white category. Although I’ve realized over the years, according to the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) attitudes of many Norwegians, Southern Europeans are not actually really completely white. I mean they live along the Mediterranean, and right across that water is Africa, you know? and they’re so loud and angry-sounding when they talk, and there is a lot of crime down there, I mean, the mafia!… Yeah, you can sense a definite element of otherhood about those people “down there” from the Norwegian standpoint at times.
But sensing a prejudice now and then is not the same as feeling the effects of actual racism. I understand that.
So yeah, it’s true, I’m not THAT kind of immigrant who is told to go back where they came from day in and day out.
I’m not THAT kind of immigrant whose job applications are thrown away without a second glance just because of their African or Asian name or picture.
I’m not THAT kind of immigrant who has to live with negative assumptions and judgments and discrimination based on their religion and culture on a daily basis.
I’m not THAT kind of immigrant who takes government handouts, doesn’t work outside the home, makes slow progress learning the language, associates to a large degree with other immigrants, and raises kids who know two cultures so they might one day end up challenging and changing Norwegian traditions and norms. Oh wait, yes, I am. THAT is in fact the kind of immigrant I am.
Every family in Norway gets basic welfare payments based on how many children they have. In addition, there’s state-sponsored daycare here (starting after the one year of state-sponsored maternity leave) and those who choose not to use it for whatever reason get extra child welfare payments (called kontantstøtte) until the child is two. This kontantstøtte is controversial, and widely criticized as “keeping immigrant women home” and ruining their integration because they choose to stay home instead of getting jobs and contributing to society. This argument doesn’t take into account the fact that 1. it’s not always automatic and easy to get a job in the first place, exactly when you want it and need it. Believe me, I’ve tried, and if it’s hard for me as a mostly-privileged mostly-white, university-educated woman, I know it must be exceedingly difficult for those with less privilege. 2. If all these immigrant women did get jobs as soon as their babies turned one, what kind of jobs is it likely they’ll get? Stocking grocery store shelves and washing bathrooms, that’s what. Great conversation opportunities there! Everyone knows real integration starts with getting to know a country’s canned food and toilet bowls. Right? and 3. there are cultural and social reasons that cause some mothers to choose to stay home with their children during the first formative years. Even though the mainstream of Norwegian society seems to have completely accepted the idea that daycare from one year is a super thing (and I’m not denying many have positive experiences with it, that’s great), there’s a blindness to seeing that it’s not the best solution for all families. I personally have this wacky idea that I want to be home with my children *at least* until they’re fully verbal and can communicate with me clearly about how they’re experiencing their time away from me. I’m on my 5th kid now, it works for me.
So end result, I am that kind of immigrant, staying home with my children, receiving extra child welfare payments, and integrating just a bit more slowly into the mainstream Norwegian culture. Hey, maybe even causing a slight ripple of change in it now and then too. And hey, maybe if the reaction when I do it, with my well-reasoned-out, university-degree-writing-style justification, is that, well, yeah, it’s ok, you’re not THAT kind of immigrant anyway, well then maybe it’s ok for others with less privileged backgrounds to be this kind of immigrant too. Maybe, just maybe, they have good, well thought out, important reasons for being the kind of immigrant that they are. Whaddayathink?
But again, even though I can relate to many immigrant issues, there are differences.
I am NOT that kind of immigrant who is terrified to hear the decision about their application for residency status, because a rejected residency application is not just an inconvenience, but a death sentence.
I am NOT that kind of immigrant who lives with constant dread knowing they could be sent back to a country where they will be imprisoned or killed because they took the chance and left.
I am not that kind of immigrant who *must* use every ounce of strength they have to work on integrating into this often cold and uncaring culture, because the alternative, going back to their country of origin, is unthinkable. And I’m not that kind of immigrant who works so hard at integrating every day, no matter how slow or fast anyone thinks it goes, even while living with the constant uncertainty that a sudden policy change in the government can mean getting sent out of the country without warning and without any recourse to come back again.
So, I do know. I know I’m not that kind of immigrant. And it breaks my heart that anyone on this planet has to be that kind of immigrant at all. The kind who gets the blame for “ruining society” while they practically kill themselves trying to learn and adapt and understand their new society so they can give their family a better life. So their kids will maybe sort of kind of actually fit in and one day walk a slightly easier road than they themselves had to. But my broken heart and understanding doesn’t change it, the immigrants still get the blame. Here in Norway, over there in the US, and just about everywhere else on the planet as well.
Why is it so impossible to see that nationality means nothing, deep down? That some of us get plopped down in one place at birth and stay there all our lives while others’ stories take them on crisscross trajectories over oceans and borders, to a life where they’re suddenly to blame. Where they’re suddenly illegal. Unwanted. Unnecessary. Unhuman.
Somewhere in our background we’re all immigrants. Somewhere in our background none of these borders existed. While I won’t presume to represent groups I’m not part of, if forced I will choose their side. I’ll be THAT kind of immigrant. The kind who has the heart to see people before nationalities and the courage to hear stories before stereotypes.