Darren Chetty talks The Good Immigrant, lived experience in the classroom and white discomfort

Darren Chetty

Darren Chetty - Credit: Archant

Darren Chetty is on a panel at Archway With Words with writers Kieran Yates and Wei Ming Kam

The Good Immigrant

The Good Immigrant - Credit: Archant

The writers involved in The Good Immigrant didn’t expect it to be quite as popular as it has become.

They had faith in the project as an important contribution and knew it would do well, but its award winning success went above and beyond.

“I was totally surprised by how much attention it got,” says Darren Chetty, writer of one of the essays. “When I first got involved, I thought it would be quite a small thing, but it’s seen broadsheet coverage and BBC coverage.”

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla, is a collection of 21 essays in which writers explore what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in 21st century Britain.

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It brings together Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, comedian Nish Kumar and actor Riz Ahmed, just a few of a host of people talking about what it means to be an “other” in a country that “doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition”.

Three of these writers – Chetty, Kieran Yates and Wei Ming Kam – will be discussing the book and thier work at the Archway With Words festival.

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Chetty’s chapter is based on his experiences as a primary school teacher in Hackney. Entitled “You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people!” the chapter discusses how BAME school children are conditioned to write stories with white protagonists.

He writes: “This has been the case across the schools I have taught in with barely an exception. Yet I don’t recall it ever being discussed by teachers in these schools or on any of the courses on writing that I attended over the years.”

“What I’ve tried to do in my chapter,” he says, “is to say this is a big problem and it’s bigger than just the classroom, but at the same time it’s not for teachers to just throw their hands up and say, oh what can we do? There are actual strategies of how teachers can interrupt it, and also the publishing industry.”

Chetty is completing a PhD at UCL Institute of Education and teaching on the BA Education Studies course, with nearly 20 years of experience in primary education.

“The thing that is most important is to make space and to really think of ways that you’re communicating to students that their lived experience is something that they can draw upon, because when the stuff we bring in doesn’t reflect their lived experience, the unspoken message is that your lived experience is to be kept out of the classroom.”

He reiterates a point made in the book, that it brings the best out of the students to incorporate their own lives into their work, and “ends up with students learning an important lesson, which is that they have as much right to be there as anyone else”.

It’s an issue bigger than the education system, and requires people to think beyond their own bubble of security, he says. In his PhD he has discussed the idea of “white discomfort”:

“Talking about something as terrible and brutal as racism and for it not to be disquieting and uncomfortable is to not really touch on the subject in a meaningful way,” he says.

“I think it’s important for people to ‘stay in the conversation’ when hearing things that may well make them uncomfortable. Given the lack of teaching about British colonial history, people may find honest conversations about racism quite confronting and uncomfortable at first. But this discomfort can actually be productive and lead to new understanding.

“We can think about where we have some agency to do something: to be an ally, to be an advocate, or to recognise that sometimes we need to listen more than we speak. Those personal interactions are important, they won’t be the way that all problems of racism are sorted, but I think they can make meaningful change.”

Chetty is joined by writers Kieran Yates, who co-authored Generation Vexed with Nikesh Shukla and created magazine British Values, and Wei Ming Kam, who works for Oberon Books and co-founded BAME in Publishing.

The Good Immigrant – One Year On is at 7:30pm on Tuesday September 26, at Archway Methodist Church, £5.


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