We Need To Rethink The Harmful Idea Of ‘Good’ And ‘Bad’ Immigrants

If we can’t exist in the fullness and ease of who we are, then our newly adopted nation doesn’t get the best of us.
By Annahid Dashtgard
A woman with curly hair, red lipsticks and a crisp white button down. Annahid Dashtgard (Photo: Darius Bashar)

The world is collectively holding its breath for the outcome of the 2020 U.S. election—Trump or Biden? Will people finally awaken to Trump’s bigotry, his ruthless disregard for people’s health during this pandemic, his corrupt divisiveness? I call my dad the day before the potential apocalypse—my fail-safe person to talk politics with (in addition to North American news, he consumes Iranian, British and Russian news the way most gobble crispy bacon slices). I absent-mindedly ask if relative so-and-so in the U.S. has voted yet, and he definitively answers, “I didn’t ask them. They’re voting for Trump.”

My mind snaps to attention in shock. I know our extended family’s politics vary, but I didn’t expect any of them to support the dark side, especially after four years of ample evidence of what he has to offer. “They support the wall,” my father explains, “to keep Mexican immigrants from coming into the country.”

“But, Dad,” I respond, my voice rising. I feel a hot flash coming on.

“They are immigrants! What’s the difference?”

“I asked that,” he responds.

“And?” I demand, the court judge ready to grant these distant relatives instant reprieve or punishment.


“They said we’re the good kind of immigrant.”

I sit there gobsmacked, my brain obsessing over the question, What is a good immigrant? And of course, good is usually measured against its opposite, so the more interesting question is: What does it mean to be a bad immigrant? And which one am I?

There’s this story we tell ourselves (especially here in multicultural Canada) that “hallelujah, we’re one of the richest and most open-minded nations on earth, anyone would be lucky to move here!” Compared to most other countries, this is true. We have a high quality of life marked by free health care, one of our major political party leaders wears a turban, and people can be Canadian and something else. We make room for hyphenated identities—Iranian-Canadian, Pakistani-Canadian, Jamaican-Canadian, etc.—rather than force people to choose their future over their past. Yet the forced adherence to this as the only story can become oppressive. So many people I met after publishing my book, a story documenting the lifelong double whammy of forced departure (exile) from Iran and subsequent social rejection (racism) here in Canada, surprised me by their insistence: “But aren’t you glad you moved here?”; “Isn’t Canada the best place to be?”; “Look what you have been able to accomplish!” I started to wonder who people were trying to make feel better, themselves or me?

I wonder how many people know the other stories of those who immigrate from faraway lands—how hard it is to transplant a foreigner into the host country and hope the system doesn’t reject them. Even less chance of acceptance if they come from a non-white part of the world. Dad, who was the Auditor General of Iran under the Shah’s monarchy, came here to work for the Auditor General’s office in the Government of Alberta. He left after five years. The reason cited: racial discrimination. I know this only because I found a file in his office drawer more than a decade later. He goes by Jim in public, Jamshid in private; speaks English with clients and Farsi at home; learned how to swallow casual racism while being the only accountant that many of his rich white clients trust.

The experience of forced immigration as a Brown or Black person, where you look like everyone else in your native country but arrive in a new one where no one in charge looks like you, is a major shock. You gamble everything to scale down to almost nothing and have little control over anything. The collateral damage is an accumulation of invisible dents and punctures to the very shape of self. You find your spirit starting to leak out. You hope you can Frankenstein yourself by grafting on a pronunciation here or adding a cultural mannerism there, but ultimately it’s never enough. People sniff out the foreign in you and remain wary. Depending on what part of the world you’re coming from, whether you’re fluent in English and how much money you have, the experience is either bearable or much worse. An upper-class white Brazilian has a fundamentally different immigration experience than a bearded working-class Pakistani in exile.


No, in order to have any hope of fitting in, you have to be a good immigrant, to be grateful, and to express this gratitude at every opportunity. To be a non-white immigrant from a non-European country requires a supersized dose of gratitude: gratitude to be here, gratitude for a better life, gratitude toward the benevolent politeness of strangers who exclude while smiling, who are able to hold on to the illusion of their inclusive politics while blocking the door to belonging. Immigrants are expected to be outwardly grateful while dealing with the anger at what they have lost and what they are facing, in private. Smile in public, rage in secret. And if you rock the boat and show any kind of anger—toward a boss or teacher, an institution or government—for expecting the same meal deal as those around you for the same amount of effort, you should just go back where you came from.

I worry that I am the bad kind of immigrant.


When I first arrived in this land of winter cold and ice, in a northern city in the most conservative province of all, I was an unruly and opinionated girl of nine. Steeped in Iranian cultural traditions of ta’aroof (cultural overgenerosity), of heaping tables of food wherever we went to visit, of the loud cacophony all around us, I was … not quiet. I was also quick to express anger—“Why did you do that?!”—in a tone at least two decibels higher than necessary, only to be found a minute or two later humming or reading quietly to myself. With such ease, the emotion had no more or less hold on me than any other passing through my small growing body. But that’s not entirely true. When one remembers, one has to try to remember it all.

I became more acquainted with anger than those around me, not just because of the difference in cultural expression, but also because of the deep grief and injustice I felt about our forced departure. I was seven, playing outside in our walled garden, just outside of downtown Tehran, when my father pulled me aside to tell me, “We are leaving Iran next month. The country is changing and it’s not safe for us.” I don’t remember my reply, just the protective tidal wave of anger that rushed through me. “Why, Baba, why?!” I cried. He went on to explain, “Because someone named Ayatollah Khomeini is taking over, and he is a madman.” I spent the next couple of hours tearing orange blossoms from their home branches and repeating under my breath, “I hate Khomeini, I hate Khomeini.” I knew I didn’t want to leave, but I also couldn’t have known how much I was to lose.


By the time I got to Canada, this anger over our forced displacement had seeped more deeply into the bone and marinated into a more complicated mélange of rage, fear and grief. But like most children, I was adaptable. If we had had a welcome reception in our new home, perhaps the rupture of soul after leaving might have healed over, to be a forgotten and distant scar on the adult shape of self. But when we arrive somewhere as foreign bodies, as non-white bodies, racism keeps picking at the same scars, over and over again, so we stay locked in a constant cycle of hurt and recovery until survival becomes the set point.


Anger is an important ally in the struggle to find belonging in someplace new. But also, we can’t be colonized long-term by a singular emotion. It starts to stunt our growth, becoming counterproductive. The ability to express anger freely is liberating, whereas being in anger lockdown as the way to survive racism and xenophobia is just the opposite. That moment of waking up to my anger set me on a journey to better understand it. I realized that because anger was so marginal in my adopted culture, I often felt ashamed of it and ignored what it had to teach me. Gradually, through meditation, therapy, and bodywork, I allowed the fire of anger to subside, so the waters of loss, anxiety, and fear could flow through and out of my body.

It took many years. Trauma—as a result of threatening experiences we cannot undo or escape—means that we lose our ability to know where our boundaries lie. Sometimes I overdid it and reacted to things my partner or children did that were clearly undeserving, or I underdid it in other moments, like being yelled at by a white teacher in my child’s classroom as I stood numbly by. Dad, he just forged through, only to berate me through the years for being too sensitive and expecting too much. I watched him turn into an Iranian nationalist — the kind that could single-handedly appear in adverts in pro-Iran tourism videos — unable to hear any criticism of his home regime. I recognize this now as his own way of dealing with it all. Righteous anger is often a cover for grief.

Gradually, I worked at developing a relationship to anger separate from trauma, one that allows for spontaneous, opinionated expression aligned with my passionate Persian roots. For many of us, it is hard to differentiate personality versus identity: one is intrinsic and the other a response to a cultural story where we are moulded into ways of being not always of our own choosing. I didn’t choose this anger: it was a by-product of survival, racism, and the weight of being sold a bill of goods that were rotten to the core. When I was a child, I believed that if I just worked hard enough, I could be prime minister one day. But the reality is that there are so few people of colour leading in hospitals, schools, and, especially, government positions. If people do succeed in getting there, they are very much the exception rather than the rule, the token non-white holding up the diversity flag. I had to make peace with this society I found myself a part of rather than constantly fighting for it to be different or, at least, choose my battles and find more sustainable ways to fight for change. I have learned that the best kind of anger has to be connected to love.


Recently, I got upset when a conference organizer asked me for my professional title, to promote me in their advertising. After giving it to them, I heard back that they’d have to check “if it was okay to use,” as there was no self-promotion allowed. I was speaking for free. I swallowed and paused before responding. I let myself feel the feeling and what it was telling me. I was angry because I was feeling disrespected and because I suspected this wouldn’t happen to a CEO of a bank, a white man who would never be questioned about their title or integrity. I replied via email, “I am formally declining the invite to be part of the conference. Given the time and generosity I have extended to be part of this, the level of micromanaging is not what I would expect, and it doesn’t feel good to me.” I moulded my anger into a boundary: no drama, no depression, just a line in the sand. A healthy relationship to anger offers a border between ourselves and the dominant story, allowing us to thrive, allowing for the possibility of relationship across a belonging divide.


Belonging is often described as a kind of homecoming, being anchored to a place and claimed by its people. Black and Brown immigrants are stuck in this in-between place, sometimes for generations, haunted by a country that no longer exists, invisible to the people in the country they find themselves in. And just like any other citizens of any country on earth, immigrants deserve their anger. My dad, he composted his anger differently, had less opportunities to hide his differences and less skills to cope with the impacts. But both of us, all of us, deserve the right to be a bad and good kind of immigrant, to be angry or polite or peaceful, or any other way we choose to be, because this is what belonging comes down to: the ability to occupy our full humanity, to align who we are and how we feel with how we experience reality. If we can’t exist in the fullness and ease of who we are, then our newly adopted nation—the world—doesn’t get the best of us. We all lose out. To be good or bad or really any kind of person is an illusion, a two-dimensional image.

It has been 20 years since I was that young woman who started embracing anger as an ally rather than a liability. I’d like to say I always use anger mindfully and purposefully, that I have it under control, but that’s not true. Anger can still be a volatile and mischievous mistress. What is truer is that, with time, I have learned to be playful with her, to be more aware of her shape-shifter nature, of her need to sometimes control, sometimes speak out, and sometimes appear when she is not needed at all. I’ve embraced the knowledge that she is an essential part of the stuff I’m made of and impossible to separate from—as valuable a piece of me as my heart or my courage. I will never deny or dismiss her, denounce her, or, worst of all, pretend she is not here because without anger … I may not be.

Now when my growing daughter asks me about the past—“Why was it so hard?”—wanting to know why it was hard for me to move here when it isn’t for her to grow up here, I pause and feel the years carved into this transborder body. Time has softened and rounded the jagged edges of self. I have (mostly) forgiven my country for its ongoing transgressions and (mostly) forgiven myself for ways I transgressed against myself. I answer her, taking my time: “People are learning about differences we didn’t talk about then. I’m learning, too. I’m glad I get to do it here, with you.” And after all these years I mostly, and gratefully, mean it.


I’ve become the mostly grateful kind of immigrant.

Excerpt from Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World by Annahid Dashtgard. Published by Dundurn Press. Copyright 2023 by Annahid Dashtgard. Reprinted with permission.


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