Why we need to stop perpetuating the good immigrant myth

Portrait by Cléa Dieudonné

When I moved to the US from Pakistan seven years ago, and started consuming American news and culture writing, I noticed that important stories were often left out of mainstream narratives. This was true for Muslims in particular. Pervasive negative stereotyping had led to the rise of another kind of storytelling, that of the good immigrant. Stories of ‘moderate’ Muslims who were just like us; who were assimilated, and contributed to society through entrepreneurship, or by sending their children to fight in the military. Some were even hipsters. As if the value of immigrants lay in their contributions to society, and their fashion choices, and not in their humanness.

It was, and is, very clear that what that accepted narrative was saying is this: whether or not you deserve to be in America depends on what you do for this country. This contributes to the false hierarchy of citizenship; if you’re not from here (whatever that means) you have to prove why you deserve to be here. This narrative of the good immigrant became especially prevalent after the Muslim ban, with stories pointing out how successful Muslims in America had been, how they had built this country.

Between stories about terrorism and good immigrants the West was ‘saving’ I felt an ever-shifting weight. Some days when I would tell people I’m from Pakistan, “not a terrorist”, I would almost add. Other days, when I would forget to mail a check, or finish a presentation on time, or land that speaking gig, or pitch a freelance piece successfully, I would feel the weight of not being the kind of Muslim who was building this country. I had no children to sacrifice to the army either, unlike Khizr Khan. I would never be in one of those stories that prove why letting Muslim immigrants live in this country is a good idea.

Khizr Khan | Source: Wikipedia

We’re encouraged to tell these stories — they’re seen as opportunities for us to prove immigrants are good and human. We are allowed to tell these stories. And so against the backdrop of these stories, my relationship with America evolved. I switched student visas a handful of times, eventually got married, and applied for a green card. But being in immigration limbo for extended periods of time comes with its specific sets of anxieties that are only compounded by what I consume in news media. The question of what I am adding to America is a constant, and some days it’s the only thing I hear. I wonder, will they kick me out if I’m not the next Steve Jobs? Will I ever make it onto a slideshow of Muslim celebrities, and also where is the one for Christians?

Slowly but surely, I started realizing that these stories completely ignored the role the West has played as colonizers of a world where people left their homes in search of something better — their reasons ranging from literal survival to having an actual opportunity in life. They ignored a fundamental question, most recently asked by comic Hari Kondabolu:

“How many immigrants and refugees would have stayed in their homelands if Western countries had not colonized them to begin with, continued to exploit them for natural resources, and contributed to their destabilization?”

Through this realization I knew I wanted to change this narrative. I wanted to help shift the focus from the individual Muslim immigrant, “good” or “bad”, to the systems that created a need for migration from Muslim countries in the first place. Telling these stories, I felt, was vital to informing the public, and a democracy cannot function the way it’s supposed to without a public being informed. That’s when I knew I wanted to go into journalism.

Hari Karthikeya Kondabolu | Source: Wikipedia

So I applied for a job at a food magazine, Saveur. I loved food, cooking it, eating it, feeding my friends, and the familiar was a good place to start.

I was able to work this entry-level position because of my relative privilege. I am able bodied, I didn’t have any student loans, I didn’t need to send money to my family, or have children who were financially dependent on me. I wanted to do something worthwhile with this relative freedom. I was also teaching English in the evenings at a community college in the Bronx, because we all know how much it pays to be working in the media. Starting out at Saveur, I began to understand why there were so few people of color in the media to begin with, alongside understanding the power the media has in defining what constitutes the norm. At some magazines, “immigrant” foods were the exotisized other, always requiring explanations, fodder for white people adventures, while burgers and fries and apple pies were all the norm. At Saveur, conversations about this were ongoing.

During my time there, I started thinking about the systems we had built at publications across the country, and how these systems facilitated the telling of some stories over others. Who got to make decisions, whose work was praised internally, who was hired, who was promoted, which journalists were nurtured, and how. I was becoming a systems-thinker and that’s when I moved to BuzzFeed to help them grow their international teams.

While my professional focus was on helping teams outside the US grow, I kept an eye on what was going on inside the US media market. I gained a better understanding of the ways in which media outlets in the US are subject to the whims of corporate America. Over the next five years, I saw more and more print space dedicated to advertising that wasn’t always labeled as such. The decline of digital ad-dollars, and an inability to compete with Google and Facebook. This always meant a shift in focus for editorial teams towards generating traffic. I saw the shuttering of many of my favorite publications including The Toast, The Awl, and The Village Voice. The dreaded pivot to video as media organizations attempted to capture increasingly large chunks of the ad-market. And a lawsuit backed by a billionaire that drove Gawker into the ground.

I watched talented friends as they did the necessary work of covering stories on the margins, keeping the public informed and engaged, and acting as a bulwark against government — as the free press so often does. And I watched them as they lost their jobs in sweeping staff cuts, reorgs, or as a result of their publication closing altogether. And all this was coming at a great cost to the American public, and American democracy.

This idea that a free press is necessary for a robust democracy is not new to me. It’s something I learned about and protested for as a teenager growing up under a military dictatorship in Pakistan. In Pakistan a free press was necessary to check institutionalized military power. In America it’s needed to check institutionalized corporate power. In both countries I’ve called home, these power structures — when left unchecked — threaten to blind a country’s press, its people, and ultimately its democracy. These similarities came into sharp focus for me after the 2017 US election. Along with them, an understanding that in America, we have built a news ecosystem that serves corporate needs over that of informing the public. And many of us, within news media and outside of it, seem to have accepted this.

To be sure, there are news organizations that do a fantastic job. Record subscription rates for NYT and WaPo signal as much. Sustainable, ad-free business models do exist in The Texas Tribune and ProPublica. There are also examples of media producers that serve deprioritized communities in A Long Walk Home, Within Magazine, and what’s shaping up to be The Markup. But these are few and far-between.

Being dependent on ad-dollars necessitates sensationalization, exotisization, and the reinforcing of difference by appealing to base emotions. One of the easiest ways to get the most views for advertisers is by appealing to these.

These stories reinforce a hierarchy of citizenship, narrowly defining who is and is not American. They divide the public and distract from holding the government accountable for the systems of oppression it upholds. The first step to informing people instead of distracting them is to break the dependency the news media has on advertising.

If we want to thrive as an informed, engaged public, and fully realize the benefits of a democracy, we need more sustainable models of independent journalism. This is the time to head in that direction. I want to change the narrative.

How would an ad-free community-focused journalism platform function? This is what I was thinking about when a couple of months ago, I met with Ernst Pfauth, one of the founders and CEO of De Correspondent — a Dutch journalism platform that has functioned ad-free, and centered around a member community, for the last five years. He told me about their plans to bring the De Correspondent model to English-speakers with The Correspondent and, after checking my very New York cynicism, I knew I wanted to help. Once again I found myself in a position where I could take that risk: I had no dependents, no loans, a partner with a stable job and health insurance, and some savings. What use was this stability if I couldn’t work towards making the internet, and news as we currently know it, a better place for everyone? If not now, then when?

Together with Rob Wijnberg, founder of The Correspondent

So I joined The Correspondent this summer as US Operations Lead, and I’m helping Ernst, his cofounder Rob Wijnberg, and the rest of their team to bring this ad-free, member-funded model for journalism to the US and beyond. I’m excited about what we’re trying to achieve.

I believe we need a platform committed to exploring structural changes rather than distracting you with sensational news. And The Correspondent will be able to do this because we won’t have to worry about selling your data or your eyeballs to advertisers. What sells is not on tap, keeping you informed is. When we have nothing to add to a crowded information ecosystem, we won’t try to find a random angle to grab your attention, we’ll say nothing — or point you towards those who are saying it best. We’ll talk to you about institutionalized racism as opposed to that one infuriating racist act, and with your help, we’ll try to figure out what to do about it. We’ll cover the systems that have shaped the immigration eco-system with historical context instead of writing about that one good immigrant. Our collaborative approach to storytelling means whole communities — and the people that make them up, including you — will tell their own stories. This mode rightfully complicates representation in ways that are necessary.

And so I’ll be here, keeping my cynicism in check and working towards launching this thing. Become a founding member at thecorrespondent.com today.

Zainab Shah (1984) is Operations Lead at The Correspondent, where she’s helping to launch an ad-free, member-funded journalism platform for a US audience. Before that, she was Global Operations Lead at BuzzFeed where she managed the day-to-day operations of BuzzFeed’s sprawling international presence.

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