Editorial note: Racism impacts almost every country; but in different cultures these impacts and even definitions vary. In the US it seems, racism is widely regarded as a phenomenon which can only be defined by people of colour since they are the ones to experience it. In Sweden, a country which has not had black slavery and which is still relatively homogenous, racism is discussed by white people as bigotry, prejudice and discrimination at a personal–as opposed to a–systemic level . This doesn’t mean that there is no ‘institutional discrimination’, as a US PoC would understand racism, only that it seems not to be discussed using the term ‘racism’.*
A couple of days ago I shared a glass of wine with a Swedish friend. He’s an immigration skeptic, with whom I’m trying to mend bridges after what can nicely be described as a ‘political polarization’.
‘I don’t consider myself racist,’ he said. ‘But I do think there should be limits on immigration. Just look at the maths. We only have a finite number of resources, we can’t accept more immigrants without harming people already here. We’re already doing all we can.’
In his words I detected the implicit belief that ‘immigrants and/or immigration is a problem’ and I had a problem with that because I’m also an immigrant.
I’m a white UK national who pays tax into the system. I’ve taken courses in Swedish, conduct much of my grocery-shopping, kid-minding life in Swedish but because I work as a writer in English and live in a country where everyone speaks english, I haven’t found it necessary to develop an advanced proficiency in Swedish. Unlike the States where immigrants arrive and within five years get to call themselves American but must speak english in order to do so, I will never get to call myself Swedish and nor do I want to. Preservation of individual cultures in parallel with sufficient Swedish integration is encouraged here. My friend has often expressed disapproval at my inability to discuss conceptually advanced topics in Swedish but still; I’m not who he’s talking about when he says ‘immigration is a problem’. He’s talking about Syrian refugees who also happen to be people of colour.
Why is that? What is the underlying truth in his words? More broadly, is it possible to be anti-immigration and also anti-racist?
In Sweden racism is debated by white people as a BIG issue. Here it is defined as ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’ but this is often conflated and/or lumped together with xenophobia; a deep-rooted fear towards foreigners and a fear of the unfamiliar. Certainly both do often occur together, but one is termed as ‘actions’ and the other as ‘feelings’, and as such the latter is regarded as unfortunate but human, whereas to be called racist is to be despicable. But anti-immigration policies disguise both motivations and lump them together under a veneer of respectability. Proponents for anti-immigration provide a logical maths based justification for why Sweden should take a pause on welcoming refugees even as our humanity demands that we provide shelter to those who have suffered the brutalization of war.
Looking across the ocean at the events unfolding in the US, I’ve puzzled about the difference in the cross cultural definition of racism and how I can check my own socialized racism when I live in a country which wasn’t built by slavery, and which ostensibly welcomes refugees and immigrants. Here we all too often declare that it exists only in ideological extremism and in fact it is difficult to talk to Swedes about their own potential for racism because their national identity is one of anti-racism and tolerance. Welcoming and integrating refugees is part of what it means to be Swedish and (until just a year ago) the only political party which advocated more restrictions on immigration stood at the far right of the political spectrum. It’s also the party which invariably attracts the support of neo nazis, white supremacists, and their ilk thus clouding the issue even further.
Once upon a time…
…the ‘immigrants are a problem’ generalization was inculcated into the Swedish ideology. To be genetically Swedish was to be regarded as superior… and this has been seen concretely in social initiatives. For once upon a time was not that long ago. From the 1940s to the 1970s for example, there was an aggressive sterilization policy mostly aimed at immigrant populations and other genetic “undesirables.”1 The policy was only abolished in 1976, the same year my friend was born, which means his parents must have been educated in this attitude for a large proportion of their lifetimes. Shockingly per head of population, only Nazi Germany sterilised more people than Sweden which means that systemic racism itself, is one of the reasons for Sweden’s overwhelmingly homogenous population.
To be whiter than white and part of ‘the Nordic race’ has historically been aesthetically valuable to many Swedes2 and such attitudes are not easily dismantled. One simple reason perhaps is that human identity is intrinsically linked to our genetically inherited features, which represent the most ‘visible’ survival of our bloodlines. The genes governing a darker level of skin pigment appear dominant even if they aren’t, because the presence of melanin is so noticeable compared to an absence of melanin. The belief that whiteness in Sweden equates to native born and bred, was proved to me personally (even though I am not Swedish) when I told my Swedish partner that I was an adoptee. He was shocked; and his initial response was ‘but you’re not black’. International adoption is almost the only kind of adoption here due to the family-friendly, social welfare system, and to be white is given a false equivalency of being ‘native’ Swedish. Until the 80s’ the majority of Swedes were white, as my partner’s school photo albums testify year after year, and their milky skin colour is due to the fact that Sweden is a country which has very little sunlight.
In part I think due to Swedish shame around their role in those discriminative practices which existed until the mid-70s, Sweden thankfully made a sharp u-turn on institutionalised oppressive practices and appears on paper at least, to be one of the best in terms of anti-racist policy and legislation. But its legacy still remains. As recently as 2005, the Swedish government concluded a study3 which proved that institutional discrimination–that is, rules, norms, routines, attitudes, and behavioural patterns that are obstacles to ethnic or religious minorities in achieving the same opportunities available to the majority of the population–was present in Sweden. Institutional discrimination affects the labour market, the legal system, welfare, housing, education, and politics. It exists.
Yet attitudes towards immigration have been largely positive and with good reason. In the eighties immigrants came from Iran who fled the Shah and Iranians are now largest minority group in Sweden. They consisted of middle class socialists who prospered in Swedish society. One reason why this immigration was considered successful had nothing to do with Sweden’s ability to integrate immigrants; only that the type of immigrants arriving were more easily ‘integrate-able’ as is still the case today for me. At first sight therefore, when immigrants are able to fit into Swedish culture at a level which allows them to peaceably live and work within the system, we do not see backlashes against immigration.
But the ability to live and work in Sweden is not only up to the immigrants. It also depends on the capacity of the country in terms of housing, employment and welfare.
On the false premise that ‘immigration was good for Sweden’, because Swedes themselves see their national identity as welcoming and tolerant, and perhaps in an attempt to reject past ideologies, Swedish migration authorities ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers be granted permanent residency in light of the worsening conflict in Syria. And the Swedes have a mantra that has been so often repeated that it’s become a truth… ‘a job is the key to integration.’ In other words, to attain ethnic equality (and indeed respect), Swedes believe that immigrants must work. And whilst I can’t rule out the fact that they might not get work due to xenophobia, it also looks as if the jobs simply aren’t available.
Because there are countless well qualified ethic minority folk who are forced to drive taxis or clean houses mostly because these are the jobs that native Swedes do not want. The Swedish system has eradicated many minimum wage jobs out of an inclination to protect what it regards as respect for human dignity in order to provide everyone with a decent standard of living. Poorly paid jobs, the Swedes believe, are not dignified for any human. Policies enforcing this have been implemented as a part of Sweden’s ethically admirable ‘war on poverty’. Thus although welfare provides a decent standard of living, any job taken provides a substantially better one and this encourages employment4 (it’s also part of the reason you see so many self-service restaurants in Sweden; they can’t afford to pay high salaries to waiting staff). But this system works because it presupposes a certain level of privilege, skill and education. Schooling in Sweden is free and accessible but the job market discriminates against anyone who is not educated in Swedish, in the Swedish way or to a certain level. For immigrants it takes time to develop a skill set. And since 2013, the borders have been flooded and the system has been overloaded. Immigrants find themselves poor and homeless fighting for survival. Crime and violence is on the upturn in the asylum centres5; to my mind that would make sense because human nature dictates survival by any means–regardless of race, class or education.
It is nowadays a matter of national pride to be anti-racist, so much so that even the far right parties distance themselves from racism as a concept, concentrating their discourse on the maths of immigration. But they are not racist, they claim, simply anti-immigration. It’s a dangerous equivalency. I believe you can be racist, xenophobic and that this can be hidden behind an anti-immigration stance. I also believe that you don’t have to be racist, nor xenophobic–as far as it is possible to be in a culture that is homogenous in part due to racist practices–and still be anti-immigration.
If we want to tackle racism and support Sweden’s identity of tolerance but with a sensible immigration policy, we would be better off disentangling the ideas. Firstly because it would mean that immigration policies could be taken up by more moderate parties without risking them being tarred as racists. But more importantly, because the consequence of indiscriminately open borders has whipped up xenophobia to unprecedented levels and created a surge in support for a party–and until recently, the only party–who promises to tackle the problem. The racist party. Our damnation of racism as a concept, is one of the ways racism ensures its own survival. Because society teaches us on one hand that to be a racist makes you unworthy and unloveable, and on the other uses anti-immigration rhetoric to give valid justification to the logical mind and in doing so, furthers the racist agenda by pushing voters who are not racist or xenophobic to vote for the parties which are.
*With feedback and review for minority sensitivity from Michon Neal