Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sweden’s Dirty Little Secret

Bög. It translates as fag (as I’ve mentioned before, the Brits call cigarettes fags. Brits are silly.). But it has none of the same negative connotations. In fact, the word is used in advertising. In the newspaper. On TV. In everyday conversation. And no one bats an eyelash and looks at you like a prejudiced asshole. Like in Eugene.

What caught my eye was a billboard for a company that went to other places of businesses and taught them about equality. And proper hiring practices. And how to get along with everybody. And, of course, how to sing kum ba ya. The billboard told me that they would bring a bög to my place of work. Obviously, I did a double take. It’s not every day in the US that advertising like this makes its way onto billboards in the middle of town. So I stopped. I re-read. I read for sarcasm. For irony. I was critical. And it wasn’t there. They were just using the word because the negative connotations that accompany fag in the US don’t accompany bög in Sweden.

My world has been turned upside down. I don’t know what to do. I thought Sweden was so sensitive to the differences of others. I thought that they avoided at all costs categorizing people. I thought they were the epitome of political correctness. I was wrong.

Maybe this is just a sign of their immense capacity for acceptance. Maybe they are so advanced that words like bög don’t mean anything bad. Or maybe they just dropped the ball on this one. Because I just don’t see this flying in the US. The use of the word though raises an interesting question. Is the political correctness and liberal way of lifestyle that is so celebrated her in Sweden a lot of empty talk?

Sweden does a lot. They are at the forefront of the green movement. For better or worse. They are leaders in sexual equality. For better or worse. They are, by most accounts, a very liberal society. For better or worse. But Sweden has a dirty little secret. A secret that has woven itself into their northern European sociocultural landscape for hundreds of years.

Isolation. Little immigration. Little emigration for that matter. It all adds up to a very homogenous society. One which is used to things being done a certain way. The Swedish way. And one which is used to a certain look. The Swedish look. Until now. So those that are different are noticed.

They are denied taxis in Stockholm. As an Asian gentleman DCP spoke to encountered, as he was flat-out denied, while the French group that came right after him was accepted.

They are denied jobs, as a study a while back found that names with Arabic connotations, despite the exact same resume as a Swedish sounding name were denied interviews. Time and time again.

They are referred to with racial slurs. As evidenced by the high ranking public servant who was recently forced to resign because of her word choice.

They live in certain communities in Sweden. Segregated. Cut off by Swedish society. By choice? Depends on who you ask.

They are blamed for the rising street violence in Göteborg. In Stockholm. In Sweden.

They are the referred to as “they.” As in “look what THEY are doing to this area” or “THEY always vandalize the elevators,” as the old stinky man in our building said once.

So while I have had plenty of people tell me how racist the US is and how segregated the country continues to be, they seem to be blind to what is going on in their own country. Interestingly enough, there seem to be historical similarities to what the US has gone through. The Chinese emigration to California when the railroads were being built. The Irish emigration to the north-east when NINA signs were placed alongside job announcements. No Irish Need Apply. As new groups of people came to the United States, racism appeared. Change is frightening. Differences can be scary. And so what better way than to hate the very people you see as differ from you?

It’s happening here. A prejudice that is aimed at the newcomers. The others. The have-nots. The immigrants. The Chinese. The Irish. The Mexicans. The Iraqis. How you label them doesn’t matter. It exists.

It’s not a blatant racism here. It’s quiet. The kind that is muttered under the breath. The kind that can be swept under a little bit. Like hiring Lars over Mohammed. Or never going to Rinkeby. Or using THEM as an excuse for the problems in YOUR society.

The interesting thing will be to see how this all plays out. The US was able to integrate. For the most part. The melting pot that is America. But it is an ever changing recipe. And so as new groups are represented, racism rears its head once more. By no means to I intend to suggest that the US is free from racism. It’s not. It happens.

And so, those in glass houses should not throw stones. But how will Sweden, which for hundreds of years has been dominated by fair haired, fair skinned people living in semi-isolation, handle it? Just as the US has done with the countless groups of immigrants who have made their way to the United States, Sweden will manage. It’s just a matter of time. But as long as Swedes continue to walk around with a self assured sense of superiority, a sense of liberal self-righteousness, then the undercurrents of racism will continue.

Despite the liberalness of the country there is an air of racism. It is Sweden’s dirty little secret.

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  1. "Bög" can be "fag", it can also be just "homosexual guy". What's so shocking or prejudicial about that?

    You can't just blame all of Sweden for being racist, even though, you've said you generalize in a kind of jokingly way. I see nothing funny in accusing an entire nation of being racist. I know that I said that, quite likely, most (at least over 50%) Americans are either stupid or ignorant (to different degrees) but you say that our whole country has a "dirty little secret", which is the country being racist.

    I want to say that I have pretty many friends that are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants and that I had a girlfriend who was an immigrant. I've had at least three teachers who were immigrants. I've never referred to these people as "them" and I've never solely blamed them (this being the first time using the word "them") for any big society problem.

    Furthermore, I ask how well USA has integrated their immigrants? USA is a society with huge segregation problems. Sweden has Rinkeby, Rosengård and Botkyrka - USA has countless of ghettos. Latino ghettos, black ghettos, Chinese ghettos, Irish ghettos etc. Probably, with higher rates of crime than their Swedish counterparts. Did I hear the glass break?

    Btw, there has been immigrants in Sweden for a long, long time, all with varying success of integration. There has been gypsies, Jews, samer, Finns, valloner (don't know the English word) etc. Note that this was a long time ago - as far back as the 16th century. The valloner came to Sweden in the 16th century and they integrated very fast. Note that they were darker than Swedes and not the epitome of the Swedish blond stereotype.

    The modern immigration to Sweden started after World war 2. It was mostly people from the Mediterranean areas that came to Sweden back then. They didn't have a very hard time integrating. My point here is that, unlike what you seem to think, Sweden is not new to immigration.

    "a self assured sense of superiority, a sense of liberal self-righteousness"? That is the kind of talk that makes me think of Henry Kissinger's critique of Olof Palme's and Sweden's critique of the actions of the Vietnam-war.

    I won't lie and say that there isn't segregation in Sweden, of course there is, but it's not as one-sided as you make it out to be. I studied in a pretty good university and there were lots of immigrants studying and they were not being frozen out or referred to as "them", at least not by the over-whelming majority.

    While politicians "place", and through history has "placed", many newcomers in immigrant ghettos and thereby creating the segregation Sweden does not have a "dirty, little secret" of being racist. Of course, there are racists, as everywhere, but not so many that they're "turning the air racist", if you know what I mean. One stinky guy in your building does not constitute a majority of the Swedish people.

    When you say that Swedes blame immigrants for street violence I say it's not that weird many Swedes do. I don't defend blaming all the immigrants for all the street violence at all but the facts are that a lot of people hitting and even killing other people on the streets are immigrants. that does not mean, however, that a lot of the immigrants do this. Sweden has a huge number of immigrants, 1 million of 9 millions total, and I don't know one immigrant who would ever do something like that.

    What I'm trying to say here is that many of the street crimes are committed by immigrant but it doesn't mean it's "their" fault that the street violence in Sweden is increasing. Yet it's not so weird that some or a lot of people think this, even though I disagree. I think it's the politicians' fault for their immigration politics. But just because the government send immigrants to places like Rosengård and Rinkeby and that some people, including a stinky guy in your building, thinks it's "their" fault that the street violence is reaching new heights it doesn't mean this: "Despite the liberalness of the country there is an air of racism. It is Sweden’s dirty little secret.".


  2. "Little emigration for that matter. It all adds up to a very homogenous society".

    Excuse me, but have you studied statistics ?

    13 % are foreign born. 23 % (2 mio) are of foreign origin. Sweden has had one of some of the higest emigratins numbers in Europe. Check with SCB or Migrationsverket.

  3. @Robban – My point about bög was the translation to fag. Because just as in Swedish fag can mean fag (obviously) but refers to homosexuals. It was shocking in that that is a word that would never be used in advertising in the US. Just a bit different from what I am used to.

    In regards to Sweden’s Dirty Little Secret, you’re right about the gross generalization. However, since I am writing about Sweden I chose to generalize. I do not by any means think that the entire country is racist, or even a majority for that matter. I mean only that it is something I have noticed the longer I have been here.

    And as you point out through your own personal experiences obviously not everyone is racist. Of course not.

    Your point about the US though is one that I already brought up in my post. The US still has racial issues. I acknowledged that. However, historically, these issues have been overcome. Of course new ones have arisen, but prejudice and racism, in my opinion, is declining. Looking back 50 years will help that argument and the great strides that have been made since the Civil Rights movement.

    Your point about immigration is also well taken. Of course, I wonder how the Samis would feel about a Swede calling the immigrants as they seem to believe themselves to be independent in many respects. However, there has been historical immigration.

    But your point on modern immigration is what I was trying to get across. Starting after WWII is, historically speaking, quite recent. Only 60 years ago. And the immigration continues and brings in different ethnic groups. So immigration is constantly changing. And increasing.

    Of course not all aspects of life see segregation. Some would probably argue that is the very definition of segregation, and your point that you saw very little in your university I don’t doubt at all. University settings tend to be very good at avoiding such issues. Or at least trying to.

    My point in writing this point was only to bring up the issue of racism in Sweden. By no means do I think the entire country s racist. But it does exist. And I think the current political discussion focusing on immigration issues and reform bears that out here in Stockholm and also the comments made by a politician a few months back from Skåne. As well as the issues facing cities like Södertälje, Göteborg, and Malmö which are struggling with the influx of immigration.

    You’re absolutely right though. Sweden as a whole is not racist. But there is an undercurrent of racism that I believe is, if not completely ignored, kept quiet.

    @steen – my point was that historically there has been little immigration. Until recently, as Robban pointed out. And with an upswing in the number of foreign born and foreign origin inhabitants prejudice to some extent follows.

  4. You're right that with increasing immigration prejudice will follow to some extent. In Sweden or USA or whatever.

    My point, however, was that you made it sound like an entire nation was racist and wasn't admitting it. Since I can't claim to know any racist or to be one I feel like your early statements blamed me, my friends and a lot of other Swedes for being racist when in fact we're not.

    Of course it exists and maybe it's increasing with the growing immigrant population but the reality is that a a lot of the Swedes have friends, girlfriends, wives, husbands etc. that are immigrants and don't blame "them" for the violence or for this or that.

    A poll in a large Swedish newspaper (can't remember which, may actually have been on the TV-news...) showed that Swedes were increasingly positive to immigrants living in Sweden but decreasingly positive to more immigrants coming to Sweden. That shows I think we accept the immigrants who are Swedish citizens as Swedes (not everybody does of course) but we're aware of the problems that an increasing immigration can create. Especially when the politicians insist on sending immigrants to these ghettos like Rinkeby, Rosengård etc.

    I don't know about these "undercurrents" of which you are talking. Let me tell you that if a politician, journalist or whatever, would say what I just said about increasing immigration and problems they would be labeled as racists by most of the other politicians, journalists etc. I don't think there are any large undercurrents, at least, of racism (again, of course there ARE racists). Instead I think there is an air of people not being "allowed" to speak their minds without getting labeled as a racist, if they think the government should decrease the immigration or something like that. But I don't think there are any large "undercurrents" or whatever of racists or racism in Sweden. This was my point. As you said yourself, you didn't mean that all or even a majority of Swedes are racists but that's what it sounded like. I'm glad we could clear that out...


  5. i guess when hairy says Sweden is racist and you take that as him meaning all Swedes, is maybe the same as when robban said all of US is ignorant,it's generalization, not really meaning that ALL are that way. just that it does happen.

    i also wonder if bög really does have the same translation to fag. maybe more like just gay or homosexual whereas "fag" is a very derrogatory word i the US and more like a real insult to gay people. maybe something is lost in the translation.

  6. Thanks for the input, anonymous... But I never said ALL of USA is ignorant, I said a majority was.

    That's what is aid before - gay means "homosexual guy" but it of course can be used as a bad word. But then it's more likely to be "bögjävel" or "jävla bög". Just "bög" doesn't mean "fag", really.

  7. Did you know that Södertälje, which has a population less than a 10:th of the american city Nashville, took more irakies than the whole US during 2006?
    That the Swedish city Malmö, took more irakies than Germany, UK, Norway and Denmark together in 2007?
    While Sweden accepted 9000 irakies in 2006, the US took only 500 within the same period of time. As an immigrant to Sweden myself, im using these numbers (check UNHCR for statistics if you don't believe me) just to prove to you that you need more actual information and knowledge when you write something.

    This goes for all of your posts, especially the one about swedish highschools, oh my god, you really did not know what you where talking about there!

  8. @ sara - I did know that actually. and had you read my post carefully and my subsequent comments you would have realized that the entire post was about the influx of immigrants to sweden now. had you read carefully you would have realized the post was not focusing on the amoun tof immigration in one country as opposed to another. had you read carefully you would have realized that the post was about the problems that have arisen since the immigration has picked up.

    and had you read the high scool post and the subsequent comments you would have realized that I was quite informed. and I stand by everything I said. it seems though that there are plenty of high schools that have a broader study. and I acknowledged that as it came out. it does however also seem that the Swedes have a much more focused structure in education than the majority of US schools.

    what I write is based on ym observations. my opinions. what I see. hear. and experience here in Sweden. I'm not delving into the number of Iraqi (not irakie) immigrants or into any statistics really. it's not interesting to me. there is more to a country than what just the numbers say. and if you read all of my posts carefully you will find that that is exactly what I do.

    but you didn't read carefully. next time do.

  9. That's interesting actually. The article that is. It was on the news yesterday as well. I don't think anyone here ever said that there is no racism in Sweden. You say that the racism has to do with the modern immigration starting only 60-70 years ago in Sweden but I'm sure ethnic groups that are in a minority in society, like black people or Latin American people, are being discriminated against in USA, as well.

    It doesn't really matter how liberal a country is - there will still be discrimination and racism against minority groups. Your opinions are, of course, based on what you've seen and heard but are you telling me you didn't hear or see anything about racism or discrimination in USA? If you are, well, it's bad reporting, really...

    Furthermore, you blame Sweden and Swedes for throwing stones in a glasshouse when you could just as well argue that you are the one standing in a glasshouse and throwing stones by writing this post. Don't forget that is was just 40-50 years ago that black people couldn't sit at the same seats or live in the same areas as white people in USA. I know this is not how it is today but the truth is that, when you think about it, 60 years is not that long ago. Right?

    My point is that racism exists everywhere and trying to blame this or that country for being more racist is just ... stupid, really. Both Sweden and USA has examples of racism, both in the past and the present. But OK, fair enough, you seem to think that Sweden is more racist than USA. While I don't think so it's your opinion and your right to express it. I'm not even going to try to convince you that it isn't like that I'm just going to say that I don't agree.


  10. that's the thing though. I'm not trying to place any blame or even compare the US to Sweden in terms of how much racism there is. In fact that's why I was upfront in my post saying that racism exists in the US. I didn't say there is more racism in Sweden than in the US or that there was more in the US than in Sweden. I merely pointed out that exists and is often times ignored.

    My point was only that there is racism in Sweden, a racism that seems to be ignored by the Swedes while they point out the racism in the US or other problems that exist in throughout the world. That is what I meant by my glass hosue comment. It is important to look at your own house before making comments about other stuff going on internationally.

  11. more exciting articles:

  12. Good post. It's a shame that others have to nitpick things to death and get up in arms over AN OPINION. Amazing.

    I am eagerly awaiting a "Swedish feminist" post of sorts from you. That would be interesting to read your opinion on them seeing how from my experience most Swedish women (living in Sweden that is, they somehow change when they move abroad) are almost militant in their feminist ideas.

    -Anna (Swedish parents, I was born and raised elsewhere)

  13. I think you're pretty much right about the undercurrents of racism. As robban said it's hard to say anything in public and that's why it's expressed in other ways like not selling an apartment to a guy named Mohammed or soemthing like that. You definetly got a point there mate

  14. @ anonymous anna - you're right there is a lot of nitpicking. but so it goes. and I have definitely been paying with the idea of a feminist post. I touched on it in a few when I wrote about Swedish Boys Rejoice and Swedish Sexism in Advertising Under Attack but I think you might be right. Maybe I'll try to work on one soon. Excellent idea.

    @ anonymous - Robban did bring up a good point about not being able to talk about it. which is exactly why I suggested the undercurrents. It's very interesting, because sometimes it seems very noticeable in a very subtle way. and you are exactly right - it manifests itself in less blatant ways like not selling an apartment to someone with a stereotypical muslim name

  15. I LOVE your blog! I just started my own as a Swede moving back to Sweden after 8 yrs in NYC... and I just started a blog myself

  16. very cool - I'll throw up a link on my blog to you. good luck.

  17. Bög used to be a bad word until the male homosexuals started using the words them selves and then suddenly everybody was cool with it. This was in the 90's.

    About rascism; the mainstream political parties have been terrified of bring up the failed immigration policy and segregation problems so people who dislike this started listening to more extreme parties instead.

  18. fair enough, I guess I have never understoof the whole thing where you a certain gorup of people can use a word but if another group uses that same word it becomes racist or sexist or something.

    and I thnk youre right. by avoiding the issue it has pushed people to extremes in some cases.

  19. I am with you here, Hairy Swede. As per usual :)

    I haven't been here long, but you do feel racism in Sweden. It isn't said out loud and no one will actually flat out tell you they don't like a certain culture. But it's evident, it's a little comment here or there...when added up makes it quite clear that there is a pretty considerable divide between Swedes and immigrants in their country.

    I think I'm being harsh on Sweden but it has to do with the fact I'm Canadian, I know it!
    These two countries are often considered similar in immigration policies. I can't say there is no racism in Canada, but it is very different. Maybe because Canada is a country of immigrants.
    You recognize people's different cultures but it's never 'me Canadian' versus 'them'.

  20. its that latent thing that is kind of hanging out under the surface and pops up every now and again.

  21. Of course there are racists and loonies everywhere, but in general, I wouldn't call the swedish brand of "excluding the other" racism. Maybe "culturalism" would better describe it. To me racism means treating someone differently because of their genetic composition - their hair color, complexion, blood line or whatever other physical attributes upon which a person has very little control. After living in Sweden for a very long time I have noticed that most Swedes do not at all care about your color if your chosen "culture" is not too different from their own. Most normal Swedes have no problems with a black tv anchor woman who is adopted - She is black but she is 100% Swedish. On the other hand, a white lady in extensive Islamic style coverings will meet prejudice from some (not all) people in Sweden, because they feel that she represents something very foreign to their way of thinking and way of life. Now of course, it is extremely unfortunate for the "Mohammads" of this country because they have a name associated with a culture that some Swedes view as foreign to them and which they actually fear is some ways. But once "Mohammad" has gotten past the hurdle of getting to the interview and the employer sees that he is actually a decent guy, he might have a chance of being offered the job..
    Anyway, people all over the world do it, be it based on color, tribe, cast, blood line, class, education, religion or other beliefs. In some places it is done blatantly, even supported by laws and in other places it is more subtle.. I am not saying it is ok because all people do it, but sometimes it is good to see the realities of the world, even if they rub us the wrong way. Of course it would be great if we see each other as just humans, but so many of us have not evolved that far and we might as well admit it!

  22. Yeah, I still think there are some pretty serious racism issues in this country.