Friday, September 28, 2012

Swedish Racism

I’m white. Super white. Like I put SPF 50 on during the summer in hopes of being light red instead of bright red.  So, no, I have never experienced racism personally. At all. I’ve seen it though. In the US. In Sweden. And before everyone gets all fired up, I know, there’s a whole lot of racism in this country. I know. But there’s a surprising amount of racism in Sweden as well. I’ve even written about it on this blog several times – Sweden’s Dirty Little Secret, Acute Swedishness... I Think, Really Sweden, Really?, and even about Sverigedemokraterna (and yeah, they’re racist, don’t argue that).

Recently though, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) came out with their fourth report on Sweden (you can find all four Swedish reports here at the ECRI) essentially giving Sweden a slight pat on the back while shaking its head as if to say, keep trying. It’s a start. And starts are always good in my opinion.

It’s important to note that the report does acknowledge some improvements, while also highlighting plenty of problems, Sverigedemokraterna being one. Another being the public discourse surrounding immigration from Islamic countries. This excerpt seemed especially familiar anytime I happen upon a Swedish news report:
“ECRI notes that the situation of Muslims in Sweden has not improved over the past few years.  Anti-Muslim political discourse has become more widespread and the tone has hardened. Some researchers have found that four out of five media reports about Muslims are negative. On the Internet, comments calling Muslims ‘invaders’ of Europe and inciting violence against them have proliferated, and some members of Parliament have made comments on their blogs to the effect that use of violence against Muslim immigrants is inevitable.”

Open up any online message board in Sweden (much like in this country) and you’ll find a level of vitriol that borders on criminal.

Or how about this quote?:
“As ECRI already noted in its third report, Afro-Swedes continue to suffer acts of racism and discrimination in everyday life. They are the object of racist insults in public places and racist remarks in the workplace…”

Again, I know. There is plenty of racism in the US. Glass house. Don’t throw stones. Got it. But the report highlights the things that I have seen too many times. Take the racism and discrimination  in everyday life quote from above and my experience a while back in Helsingborg when a pudgy, middle-aged Swede whipped a lighter through the air that hit me. He apologized by way of saying Ursäkta, det var inte meningen. Jag missade negern bakom dig. The man behind me couldn’t help but hear. It was a disgusting display of racism that shocked me. And stuck with me.

Plenty of folks will argue that the word neger means negro and is ok to use. They are wrong. On a variety of levels. This is something that has shifted in the last twenty, thirty maybe even forty years, but Språkrådet (Swedish Language Council), in one of those moments that should shed some light on things, answered a simple question: Är neger neutralt? with a simple answer: Nej, neger är inte neutralt. That includes negerboll a word used to describe a delicious baked good known as a chocolate ball (read the full answer from Språkrådet here).

Or how about this past summer in Stockholm, when a friend was asked if she spoke Swedish? A legitimate question early in the conversation considering the linguistically diverse group I found myself in. However, the subsequent follow-up raised my eyebrows. Kommer du från Sverige? In Swedish. Where do you come from? There was really no reason to ask that question in that way. We had already spoken plenty of Swedish. Established that she had come from her job in Stockholm. Curious to know if she come from Stockholm? Then ask that. Curious to know if she comes from up north or down south. Then ask that. Asking if she’s Swedish? Not necessary.

The two experiences were different in their severity. But that shouldn’t really matter. Both speak to the very problems that the ECRI reports on. A latent problem that sometimes spills out in very blatant ways, like in Helsingborg, or more subtle ways, like in Stockholm.

Welcome to Sweden. And a ways to go.

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  1. The lighter incident was just disgusting. Seriously. And I agree with you; sadly we have a ways to go still. I actually (and yet again) had the negerboll discussion only two weeks ago. I seriously can't believe the people who defend that name for a baked good. Sometimes I just feel disgusted when I read/hear the things my countrymen say about immigrants etc., but, as you say, this problem doesn't exist only in Sweden. It makes me sad that it does exist here though.

  2. I'm a Black American male who recently immigrated to Sweden and while I'll agree there is a undertone of racial naïveté that borders on insensitivity I believe this country like most countries needs a open dialogue about the issue. Burying it with shovelfuls of political correctness only serves to ferment true hostility and bigotry. I say dialogue not monologue this conversation cannot be one sided, or whipping podium for blue eyed blondes, all hues of people most be engaged. The has to be a willingness from all to listen, to think about things they don't agree with, a courage to share beautiful cultural diversity, and a acknowledgement that our commonalities far outweigh our differences. We'll see if I agree with myself after a year or so, but so far I see Sweden in-particular Stockholm as a place incredible opportunity to live and learn.

  3. I wrote a long post for this a couple of days ago but I must have made a mistake as it didnt post. In short I feel like we as a people make a lot of mistakes in combating racism. I think people focus to much on using the correct words and sounding "correct" that we focus on that instead of living as an example and simply accept other people. And that is why people stll say negerboll and why I still say negerboll. This word is not degeneratin in any way and it is not used offensivly. The people that are "afraid" of this word is the same people that every few years come up with new words on what to call people that are black, immigrants, who got immigrant parents etc. It's people concerned about looking good instead of being good! Focus on the right things! And please, ask away on where people are from. Why not? It's not offesive, it's interesting and fun to talk about other cultures.

  4. Well this makes me so angry, who the hell are you to judge and say how things are in Sweden?! You're just an american who have no idea how it is to live in Sweden and since you haven't really lived here you'll never be able to understand the real racism in Sweden.

  5. BIG LOL @Anonymous! Maybe he/she should read a bit more of the blog before commenting :P

  6. Henrik L. you truly ignorant buffoon. Why don't you ask a black person if THEY find 'negerboll' offensive?

  7. ...I have to disagree on the issue of asking someone whether s/he is from Sweden. Let me ask this: Would it be rude/offensive to ask a Caucasian the same question under those circumstances? Casually asking a question whether someone comes from Sweden seems completely harmless. Obviously there are some people who speak Swedish and yet are not Swedish.

    Also, you mentioned that it was a "linguistically diverse" group-- including yourself, a Swedish speaking person who is not technically from Sweden-- which makes it seem even more reasonable.

  8. I agree with Henrik L and the 3:rd Anonymous post. Too much political correctness serves against it's purpose I think. If people keep sweeping things under the mat problems will never be solved.

    It's thanks to people like "Linn the Pink Viking" here who's makes perfect example of pointing-stick waving political correctness which makes issues like these never get a solution.

    "Anonymous said...
    Henrik L. you truly ignorant buffoon. Why don't you ask a black person if THEY find 'negerboll' offensive?"

    It's the actual *intention* and the meaning in the word from the sender that counts, not the other way around. People have no right to come and judge Swedes for using words wrongly. The word "negro" or "neger" actually means black or dark so "negerboll" could be literally translated as "dark ball" referring to the color of it. If a word doesn't mean anything offensive within a culture, it simply doesn't and you have to accept that and learn the lingo. Or do you think we should judge the term "French Fries" or "Swedish Chef" as being racist too?


  9. Sweden democrats are no racists. Please read their party program before you make statements like those, because you've clearly no clue here like usual.

    SD is against the current immigration policy and have pointed out the current problems with integration and segregation the other parties have kept sweeping under the mat for years now. If you took up immigration as a problem before you were automatically judged as being a racist and it wouldn't solve anything. They may have some members that are racists but those are everywhere, even within the other parties, I know that for a fact.
    SD has actually tried to cleanse out some people at positions with outspoken more or less racist views because it hurts their image and doesn't fit in into their ideology.
    However, SD is an acknowledged and accepted party in the parliament now with increasing popularity (10% in a poll some month ago) and the view from the other parties is that it's not officially racist. I don't think SD has all the solutions, but at least they're not afraid to talk about it and should have their saying as far as their mandates go. And that's always a start.

  10. 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!

    Hey, Uhusofree, can you please help me test my theory? The next time you notice a swede (a stranger) acting rudely to you and you suspect it is because you are black, try talking to them in English with your American accent, telling them you are American (not Somali, Eritrean etc..) and see if they change their mind.. Its of course horrible if it is true, but at least it will add another dimension to this essential discussion..

  11. To me 'kommer du från Sverige?' doesn't sound rude. At least not in the context you describe. 'Är du svensk?' would have been very rude, but to me 'kommer du från Sverige?' more than anything indicates that the person has detected something out of the ordinary, generally with the accent or appearance. Lets face it, most people born here are still pasty white. And we're curious. We're curious as fsck! We like knowing about other cultures, about other languages, where people originate from. Most of the time it's not based on any racist viewpoints, but a lot of us don't have people around us that are from other countries and cultures.

    I speak english rather well, I've been told I've got a british accent and when I'm in company of people I don't know and we're all speaking english I too get the question 'Kommer du från Sverige?'. Asking that question is asking where you were born, not if you're swedish. There's thousands upon thousands of people who are swedish, but weren't born here. We're curious.


  12. I subscribe to the "ask a Korean" view of US racism :

  13. As half-Swede, half-African American, I found your article and the subsequent comments very insightful. I was a contestant/guest for a Swedish TV show called Allt För Sverige this summer (2013). It should air in October.

    I certainly experienced racism in many ways and hope we can stimulate dialogue (as mentioned in an earlier comment). I cannot write much else now since the show has yet to air in October.

    I keep a Facebook page titled Eric Basir Allt För Sverige. I'll keep following your blog. Tack så mycket.

  14. hmmm, after living in Sweden for over 15 years I think I'd rather have the stupid, ignorant and blunt racism I've seen elsewhere, than the nasty, secret shared assumption of racial/ethnic/cultural superiority of the Swedes. But most of all I left to escape the boredom. Man! They are functional, I'll give u that, but will fucking kill u with their boredom.
    No need to worry Swedes, I'm sure all those brown people ur so worried about will eventually come to their senses and leave...But please Swedes, stay there in the north, don't follow them... YAWN...

  15. actually is not the only thing that matters. in my opinion, it is very much the person who is listening who gets to decide if they were insulted. you don't get to decide that for someone. and yeah, there's still a lot of racism. and now it is going main stream with Sverigedemokraterna. So that's unfortunate.

  16. In this post on rasism in Sweden you only bring up example of Swedes being racist to immigrants but not a single word about immigrants rasism against Swedes? Like it's not a problem the other way around?
    The media do the same mistake imo. it's sooo quiet about what the media calls "omvänd rasism"( reverse racism)

    I have seriously met immigrants who do not think they can be racists. Only Swedes can be racists. For that is what they read about in the media...

    I have gone to a school with a big proportion of immigrant and honestly I stopped counting how many times I was called "Svennehora" (Swedish whore), "Svennejävel" (Swedish bastard), "Svennefitta" (Swedish cunt) ect.
    One might ask what I did to deserve such racist remarks? well, that I was Swedish seemed to be enough =(

    You can not expect to be able to solve rasism if you do not take hold of it from all sides!

  17. That sounds like a not good environment to be going to school with. Although, I don't mention reverse racism because it does not exist. Racism is when a dominant group (white Swedes or white Americans, for example) use their power and prejudice to create a system that contributes to the oppression of the minority group (non-white Swedes or non-white Americans, for example). There are, of course, instances of prejudice and discrimination that are not racist because they are perpetrated by people in the non-dominant group. Which is what it sounds like you experienced. It sounds awful, but it is not racism in that sense. There's plenty of academic work looking at this, which, to be honest can sometimes be a little tough to get through. But there are also a lot of really interesting and well-written sources about this online that is a bit more approachable than the academese. They examine and explain the intersection of privilege and race and class and all of that, which really helps to clarify ideas of reverse racism, racism, prejudices, and discrimination.