Monday, September 03, 2007
Diversity, Homogeneity and Race in Sweden: Part 1
When people ask me what is the most negative thing about Sweden, I do not reply with “the darkness” or “the winter” or typical answers you might hear from a foreigner (a Southern Californian, no less) not used to being this far north. As I was asked this question towards the end of my first year here, I found myself answering with another bi-product of geographical inconvenience: the homogeneity of Sweden (and to be fair, all of Scandinavia).
As the world knows, diversity in general and race in particular are two elements that greatly impact virtually every corner of the United States. The great American experiment of being a homeland for anyone and everyone, from all lands, continents and countries, is still undergoing its growing pains and almost-daily events are witness to the good, the bad and the ugly about a country with so much difference and diversity. And of course, other countries face similar challenges of bringing differences among people together.
In what will be the first of possibly several ongoing parts in Linköpinglivin’, I would like to take a closer look at the issue of diversity in Sweden.
I broach this subject with trepidation because of the obviously charged subject matter, but also because I have not done the adequate “research,” i.e., talked to numerous people about the topic of diversity, good and bad, in Sweden. There’s been some discussion, but most of this is based on observation and conscious and unconscious assumptions that may or may not be valid. Please feel free to add your input, whether a native Swede, fellow foreigner or immigrant, or interested American. For purposes of brevity, I will focus more on race in Sweden than among other differences among people.
Sweden simply does not have the diversity of people to the same extent that other countries do. This makes perfect geographical sense. Though immigrants flood through Sweden’s borders during times of war in other lands, Balkans in the late 90s and Iraqis-in-droves now – 22,000 just in 2006 compared with America’s 7,000 - the overall racial homogeneity of Sweden remains the same. Most everyone is Caucasian, most everyone’s parents are Swedish and, like all cultures, there is certainly a way of doing things that all people from other lands must learn.
I come from the assumption that we as human beings are drawn to and trust that which is similar to us. The opposite of this is, as human beings, we tend to avoid or even fear that which is different from us. While Sweden is well known for being welcoming of foreigners because of helpful immigration laws and social policies, this has not impacted the overall sameness of Sweden. In fact, considering Jante Law, “sameness” is a very admirable trait in Swedish culture. Swedes don’t like to stand out in a crowd, the houses and neighborhoods throughout the country all look alike, dress is very similar and not drawing attention to oneself is respected.
But can a society that is so similar in appearance be confident that all people, no matter the racial and cultural background, are accepted and have the same opportunities as everyone else? If two people, one Iraqi and one Swede, apply for a job with virtually equal qualifications, but one “looks” more Swedish among a work group of similar-looking people, does this not, in the end, play a major role in deciding who gets the job? This is the kind of question often being asked in America and I ask it here in Sweden.
One of the characteristics of the U.S. that I have heard here is that “Americans are racist.” While there is ample evidence of this on one level, I am led to ask the question (hopefully in an educational manner and not in defense) in response, “Are we sure that Swedes are not racist, as well?” How do we know when so few opportunities for finding out are presented because people are so similar in appearance and behavior?
I’m the first to say that there remains a strong element of racism in the U.S. Sometimes unconscious and sometimes blatant, but how is the question of race understood and answered in a place so homogeneous?
In speaking with one black person in Sweden, in response to the question of whether he has felt treated any differently because of race, he responded that he has not, which was an impressive statement about the Swedes. Yet this was just one person’s opinion.
There’s no way to cover it all in a blog of the same length of my normal entries, so I have posed a few questions and am looking for some responses. More on this topic is sure to come in the near future.
Here’s a fun fact: There’s almost no Jews in Sweden. Synagogues are very hard to come by and Hannukah is completely invisible in December. Yep, lots to consider in a part of the world that, geographically, culturally and historically, wrestles with questions of diversity much differently than what I’m used to in the U.S.
And one more comment related: Everyone in Sweden and some of you in the U.S. have heard about the recent cartoon controversy in Sweden where a Swedish newspaper published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed. This created quite a stir in the Muslim community from here to Iran. You might remember the riots and anger that followed a similar cartoon in Denmark in 2005. What happens when a cultural hallmark of the West, freedom of expression, collides with the sacred religious tradition of 1.3 billion people? It’s a big question on many levels, continuing to present itself in many ways, but recently the Prime Minister of Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt, stood courageously on the side of protecting freedom of expression. At a time in history when the West dances gingerly around all questions of Western values vs. Muslim tradition, this was a valiant stand. Though certainly not in agreement with the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in this cartoon, I think we disrespect ourselves and others when we break our values of freedom to appease certain cultural/religious traditions. The same day, there was a news story on U.S. television about recent “art” that compared Osama Bin Laden to Jesus. Not a word came out from even the most fundamental Christians to somehow abolish art or kill the artist. It’s somehow not acceptable in the West for government officials to come out and say publicly that various Muslim traditions run totally contrary and are not acceptable with our Western values and freedoms, though everyone deep down knows this to be true. Kudos to Reinfeldt. Find out more about this at The Local website link found on the right-hand side of this blog. Please share your thoughts.
1. A big group of similar-looking Swedes.
2. Another big group of similar-looking Swedes.
3. Last weekend, my brother and I surprised my Dad in Paris – though it may look like it, this photo was not staged. Just the perfect location to reveal the surprise.
4. Three Whiting boys in Paris – France will never be the same.
5. Sean vs. Escargot. I won and am now a big fan of France’s most famous appetizer.