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.


Hans Persson said...

I do agree that Sweden is relatively homogenous compared to the US, but at the same time Sweden today is much more diverse than it was when I grew up in the 1970s. At that time, I think there were only a couple of non-swedes in my entire school (six grades, three or four classes in each grade). This would definitely be different today, even though this part of Sweden is not one of the major immigrant areas.

Anonymous said...

you are so right about swedes being racists. of course the is racism here as well as in every place on earth. we are perhaps better than most other countries in hiding our feelings, but under the surface there's another story. we might seem tolerant and just, but i believe that we all have prejudices and doubts about things and cultures we don't know much about. but as you already have understood, swedes are shy and not to keen on opening their doors to strangers.
Sweden is not the fairytale everyone speaks of. we live in a country where you get a job if your name is Anders, but not Ahmed. where the blondes live in houses while thousands of immigrants live in slum areas, packed together in small boxes.
yes, we all live in a free, modern country, and we all have the same rigths, but sure as hell not everybody uses them!
(sorry about this messed up poster, very grammaticly incorrect and probably not readable. but anyway, here is my opinon)

keep the writing going

Todd said...

Sean - What are you talking about? Your pictures show a lot of diversity....just look at picture 4....old people, young people (me)....good looking people (me) and "others"

And if you look at picture 5, you even have red-skinned people (how did you get so sunburned?...must have been the wine...or fear of eating snails).

Great time in Paris. Next stop Sweden!

sanjarski said...

Hey Sean- Great topic my friend! I'm interested to know if you have met any immigrants from the Balkan wars there in Linkoping... or do they flock to Stockholm? Have they adjusted to life there? Just wondering, By the way LOVED the Paris pictures- looks like you all had a great time

Anonymous said...


I applaud your efforts and courage in taking on such a tough and controversial subject. The fact that you are honestly interested on better understanding these issues is amazing since most people these days seem to like to steer clear of these issues. Wanting to educate yourself on such issues is the first step on fighting the racism and prejudices that still exist within the United States and, in this case, Sweden. Looking at where we have privilige or where we lack privilige and better undertstanding these areas of our lives will eventually help us fight the injustices that run rampant in our world, whereas ignoring it adds to the racism and injustices.
That being said, I would like to address another part of your blog. You discussed the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the cartoons. You summed that up with the quote, "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 outdated cultural/religious traditions." I would like to address the word "outdated." Firstly, what gives your the right to determing hundreds of years of preserved sacred Islamic traditions "outdated." Who gets to determing that these practices are outdated? Certainly not you or I. While I don't think that you are attempting to take the role of "the decider" (to take a page out of President Bush's book), I would like to point out that this statement is rather inflated in the sense that you felt it was OK to judge Islamic tradition. Also, there are obviously two completely different mindsets involved here as you're aware of. Based on personal experience, I know how tough it is to grow up with a Western mindset and then attempt to understand, for example, Islamic ways and pracitices. Many Muslims pride themselves on the preserved traditions and the fact that many aspects of the religion have not deviated from the way the religion was practiced when the Prophet Muhammad lived yet you still call these practices "outdated." Many Christian traditions and philosophies are totally contrary and unacceptable within Muslim tradition as well. So who gets the prefererential nod? I can't make that decision nor do I want to. However, your statements lead me to believe that Islam needs to adjust to Western ways. I personally believe that the two should coexist respectfully and neither should get preferential treatment but should still remain sensitive to the different practices. You also must understand that I am the first person to stand behind freedom of speech. However, there are some places where I do draw the line. For example, I personally believe that Don Imus (spelling?...who really cares?) had no right to make those vile racist and sexist comments on the air. Apparently, most people agreed with this thought and he was properly removed from the air. One must understand that freedom of speech comes with great responsiblity...Especially those who find themselves in a position of power. I say this as a white woman (most can't tell I'm half Mexican by looking at me so I still benefit from white privilege) who is as much as a part of the system of oppression as those who are oppressed by it.
Also, I find it interesting that you challenge the idea of preserving Islamic tradition when Christian tradition and values have been preserved in American culture and government despite that pesky little "separation of Church and State" clause. A lot of the morals parents are expected to teach their children are based on Christian tradition. Christmas, Halloween, and Easter are all Christian holidays and they are all observed nationally. However, Yom Kippur and Hajj (to name a couple) are not observed. This is obviously no accident.
If you are going to call Islamic tradition outdated, you better be prepared to turn your focus on Christian traditions as well, because the same arguments can be made for that as well. Please don't read that as me calling Christian traditions outdated. I am simply making a point. Also, we must consider what it's like for Muslims in America. Recently, the TSA passed a rule stating that all individuals who cover religiously will be subject to mandatory searches regardless of whether or not they pass the metal detector test or if their bags pass the X-ray machine. Don't bother looking this up on the TSA website. It took members of the Siek community 36 hours of negotiations with TSA to get them to even admit that this was their policy. Muslim women who choose to wear hijab are stared at, and even physically abused by non-Muslims. I have a friend who decided to stop covering after her classmates at Tacoma high decided to rip her hijab off and draw pictures of her father having sex with camels on the whiteboard. When they ripped her hijab off, the pin that holds the scarf in place tore a gash in her chin, causing a permanent scar. Muslim men are subject to the same treatment. Is this supposed to be liberating? This woman was forcibly removed from her tradtion, yet most people would still say she's better off. Do we really have the right to say that if we don't fully understand the history behind the tradition? Apparently, we have decided to hold 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide for the actions of some. I would like to point out that all Germans were not held responsible for the Nazis like the Japanese were "held accountable". Germans weren't rounded up and thrown into Internment camps. Also, Christians weren't held accountable for the actions of the members of the KKK. Everyone realized that those sick and twisted individuals were so far removed from Chrsitianity that it wasn't even worth the comparison because none could be made.
My point is that you have the comfort of being a Christian from a Christian-centered country. Christians have power in our society. We have an openly Christian Presedent and most people don't really challenge this publicly. He obviously has a right to his religion and I personally think that it's good that he has found the path that he feels is correct. However, we also have an openly Muslim senator and I'm pretty sure I don't need to remind you of how well that was received.
I would also like to add that, while I haven't seen the artwork depicting Jesus with Osama bin Laden, I would certainly have very similar criticism for that artist as I do for the artist who depicted the Prophet Muhammed. However, I would address this topic differently as it is not forbidden in Christianity to depict Jesus as it is forbidden to depict the Prophet Muhammad in Islam. My criticism would be about the obvious differences between an extremest/murder and Jesus.
The bottom line is that I urge you to try to understand the different philosophies and mindsets before you write off Islamic traditions as "outdated." Also, consider areas where you have the privilege to say this. If a Muslim had said this about Christianity in his or her blog, his or her phones would probably be tapped (if they weren't already). As I finish this overly-worded response, I am aware that I myself will receive harsh criticism for my comments and I am fully prepared to take that. I don't obviously know everything about Christianity nor do I know everything about Islam. I certainly don't represent Muslims everywhere nor do I claim to. I'm simply leaving you the thoughts of one Muslim who's now struggling to find her place in a society who fully accepted her when she thought she was a Catholic.


P.S. Please feel free to ignore the NUMEROUS spelling errors. Spell check has made a tool out of me. :) Also, thanks for putting in that statistic about the number of Iraqi's that are moving to Sweden. That really made me stop and think about a lot of things. I made the arrogant mistake of not realizing just how big of a permanent impact this war is having.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure my comment is longer than your blog itself. I need a hobby.


joey from the uk said...

Hey mate! I have been doing a student exchange in Linkoping for the past year and just came across your blog last week. I have no idea if you still read these comments.

Im pretty gutted that I didnt come across you earlier considering i have one month left here, and I have read almost all of your posts and cant help but wonder how much they would have helped me had i read them 10 months ago.

Im commenting on this post because it was the one that stood out the most for me.

I am from Britain and more specifically London, a hub of cultural diversity. Whilst it has to be said that there, harmony is often not forthcoming, malin (commenter above) has it entirely right regarding the situation here.
My summary would be that although every nation has its share of racism, the difference is that in Sweden, it goes under the radar (especially internationally) and a LOT of conversation with immigrants has proved that. The most shocking people are swdish students - people you would think are a bit more open - who are so selfish that they find it "unfair" that "non swedes come here and take our education because we offer it for free". It comes down to selfishness and a society bred on privacy, mistrust and social uptightness, in my opinion.

sorry for the largely negative tone of my comment. i hope you are having a good time, wherever you are. i feel like i almost know you from all this reading!

Paige Whiting said...

Hey Joey,

It's a treat to go back and read a random posting of mine and to know that a couple years later my Linkopinglivin' blog is still helping a few almost-helpless foreigners in Sverige. Thanks for your comments and for taking the time to peruse the blog. It's one of my favorite memories, among many, from my 2+ years in Sweden. Enjoy those long and wonderful Swedish spring & summer days. Oh, how I miss Sweden and the Swedes... -Sean (now, apparently, using my wife's account - ha!)