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'Swedish politicians have a lot to learn about discussing race'

'Swedish politicians have a lot to learn about discussing race'

Published: 15 Mar 2013 11:07 GMT+01:00
Updated: 15 Mar 2013 11:07 GMT+01:00

Justice Minister Beatrice Ask's clumsy statements in response to criticism of police efforts to deport illegal immigrants have left historian and commentator David Lindén feeling like a criminal for looking "non-Swedish".

Being a Swede with a "non-Swedish" look has both its advantages and disadvantages. For example, it can be a great conversation starter when someone asks where I am from and I get to tell the story about how I was adopted from an orphanage in India into a loving Swedish family.

But answering the same question over and over again quickly grows tiresome.

Not to mention the hassles that my comparatively dark skin can create when I come face to face with overzealous border guards or police officers.

Like the time I was working as an intern for a Swedish MEP and we returned to Stockholm from Strasbourg. No one in the line had to show their passports – except me.

Then there was the time when I was stopped while carrying a thick, Swedish-language biography on King Gustav II Adolph and asked by a police officer, "Are you Swedish?"

A similar thing happened to me last summer when I was covering an event organized by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats at the Almedalen political pow-wow on Gotland.

After the event, party leader Jimmy Åkesson was scheduled to speak, but I did not know the exact time his speech was set to start. So I wrote a note in Swedish asking about the time and handed it to a group from the party's young wing, SDU.

They looked at the note, then looked at me and told me the time – in English.

From their perplexed looks I concluded they did not understand that I, a man with dark skin, was in fact Swedish, despite carrying a Swedish press card and writing the note in Swedish.

Indeed, the plight of the "non-Swedish looking" Swede has been brought into sharp relief recently by the raging debate about police tactics employed in the Stockholm metro system.

And while one may be able to excuse the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats or a police officer on the streets of Stockholm for a less-than enlightened view about who can be "Swedish", it seems even mainstream political leaders still have a hard time discussing issues of race and identity.

In the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper, for example, Joanna Ljunggren, a vice chairwoman for a student organization with close ties to the Moderate Party, compared random ID checks in the city's metro system with sobriety tests for drivers.

When I read her article, it felt like that she compared looking non-Swedish with behaving like a drunk driver.

And then there were the statements by Justice Minister Beatrice Ask who last week responded to criticism of officers' methods as part of the so-called Reva project to deport illegal immigrants in which she said she understood that “those with previous convictions can feel resentment towards the police”.

Considering many of the people stopped in the crackdown look more like me than the justice minister, her statement made me feel like a criminal.

Nor am I alone in my indignation.

On Wednesday, Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who has a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, penned an open letter to Ask in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper challenging her to "change skin" with him so she could understand how it feels to be viewed with suspicion, subject to random stops, and basically be considered guilty until proven innocent.

The article created unprecedented waves across Sweden, garnering more than 200,000 views on DN and being shared tens of thousands of times on social media sites.

I understand the police have a difficult task and any abuse they have suffered for doing what they were told is inexcusable.

The fault in the discussion, I believe, lies with the politicians. When the country's justice minister makes a statement linking people who look "non-Swedish" to convicted criminals, she betrays a dangerous lack of awareness.

She cannot understand how it feels to constantly have her identity questioned. And she incapable of realizing that many Swedes today are not fair-skinned blondes with blue eyes.

The government should take note of historical examples that reveal how random identity control can create resentment and hostility.

For example the "stop and search" laws in 1970s Britain resulted in members of the black and Irish communities being subjected to random searches. Many have since argued the policy contributed to an increased IRA activity and to the riots in London during the 1980s.

We in Sweden have not yet reached that level of hostility, but when we have a justice minister who is apparently incapable of viewing the world through the eyes of others, we have gone a little bit further down a dangerous path.

My Swedish identity has been questioned many times, by different authorities and even by some commenters on this website. At the same time, I've come to realize there can be an advantage in having a multifaceted identity. People are more interested in you and your background.

People in Sweden's anti-racism movement also have something to learn as a consequence of the ongoing Reva-debate.

They suffers from what I call the "disease of being negative" and tend to talk about things that they are against, rather than devoting time and energy to explaining what they want to achieve.

Hopefully, the next stage after this Reva discussion can follow what the Swedish anti-racist foundation Expo has dubbed "positive anti-racism": talking about what kind of society we want.

Because I think we all know what kind of society we do not want.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King’s College London and served as acting political editor for Länstidningen in Södertälje for the summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @davidlinden1.

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Your comments about this article

12:29 March 15, 2013 by skogsbo
The band wagon is filling up.
12:47 March 15, 2013 by Frobobbles
Why is race so important?
12:49 March 15, 2013 by TG22
And race industry thriving...
13:47 March 15, 2013 by ragdoll
What a cry baby. So you got an answer in English and had to show your passport. As for the politicians remarks, you stretching her comments in some unintended direction does not make her guilty of the words you put in her mouth.

Swedes are some of the nicest, most hopspitable, generous people I have met. The amout of financial assitance they give the multitudes of immigrants they let is is overwhelming. What other country does more? I am black and grew up in Alabama and it makes my head spin to think you feel you have faced what can be called racism.

You need to toughen up and be glad for the wonderful society that has welcomed you.
15:25 March 15, 2013 by grainofsand
I find it sad that people can so easily dismiss someone being treated differently due to the color of their skin.

Race is a social construct with no scientific backing we are all part of the same race and that is the human race. But race as defined by society were people are labeled by the color of their skin by those in the majority is 'important" because society as a whole allows it to be, we allow it to define us and others and draw lines between "us and them"

If you say that you are black and grew up in Alabama, I think you would understand that racism comes in many shapes and forms some a lot less discrete then other, and then you wouldn't so easily dismiss this man's story because it isn't the harsh form of racism that is still very prevalent in the south.

Saying that Swedes are the "nicest, most hospitable, generous people" you have met doesn't speak much to the culture it is a broad generalization you are making to state your point and doesn't speak to the fact that there discrimination in Sweden is very prevalent and part of the way that it is continued is by diminishing and ignoring the claims of the minorities that are being discriminated against.
16:05 March 15, 2013 by johan rebel
Mr. Lindén writes his question on a piece of paper and hands it to the person whom he is asking? How weird? Had he given the note to me, I would have assumed he was a deaf-mute.
16:14 March 15, 2013 by jomamas
'race is a social construct' ... ha haha hahahha . ..

You people are so utterly and ridiculously stupid ...

Dude. You see people that are Black? And some are White? This is not a 'construct' you idiot. In fact - our genetic differentiation is very well established in science. You genes can perfectly identify - exactly - your ancestors and also give an indication as to your regional differences.

Though race doesn't really mean a lot in terms of difference - it definitely exists.

It's so utterly sad to see Sweden walk and talk 'no race' and yet tout blonde babes at every turn.

When Sweden is fully Asianized - and there are no physical distinguishing characteristics of Swedes you will then realize what you have lost.

Gender, race, ethnicity - these are not absolutely defining characteristics of who we are - but they are certainly part of our identity.

It's one thing to call out racism - but it's another thing altogether to say that these things don't matter.

Finally - that you are brown, with press credentials makes you especially likely to be a foreigner, and it's pathetic of you not to recognize that people will easily mistake you for a foreigner. Why? Because most Swedes aren't dark skinned. DUH.
16:19 March 15, 2013 by TG22
Minorities claims being discriminated against all the time... Every time they fail on whatever they are doing it's always because racism. It's time people start taking responsibility for their failure and stop using skin color to excuse themselves...
17:07 March 15, 2013 by RobinHood
@ The Local

Do you intend to publish a monologue from every disgruntled non-ethnic Swede in the realm, or will you stop at two a week? The Local is becoming less a news organ, and more a platform for sad people to whine about one of the most immigrant friendly, and tolerant countries in the world, that welcomed them, and/or their parents with hugely generous hospitality.

Is this really why you entered into journalism.

The adjective "clumsy" in the first paragraph is yours, not David Linden's. Have you given up all pretence of editorial independence? It is unprofessional and tedious. Do you care?
17:12 March 15, 2013 by Scepticion
There is clearly hidden discrimination going on, which was shown by the person who submitted his job application with his foreign name and simultaneously also with a fake Swedish name not long ago, and he got job interviews with the Swedish name, but not the foreign name.

However, Liden and others, who complain about being singled out for ID checks, have never made any alternative suggestions how people's ID should be checked efficiently to catch illegal immigrants. And if the ID checks were only conducted on people jumping the barrier on the subway, it's a clear violation, so why should they not have their IDs checked.
17:53 March 15, 2013 by johan rebel
Race is a "social construct"? Really? Try asking ornithologists, who spend a lot of time, money and effort dividing species such as the common wagtail into any number of races, even though the birds all look alike to the casual observer. Same goes for all sorts of other animal species. So why should mankind be an exception? Any idiot can see that we come in all sorts of different races. No excuse or basis for discrimination, but still a fact.
18:46 March 15, 2013 by skogsbo
Well, I'm a white skinned European and still get my passport checked, plus I've encountered dozens of grumpy airport staff, but I get over it.
20:29 March 15, 2013 by cogito
Has it occurred to you that you "get over it" BECAUSE you're a "white-skinned European?"

Limited imagination or just the arrogance of the white male Brit?
21:14 March 15, 2013 by dcdidit77
My thoughts exactly @cognito........well said. I believe we would actually have to "trade skins" for these ignoramuses to actually get the picture....
21:15 March 15, 2013 by notpresto
Hey Local why not track down someone with some ideas and an action plan, now that would be some news.
01:31 March 16, 2013 by Svensksmith
Jesse Jackson would do a fine business in Sweden these days.
01:39 March 16, 2013 by Max Reaver
Yeah I have some ideas... Here's one.

When I worked with foreign students through student associations in Uppsala, one thing that shocked me was how little the school and MV knew of their whereabouts. I myself had to handle two cases where foreign students fell into depression, missed tons of classes and nobody asked. One of them even overstayed her visa period for months. I asked MV how they handle such situations, they said they won't do ANYTHING unless someone reports her! Even then they'd take time before contacting the police. That's one approach of how you can diminish "illegal immigrants" thru universities. The MV must work much closer with the schools and the schools must take attendance checks on students more often. So in case a student runs away or has trouble, MV can be reached in time to look into this matter. You wonder why there are so many illegal immigrants around? Because everybody is so friggin IRRESPONSIBLE!!! Good actions must be based on forcing the MV to take more responsibility and work closely with organizations with temporary immigrants who are on borrowed time. That is one.
03:31 March 16, 2013 by Marc the Texan
Handed them a note and they answered in English. Why didn't you just ask in Swedish?
11:00 March 16, 2013 by Khazara
"Race is a social construct"….This is a false statement. For example, in Sweden last year there were a record number of skin cancer deaths http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article16410272.ab. Africans would certainly not have the same problem with the suns radioactive rays as Europeans do.

Nonetheless, although I sympathized with this "Indian" man's plight; someone needs to tell him, in an understandable and thoughtful way; that he will never be Swedish. He's confusing nationality with race; since for the most part the two do not go "hand in hand". The only countries where this definition is a little more abstract are those countries where the current inhabitants were not the first inhabitants; i.e. Australia and the U.S.A. In the U.S.A. anyone can for most part become a national but very few people call themselves United States of Americans.

The opposite is true in places such as Africa, Asia and quite frankly Sweden. A great analogy would be whites in Southern Africa, some who have declared they have been there for years. They will never be seen as African. They do not speak an African language nor do they have African features / traits. This is why the cancer rate is so high in Southern Africa, since 7% of the population is white.
13:36 March 16, 2013 by Migga
@ Max Reaver

The responsibility starts with the immigrant to not overstay ones permit.
23:17 March 16, 2013 by Max Reaver
@Migga

Of course. In an ideal world where everybody takes responsibility, police has no purpose to exist. But this is reality, we need responsible government to take over where ppl fail with their personal responsibility. I'm sure many ppl abuse their migration status, altho for the two students I helped in Uppsala, none were able to take responsibility by themselves. One was admitted to the mental hospital by the time she was found by her friends, and on the verge of overstaying her permit period. The other was chronically depressed, she overstayed her permit by months. This one shouldn't even have got her visa extension for her 2nd yr in uni due to massively failing classes in 1st yr. You'd think it's ridiculous why MV gave her visa extension at all. So from the international student association I worked with, I managed to contact their respective family abroad so they came over, went through the formal paperwork to put study on hold and brought the kids home.

So yes, I myself helped reduce the number of illegal immigrants in Sweden by 2 without resorting to REVA's methods.

From this experience I saw some shortcomings of MV. MV seem to focus only on granting and permits, often too easily to underserving ppl . Second, they have no clue when someone's permit is expiring and has no follow-up to ensure they are leaving the country. The police is responsible for kicking ppl out, but since nobody knows who has an expiring permit, the police dont know where to start. Thats why they can only suspect every foreign-looking ppl out there, even those like Khemiri who are Swedish by birth. I'd suggest MV make a computer program listing all the expiring permits and share the information with the police, then the police will know who they should check up for migration status. REVA is an flawed solution to a flawed system, two wrongs dont make one right.
08:26 March 17, 2013 by Migga
@ Max Reaver

I`d say that checking people who don`t pay for their ticket in the subway is a good way to start, the REVA method. Arresting one out of ten is amazing numbers. But it has nothing to do about suspecting foreign-looking people which the left claimed.

You should think twice before saying that you helped in the deportation of illegal immigrants, there are some leftist groups that might take note. But I welcome your constructive idea about MV sharing information with the police to make it even more efficiant.
13:51 March 17, 2013 by Reason and Realism
Stopping turnstile jumpers was a key strategy that led to the drastic reduction in violent crime in New York City, because suspects (of all skin colours) who were wanted in armed robberies, rapes, and murders, are also (not surpringly) turnstile jumpers.

Accordingly the instructions to the Swedish police should have been to simply stop all turnstile jumpers, with no particular attention given to the skin colour of the jumper, and to request identification while issuing the fine.

The problem is that racial profiling was added to the instruction set, and this ultimately ruined an excellent opportunity to apprehend criminals of all sorts, in addition to apprehending and deporting people who are here illegally.

As for this opinion piece, Mister Linden waters down the racism debate by suggesting that his own experience exemplifies the 'plight' of 'non white' Swedes with some completely trivial examples like having a written question answered in English, or being asked if he is Swedish when reading a Swedish book.

Khemiri provides more well-founded examples of mistreatment and mistrust, but then he unnecessarily weakens his stance by (at least initially, maybe still) refusing

to meet with Ask, rather than to pursue an open dialogue on a national stage.

In my view, the anti-racism debate would benefit from a greater focus on the importance of immigration to Sweden's future economic growth. The USA has a very restrictive immigration policy, but in addition to the highly educated and ambitious entrepreneurs that flock to Silicon Valley and help to make it so successful, they also have a green card lottery system to get a diversified influx of immigrants.

A review of the economic benefits of a well governed and sustainable immigration policy would inform people (particularly fiscal conservatives, who occupy a middle ground in the debate, and who can influence government policy) that the appropriate number of immigrants is not zero, and that these are ideally distributed across a range of skillsets and training levels.
08:56 March 18, 2013 by John Joel
Seems to me that the comments made by the Justice Minister are being taken out of context and being used to fuel the fires of the anti REVA movement......after all anything is open to interpretaion, because if I didn´t know better the inclusion of the following and I quote :- ...

" For example the "stop and search" laws in 1970s Britain resulted in members of the black and Irish communities being subjected to random searches. Many have since argued the policy contributed to an increased IRA activity and to the riots in London during the 1980s. "

This inclusion could be perceived as a veiled threat that if the comments made by the ministers weren´t a bit more pc in the future then bombings & riots would soon follow............ maybe the comments were just what they were,comments & not some secret right wing plot.
09:22 March 18, 2013 by Max Reaver
@Migga

Well I wasn't helping MV in the deportation, they never bothered to talk to me except for the time when I called them to see whether those students were on expiring permits. And MV never did anything, they never contacted the police... My goal was to help individuals in need, to let them reunite with their family. The fact that both were about to become illegal was coincidental. Although if those two were caught by the police in Stockholm metro, they'd certainly have become the 10%. Thank you for your reminder. I say this just so those leftists can't twist my words as easily.
09:57 March 18, 2013 by robban70226
With a French kingdom and a German/Brazilian queen It is hard to understand this mess here
14:01 March 18, 2013 by azimuth
@Max Reaver, knowing that MV is overwhelmed with applications, there is no wonder that they don't keep track of the permits they issue as, I guess, they just don't have enough capacity to do that.

But, from another point of view, it is really strange that the system you propose doesn't exist already (police being able to see the list of expired permit holders). It exist in Denmark as far as I know. Witnessed a case when police came to my friend's place to check why is he still in the country with the permit expired for over two weeks.
19:56 March 18, 2013 by AquamanUK
David Linden - You MIGHT have SWEDISH Citizenship but you are not, nor will you ever be 'ethnically' Swedish!

FACE FACTS MATE. get a grip - you are black as ace of spades.

To think, expect otherwise - you are seriously suffering mental delusions!
17:49 March 19, 2013 by Khazara
AquamanUK

He is not African he is Indians, sheesh! No wonder everyone is confused.
20:03 March 19, 2013 by Flygger
I think a good idea might be to have anyone found to be an illegal alien, whatever colour, have an ethnic Swede be responsible for them.

If they vanish from the system the named ethnic Swede will be accountable.

This may involve stripping all their assets or prosecution for aiding them escape.

I think that's fair and the bleeding heart community have no cause to complain. Unless they are hypocritical trash mongerers who will not risk their money where their mouth is.

Perhaps a good old birching for them if they fail in their accountability might be in order. Perhaps they would forget all about their morals in that eventuality.

Trouble is finding someone to carry out the task of birching these liberalists. Difficult..
16:54 March 20, 2013 by JTee
I am black British currently working sweden as contactor.

I will be deeply offended and make a big issue of it if i was the only one ask for ID when in the mix of white friends at the airport or anywhere else for that matter

Reading this article and comments that fellow, i think there are two issue here, race and nationality.

You can be white and non-Swedish or non-white and Swedish

My understanding is once you hold a Swedish passport you have the same rights, responsibly and should be treated like

Every other Swedish

And like Scepticion said "if the ID checks were only conducted on people jumping the barrier on the subway, it's a clear violation,

So why should they not have their IDs checked." regardless of colour!

@ To those saying he can never be Swedish; can you say the same about people like David Linden who is

In the force fighting wars as Swedish? Or Winning medals in sports for Sweden!!!?

Am sure some of these guys are more Swedish than you lots. Been born white Swedish or British does not make you any better or different other Swedish, It your contribution to Sweden that counts.
17:53 March 20, 2013 by Migga
There are ethnic Swedes living around the world with a different nationality. An ethnic Swede living in Spain is spanish with a swedish ethnicity.

Then you have people of other ethnicities living in Sweden but with a swedish nationality, they are Swedes with a different ethnicity then swedish.

Then you have ethnic Swedes who has a swedish nationality.

That`s what the world boils down to. It`s nothing racist or upsetting about this. It only becomes that when people talks about one being better then the other.

David Linden is a Swede or a Swede with an Indian ethnicity, not an ethnic Swede or an ethnic Swede with a swedish nationality. Nothing wrong with that.
02:48 March 22, 2013 by theword
It is easier for a dark-skinned person to migrate and legally stay in almost all European countries. I am American, and I am an accomplished world traveller. Try going to India or China or Kuwait or Japan- to me some of the most rascist countries out there. I almost never read Swedish News becuase of all the articals concerning race! This individual dispite his education is simply another cry baby that is disgruntled about not quite fitting into a country that is natively white. Imagine if I (a 6 foot 4, blonde hair/blu eyes male) went to India and went around demanding that people acknowledge me for being white..... simply put that dosnt happen and will never happen. Why are we being made to feel guilty? All articles like these do is race-bait and stir the pot. If you dislike how Swedes treat you- go back to your own country. Simply put- the European countries are the most tolerant on the planet and please forgive us for not bowing down to you for looking different from the majority.
10:01 March 22, 2013 by robban70226
Swedes are the "nicest, most hospitable, generous people????

What a joke!!!
00:00 March 23, 2013 by John Redux
Race is important because his race, and his culture, did NOT build Sweden. He needs to leave.
11:38 March 25, 2013 by S Zandi
In some countries politicians are not able to see new social, economic and political trends. They need to be taught.
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