• Sweden edition
 
'Not all discrimination in Sweden is racism'

'Not all discrimination in Sweden is racism'

Published: 14 May 2013 15:42 GMT+02:00
Updated: 14 May 2013 15:42 GMT+02:00

Why do immigrants often face discrimination? How can you as an individual avoid falling victim? This is a question that I would have wanted answered when I was growing up here in Sweden.

I grew up in various tough neighbourhoods of Sweden, dependent on welfare. In this environment, racism was hard to avoid. When I started seventh grade most boys in my class were outspoken neo-Nazis. I remember feeling that Sweden was fraught with discrimination. Luckily, I was wrong. When I went to university and started climbing the social ladder, I realized that the majority of Swedes are not racists. In fact, many are more than happy to encourage immigrants who want to succeed.

You wouldn't appreciate this by reading the papers, however. The media, politicians, and others who influence young people misunderstand discrimination and racism. The image the media conveyed when I was growing up was pretty similar to that broadcast today: that racism is widespread in all parts of Swedish society. In fact, it is predominant mostly in socially and economically poor neighbourhoods.

The message to my younger self was clear. I could choose to work hard, but shouldn't expect to be rewarded for doing so. This resonated strongly with me; succeeding in studies didn't seem to pay off in schools filled with bullying, fights, and general disorder.

It was easy to adopt a world view that the rest of society worked in the same way, at least for a young immigrant from a socially excluded environment. And if my upbringing in a middle-class Iranian family hadn't taught me to focus at least a bit on academic achievement, I most likely would have performed very poorly in school.

Let me illustrate my point. The media in Sweden sometimes report on studies in which researchers submit several job applications, some with names that sound Swedish, and some with more foreign-sounding names. Applicants with "Swedish" names are more likely to get called to an interview, something journalists interpret as meaning that immigrants in Sweden have little chance of finding employment.

Young immigrants, particularly those living in economic and social exclusion, get the impression that they might as well give up the idea of succeeding in the Swedish labour market. Journalists communicate this message with the hope that it will sound alarm bells that lead to efforts to reduce discrimination and racism. But it would be much more constructive if the journalists themselves better understood how discrimination works, and instead put forward a more nuanced perspective.

Swedish researchers Magnus Carlsson and Dan-Olof Rooth have studied previous research and conducted their own study on job applications. They concluded that a letter from an applicant with an foreign-sounding name is indeed less likely to result in an interview than a similar letter from an applicant with a Swedish name. But this difference is small if the applicant instead picks up the phone and calls employers.

A likely explanation is that immigrants seeking entry-level jobs often have poor language skills, and a letter does not necessarily offer solid proof of your linguistic capabilities. Somebody else might have helped the applicant write it, for example. But if the applicant actually speaks with an interviewer, and has a decent command of the Swedish language, the chances of moving ahead in the hiring process are much greater.

In fact, discrimination isn't always a result of racism. One form of discrimination often discussed in Sweden is referred to as customer discrimination. Many entry-level jobs for young people exist within services. If you don't speak Swedish with a perfect Stockholm dialect, for example (because you come from a marginalized immigrant neighborhood, or for that matter from a rural part of Sweden), your ability to sell services or work in retail is lower than that of others, all else being equal. When employers have lots of applicants to choose from, they often eliminate those who don’t have the right dialect.

Is this accent-based selection a form of racial discrimination? While it's not impossible to change one's pronunciation, it certainly takes effort. But it's important to acknowledge that this form of discrimination does not come from simple bigotry, but rather is an effort to take customer preferences into account. It might even help to know that somebody with a deep southern Swedish (or northern Swedish) dialect (not to mention a strong Örebro dialect) might face the same problems as a young immigrant who hasn't picked up a perfect Stockholm dialect.

We will only make progress in this debate if the media, politicians, and others who influence society gain a better understanding of how discrimination works, and acknowledge that it is not always based on outright racism. Discussing the problem and admitting that discrimination exists and that society needs to fight it isn't the only important thing. It is also vital to explain how individuals can change their own situation so that they no longer face discrimination (or can succeed in spite of it).

As Carlsson and Dan-Olof Rooth write, the current message about Swedish society might do more harm than good: “In the media debate, the Swedish labour market is sometimes portrayed as being entirely discriminatory and racist. This picture appears, based on our results, to be greatly exaggerated. It can also have a serious impact on job seekers with an immigrant background who therefore are less likely to choose to look for work or go through training than they would have done if the debate had instead been based upon the evidence".

What are the big differences between those who live in socially rich and socially poor families? It is not merely money. Those that live in socially rich surroundings grow up with the norms, information, trust, networks, and other forms of social capital (a proper Stockholm dialect for example) that enable success. Discrimination can come from having different ethnic and cultural origins than those who are doing the discriminating, but also from having too little social capital. You can’t change your ethnicity. You might be able to change other people’s intolerant attitudes, but this – given the monumental task of changing a whole society – is far from easy. For an individual striving for success, the best tip for avoiding much of the discrimination that exists in society us to accumulate social capital.

By simply being a successful contributor to society, you might change others' attitudes for the better. This is at least my advice to those growing up in socially and economically poor families, including those of Swedish origin. I can’t say if it's a perfect piece of advice. But I am confident that we could gain a lot if more people focused on talking about how individuals can deal with discrimination in real life, rather than simply raging against it. The beauty of modern societies such as Sweden's is that you can find a way to climb up the social ladder - despite the obstacles.

Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin. He has a PhD in polymer technology and has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women's career opportunities.

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
National
Swedish town 'like Venice' after heavy rains
Photo: TT

Swedish town 'like Venice' after heavy rains

Torrential rains in western Sweden have left some towns submersed as water levels have risen to 1.5 metres above normal for the season with forecasts indicating that is worse to come. READ  

Ebola crisis
Sweden pledges new aid to UN Ebola fund
Photo: TT

Sweden pledges new aid to UN Ebola fund

Sweden has offered a new sizeable contribution to the fund set up by UN chief Ban K-moon to fight the Ebola outbreak. READ  

Society
'Dark forces' target refugee hunting scheme
Photo: Lars-Göran Thuresson/Älgriket

'Dark forces' target refugee hunting scheme

The Swedish hunting association runs a project to encourage young asylum-seekers to learn about hunting, a move which has proved controversial among some far right groups. READ  

Business & Money
American sales squeeze Ericsson profits
Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg presents the third-quarter earnings report at the company's headquarters in Kista. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

American sales squeeze Ericsson profits

Swedish telecoms equipment maker Ericsson reported a decline in net profit in the third quarter despite an increase in sales, boosted by business in emerging markets. READ  

Interview
'Too many concerts feel the same'
Sofar hosts secret gigs in Swedish apartments. Photo: Sofar

'Too many concerts feel the same'

Kattis Bjork founded Stockholm's secret gig scene - Sofar - a year ago. The Local caught up with her as she prepared to celebrate the project's anniversary this weekend and revealed the concept will spread to other Swedish cities in 2015. READ  

Stockholm 'sub hunt'
Sweden calls off suspect submarine search
Ships are returning to shore in Sweden. Photo: TT

Sweden calls off suspect submarine search

The core search for a suspected foreign vessel in Swedish waters has been called off. The armed forces said they remained convinced foreign underwater activity had taken place but had not identified an intruder. READ  

Business & Money
US and Japan fuel surge for Volvo trucks
Ed Carbaugh prepares to install parts on a truck engine on an assembly line at Volvo Trucks' powertrain manufacturing facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, March 2014. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

US and Japan fuel surge for Volvo trucks

Sweden's Volvo, the world's second-largest maker of trucks, said Friday it saw a spike in profits in the third quarter, boosted by thriving sales in the US and Japanese markets. READ  

Inspectors attacked at rogue doc’s surgery
Cigarettes and beer photo: Shutterstock

Inspectors attacked at rogue doc’s surgery

Inspectors who were sent to shut down a doctor’s surgery in Gothenburg were physically attacked and fled the premises to get help from the police. READ  

Police turn Swede’s vodka into water
A Swede loads a car with alcohol in northern Germany. File photo: Drago Prvulovic/TT

Police turn Swede’s vodka into water

Swedish police say they will pay a man 16,000 kronor ($2,200) in damages after much of the alcohol they confiscated from him was stolen, while many of the bottles they returned were filled with water. READ  

Diplomacy
US to get first female ambassador in Sweden
File photo: Athena Center for Leadership Studies

US to get first female ambassador in Sweden

The United States Embassy in Stockholm is set to get its first female ambassador after the White House announced it was nominating the Iranian-American ex-investment banker Azita Raji to take over from Mark Brzezinski. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Lifestyle
What's On in Sweden: October 24th - 31st
Gallery
People-watching: October 22nd
Gallery
In Pictures: Prince Carl Philip and Sofia Hellqvist
Lifestyle
Eight things to love about renting a Swedish apartment
National
Vasa ship cannon blasted in Sweden
Blog updates

24 October

Editor’s blog, October 24th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hi readers, Get ready to read our weekly digest of Swedish news in less than 60 seconds. The..." READ »

 

24 October

Is darkness weather? (Blogweiser) »

"I try very hard not to talk about the weather. This has come after a decade..." READ »

 
 
 
National
Sub hunt: Day-by-day
National
Sub hunt: Stockholm islanders share their fears with The Local
Sponsored Article
The best options for oversea transfers
National
Get 20% off unique Swedish homeware
National
Dentist gives free care to Roma beggars
Business & Money
Get your own office in Gothenburg or Stockholm - free for a day
Gallery
Property of the week: Malmö
Gallery
PHOTOS: 'Foreign activity' in Swedish waters
Gallery
People-watching: October 19th
TT
Society
QUIZ: How good is your Swedish?
Lifestyle
What's on in Sweden: October 17th - 24th
Society
The nudity... and nine other things expat men notice in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 15th
Gallery
Your views: Should outdoor smoking be banned in Sweden?
Business & Money
Sweden has 'large hole' in finances
Sponsored Article
Introducing... Finding a job in Stockholm
Society
Monster salmon caught in northern Sweden
Gallery
Property of the week: Lorensberg
National
Scandinavia's child bride
National
Ebola crisis: How is Sweden preparing?
Business & Money
How Sweden is becoming a cashless society
Gallery
Stockholm Burlesque Festival 2014
National
How a little red horse became a symbol for Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: October 12th
Business & Money
The hottest start-ups from southern Sweden
National
What's on in Sweden: October 10th - 17th
National
Stockholm is 'best' region for well-being
Gallery
People-watching: October 8th
National
Five facts to know about Patrick Modiano
Society
My Swedish Career: A French fashionista in Sweden
Society
Swede's anti-bully Facebook tale goes viral
Society
Have you seen Sweden's viral subway cancer campaign?
National
Isis: Swedes linked to Turkish prisoner swap
National
Should Swedes be banned from buying sex abroad?
Gallery
Fredrik Reinfeldt's leaving presents
National
Five Swedish TV shows you shouldn't miss
Gallery
A tool belt, a casserole, and a book. Fredrik Reinfeldt's parliament gifts
TT
Lifestyle
Top five winter festivals in Sweden
TT
National
Sami reindeer herders win mine reprieve
Gallery
Property of the Week: Gamla Enskede
Sponsored Article
How to catch the first lobster of the year
Team SCA
Sponsored Article
All-female SCA team takes off on Volvo Ocean Race
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

985
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
http://psdmedia.se
If you want to drink, that’s your business.
If you want to stop, we can help.

Learn more about English-language Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. No dues. No fees. Confidentiality assured.
AA-EUROPE.ORG/SWEDEN