‘Immigrants in Sweden are treated as a homogenous, deviant group’

All deviant behavior which does not fit into dominant Swedish social norms is lumped together and attributed to immigrants, writes Salam Zandi, drawing parallels with concepts developed by thinkers such as Edward Saïd.

'Immigrants in Sweden are treated as a homogenous, deviant group'
Photo: Mälardalen University; Mats Andersson/Scanpix

Immigrants in Sweden do not belong to one ethnic linguistic group, nor religious or cultural entity. Despite this fact, many public authorities, politicians, intellectuals and statistical offices treat them as a homogeneous group with defined characteristics.

Some debaters, for instance, write about immigrant girls as a group of girls having a shared problem. Others define immigrant men as having an inherent inability to respect women. Those who define themselves as the bearers of the western values system occasionally imply that immigrants are essentially deficient in their understanding of modernity, western lifestyles or individual integrity.

Furthermore there are others who collectively define immigrants and give them a set of common attributes.

Looking at the issue from the perspective of a discourse analysis we can establish that immigrants in Sweden are transformed into “the others” – in political debates, discussions, articles, texts, pictures and in statistical data. “The others” as in those who are unlike the native Swedes.

Any divergent behaviour or conduct which doesn’t fit into existing Swedish social norms are lumped together and attributed to immigrants. Even when someone, who is himself not a native Swede, tries to display a positive aspect of these “the others”, he or she is unable to liberate him or herself from this framework.

The identity of the “the others”, immigrants, is established and within this framework all positive, negative and neutral notions on immigrants circulate. All conceptualizations of the immigrants take place inside within this. In accordance with the study of logic, it is illogical to reach a verified conclusion by false premises. In order to clarify my thinking, I am not trying here to discuss this issue with terminologies such as xenophobia, nationalism or racism.

The need to define “the others” in order to strengthen a group’s feeling of belonging is a well-known phenomenon and eminently written about within the field of social-anthropology. This is of course also not a uniquely Swedish mindset. What is however possibly unique in Sweden is the dividing line between inclusiveness and exclusiveness.

If you are a coloured person or speak Swedish with an accent it is enough for you to be included into the category of immigrant. It is not enough to be a Swedish citizen and speak Swedish fluently and to be a skilled professional within the state’s apparatus or in the government.

To exemplify I refer to two secretaries of state in the United States, namely Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. It seems that the United States has another approach to the issue. In the US all citizens need to contribute with their competence in order to build the country. All are needed, regardless of the origin or speech articulation.

In the United States a black man with a Kenyan father became president.

The social patterns which are in practice here in Sweden impact not only those citizens born outside Sweden but also for the country as a whole. Citizenship in Sweden is apparently not defined by the law, it is a cultural issue. Swedishness lies in the sphere of mythology and in this sphere neither, logic, time, skill nor the value of equity are given scope. The result of this is social alienation, a development which is being fought by politicians.

In my opinion, in view of this kind of inclusive/exclusive reasoning, immigrants remain immigrants forever, while the native Swedes inherit their Swedishness.

The almost comical debates prompted by the publication of data published by The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) regarding the higher representation of immigrants in certain crimes committed in Sweden, illustrate the pathetic nature of the attempts of some groups to create “the others” in Sweden.

Salam Zandi is a Swedish academic affiliated with Mälardalen University.

This article was originally published in Swedish on the Newsmill opinion website. English translation by Salam Zandi/The Local

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”