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IMMIGRATION

‘Swedish society forces ‘immigrants’ to emigrate’

Swedish society is failing its "immigrants", many of whom, such as football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are forced to look elsewhere to build successful careers, social commentator and author Tove Lifvendahl argues.

'Swedish society forces 'immigrants' to emigrate'
Photo: Albert Bonnier förlag; Luca Bruno/Scanpix (file)

“I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic” – this is no way to express oneself in Sweden, if you are aware of the silent, strict codes in order to be accepted (editor’s note: in reference to the title of the autobiography of the Sweden and Milan star).

I was once told how the former US ambassador to Sweden Lyndon Olson paid a visit to a daycare a couple of days after arriving in Sweden. He was baffled to see how the children, dressed up as pieces of pie in papier-maché hats, sang that they were part of the pie.

“This would never happen in America! There they would say ‘I am pie!”

Swedes possess, aside from their reputation as the Scandinavian Japanese (quiet, polite, punctual, conflict-shy, nature-lovers) a characteristic which ethnologists continually return to: Sweden is the country where similarity is appreciated more than anywhere else.

This peculiarity causes us trouble when faced with that which constitutes the contrast to similarity: difference. People who differ – for example, immigrants, emigrants, returning Swedes, odd personalities, those with high ambitions or unwillingness to adapt to the social regulations – are at high risk of being met with negative attitudes.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Lagercrantz’s readable book is not primarily about Sweden – even if some who have read it, amazingly enough, seemed to have missed at least ten years of debate on integration filled with stories of how social exclusion appears to many, naively treating this part of the book as “dynamite”. Wake up, like.

The comments and reviews by which the main character is met, both now and previously, are however illustrative. One person gets hung up for a large part of their review on Zlatan’s admission that he has not been interested or heard of some famous Swedish football players, and the reviewer concludes, after a long explanation, that Zlatan can’t be telling the truth. No one can surely be in the dark about Ravelli! (editor’s note: Sweden’s national team goalkeeper in the 1994 World Cup).

One thing is certain: We can bask in the glow of Zlatan, but not take any of the credit.

Sure, we like football and are happy to praise our heroes when successful. But Zlatan hasn’t succeeded because of Sweden and Swedish society, but despite it – or possibly hardened by the mistrust, the questioning, the complaints, protest lists, and other negativity that he has encountered.

The support he has received in Sweden has come from from certain individuals who have chosen inopportunistically to defy the entrenched norms.

In New York, there are currently around 25 other Swedes who meet to play football. Not as a pros, but as happy recreational amateurs. The team is called Blatte United, and consists mainly of Swedish-born guys who, when they lived in Sweden, were regarded as immigrants (sometimes classified into second or third generation…).

We lost them to foreign shores, because they diverged from Swedish norms and were never given a chance.

They thus chose to build their lives elsewhere. Today, they run lauded, world-renowned restaurants and advertising companies, or hold senior positions within banking and finance. Some of them can, without exaggeration, be called “Zlatans” within their respective fields.

We hold them up as Swedes who have succeeded internationally, but the truth is we bullied them away and showed them the door.

Sure there are a large number who look elsewhere as a natural part of a career choice.

But this completely new category of immigrants which Sweden has created are successful, global citizens who play football in their freetime, and who look back to reflect on Sweden, wondering when we’ll understand that the suppressed, sometimes hissing, envy and the difficulty in overcoming differences, is characteristic of our societal culture for which we are paying a very heavy price.

Tove Lifvendahl is 37-years-old and lives in Uppsala. She is the head of communications at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the author of a new book on national identity, development and emigration.

This article was originally published in Swedish on the Aftonbladet daily. English translation by The Local.

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IMMIGRATION

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.” 

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