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

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'Swedish politicians have a lot to learn about discussing race'
11:07 CET+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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