Bus passengers in Stockholm reported that a driver separated “Swedish” and “non-Swedish” passengers during a trip in late December.
The driver denies he deliberately divided passengers according to their appearance or ethnicity, but has since been suspended as the bus company investigates the incident.
Mikael Hjerm, a sociology professor at Umeå University and an expert on multiculturalism, reacted strongly to the incident, but does not believe it serves as an accurate reflection of Sweden or Swedes’ attitudes toward race and ethnicity.
“It’s terrible, really terrible – I’m shocked. But discrimination is nothing new, it’s everywhere,” he told The Local.
He theorized that one of the main reasons the story made headlines from London to New York is that it goes against Sweden’s usually solid reputation when it comes to fairness and equality.
“Sweden is always right up the top when it comes to rankings of the least prejudiced countries. These kinds of issues are so sensitive. The vast majority of people don’t accept prejudice and agree that it’s a problem. The world has come to expect a very high standard from Sweden,” Hjerm explained.
“Of course, I’m not saying the situation in Sweden can’t get worse, but this kind of tragic incident is just one shocking and rather surprising example.”
Hjerm added that discrimination can often result from unconscious actions, but that what made the “apartheid bus” unusual was how very conscious it appears to have been, according to initial media reports.
“I only know what I’ve read in the papers, but this case is so blatant. And it’s symbolic. Straight away you get images from apartheid in South Africa or Rosa Parks in the US,” he said, referencing the woman who became an icon for the US civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
The Swedish bus driver, should he be found to have acted deliberately, may just be one rotten apple, according to Hjerm, and should not be considered a reflection of the typical Swede.
“Prejudice or xenophobia, as of right now, is not actually getting any worse in Sweden, there is no evidence to suggest this. If anything, measurements show that the trend is improving,” he said.
“The most prejudiced group is the elderly, who grew up in a different time. To put it very bluntly, when they die things get better.”
Besides the difficulty elderly have in abandoning long-held views, Hjerm pointed to politicians’ poor articulation of the issue as another cause for xenophobia in Swedish society.