‘Swedishness must be split from being white’

Sweden needs a new story better equipped to deal with and include today's demographic diversity and create a new Swedishness that is separate from whiteness, write representatives from the Multicultural Centre (Mångkulturellt centrum) in Botkyrka near Stockholm.

'Swedishness must be split from being white'

Why is it that the notion lives on about what a Swedish appearance looks like? The radio programme Studio 1 asked this question in March during a debate about racism in Sweden today. The question of Swedishness is a loaded one and the debate heats up when race becomes an ever-more central concept in order to understand racist practices in every-day life in Sweden.

Our thoughts and our actions are affected by history and by society’s structures and norms. Society and its different shapes existed before each and every one of us alive today were born. In other words, we are born into a web of thought patterns and values that influence how we treat and regard each other and ourselves. We are quite simply greatly affected by structural power hierarchies that came about during a period in history marked by racism and colonialism. Of course there is development over time, but when it comes to norms and stereotypes it takes a long time.

Swedes do not stand apart from the world and its history of racism and colonialism. Our way of dealing with this has so far been to deny that race exists, while we have also wanted to affirm the unknown and the new. Most Swedes will claim they are colour blind, and only see a human before them when they meet someone new. This denial risks hiding from view the discrimination and the segregation that is so tangible and evident for the many who are not seen as Swedes, and whose stories make up a painful testament to the state of things in Sweden.

Several articles and debates have recently criticized Multicultural Centre’s exhibition Warning For Race and our anthology Race And Whiteness In Contemporary Sweden. We have read twenty-odd texts that object to our choice to use the term race. We know that the word race is taboo today, but at the same time it is related to a history that we still have not managed to come to terms with.

Critics say we are trying “fight fire with fire”, as a Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) editorial writer put it, or they say speaking about race doesn’t lead anywhere in attempts to understand today’s Sweden. What the criticisms has in common is that they strongly argue for how things should be – that race should not have any significance in today’s Sweden – instead of looking at what they actually look like.

That is why we argue that Sweden needs a non-colour-blind anti-racism that enables an understanding of the thought structures behind today’s exclusive Swedishness. That is what we are trying to talk about and what we intend the exhibition Warning For Race to contribute to.

Like most other people, we do not believe that separating people into race would solve any social problems. But if certain groups of people with similar backgrounds are found over and over in the lower tiers of the statistics tables, then there is a reason to seek out knowledge about it and try to understand what the consequences are.

The reason Multicultural Centre raises the concept of race is because we still think race is an active category in Sweden, or, as we say in the exhibit, “race is still done” all the time in today’s Sweden even though the concept itself has been discarded by science and politics alike.

We still separate people based on what they look like. Not always and not everywhere, but it is happening all the more often and in particular in relation to who is regarded as being Swedish or not. It happens in the media, it happens in culture.

There is even solid empirical research about Swedish every-day racism that has chronicled the experiences of non-white Swedes. It does not make for fun reading.

For the past 15 years, we at Multicultural Centre have studied and worked with the phenomenon of every-day racism in an educational manner. From there, we have concluded that we need to speak about race, instead of just contenting ourselves with analyses of ethnicity, meetings between cultures, and general xenophobia.

Despite most Swedes today distancing themselves from racism, we still meet stereotypical images and descriptions of non-white minorities and non-Western cultures in contemporary Swedish culture. Comparatively, Sweden has established some of the strongest laws against discrimination, and therefore gets top grades in the Migrant Integration Policy Index for creating the best preconditions for integration of new citizens. This isn’t what needs improving.

We see a segmented labour market, and we see housing segregation – even when we compare with other countries that are much more cautious towards people who are not seen to belong to the majority population.

Taken together, this should prompt us to pause for reflection.

We want a new Swedish story better equipped to deal with and include today’s demographic diversity and to create a new Swedishness for the future. That new story’s main task is to separate whiteness from Swedishness in order to be a socially sustainable future Swedishness.

To find our way to that story, we think we must make visible the suppression and discrimination based on appearance, which we do in the exhibit and in the anthology. Let us not pretend that Sweden and Swedes stand apart from the world, history and the racial thinking and the norm of whiteness that still live on both in other countries and in our own society.

Christina Zedell, Willy Viitala, Leif Magnusson and Tobias Hübinette of the Multicultural Centre, which was established as a foundation by Botkyrka Municipality in 1987.

This article was originally published on the Newsmill citizen op-ed site.

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TEST: Is your Swedish good enough for citizenship?

To become a Swedish citizen, you may soon need to prove your language skills. Do yours make the grade?

TEST: Is your Swedish good enough for citizenship?

The Swedish government’s proposal that applicants for residency have to pass a language test is almost certain to get through parliament. The proposal — part of the January Agreement struck between the Social Democrats, the Centre Party, and the Liberal Party — has a big majority of parliamentary parties behind it.

So it might be time to sign up for SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) classes – that is, if you haven’t already. 

READ ALSO: Swedish language tests for citizenship: Here’s what we know about the proposal so far

What level of Swedish will you need for citizenship? 

An inquiry into bringing in the language requirement for concluded in January last year that applicants for citizenship should be able to listen to and read Swedish at B1 the second of the six levels in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), equivalent to having completed level D, the fourth-highest level in the Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) course. 

This is a fairly high level of Swedish, well beyond the simple nej, tack, (“no, thanks”) you might need when asked if you want a receipt at the supermarket, or the en kardemummabulle och en latte (“a cardamom bun and a latte”) you might need when ordering a fika. It’s enough to get the gist of what’s in Swedish newspapers, listen to the radio, or to follow a lecture without too much difficultly. 

When it comes to speaking or writing Swedish, the inquiry suggested requiring a lower level, A2. This is equivalent to SFI level C, and roughly the same as GCSE level in the UK.  

This is the same level which the government has suggested for those applying for permanent residency for reading and listening as well as speaking and writing.

READ ALSO: Is your Swedish good enough for permanent residency?

What are the CEFR’s A2 and B1 levels? 

According to the CEFR guide, someone at B1 level, “can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.” and “can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.”

To compare this to school levels in European countries, this is roughly equivalent to getting an A-C grade at AS level in the UK. 

A2 is much more basic. According to CEFR, this is enough to “communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters”. 

People reaching this level should be able to “describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.”

So there’s no need to speak or write with perfect grammar, or to have a large Swedish vocabulary, but people at this level should be able to communicate in a basic way when writing or speaking. 

How can I test my level? 

If you want to do a thorough assessment of whether your Swedish is good enough for citizenship, you can do one of the free level tests provided by the Folkuniversitetet adult education school. You need to do the tests for Swedish level A2 and B1. 

The Swedish National Agency for Education (skolverket), also has sample papers for the national test for SFI level C and SFI level D.

Below are some excerpts to help you judge whether or not your Swedish is at the right level. 

Listening (level D) 

In this example listening test, you first have to listen to this recording.

Did that make any sense? Then here’s the question paper. 

Du får höra två personer som bokar en resa tillsammans. Lyssna och svara på frågorna. Läs först igenom uppgiften

A Vem ska de hälsa på?

□ En kompis.

□ En släkting.

□ En studiekamrat.

B Varför bestämmer de sig för att resa med tåg?

 □ Det är snabbast.

□ Det är billigast.

□ Det är trevligast

If that’s too much for you, then you’ve got some more studying to do if you expect to be applying in early 2025. 

Reading (Level D) 

You can find examples of various reading tests here. To give you an idea, we’ve put one below.  

Vem vänder sig texten till? 

Texten vänder sig till …

□lärare. □politiker. □elever. □chefer

Texten vänder sig till …

□lärare. □politiker. □ elever. □chefer.

Did you get that? Then maybe you’re ready for whatever future language test the government decides to put in place. 


This is the same level as has been suggested for permanent residency, so this repeats the example from the permanent residency test article

In this prompt for the writing test for SFI Level C, you are asked to write a letter to a friend about a recent trip.

It suggests telling them about where you stayed, what you did, and what you liked and disliked about the trip. You are asked to pay attention to how you start and end the letter.

Skriv ett brev till en vän och berätta om en resa du har gjort.

Du kan till exempel
• berätta om vart du reste.
• berätta om vad du gjorde.
• berätta om vad du tyckte var bra och vad du inte tyckte var bra med resan.

Tänk på hur du börjar och slutar brevet.

Can you understand the instructions at least? Now you need to show off your letter-writing skills. 


In the solo portion of this section, you are asked to talk about an everyday topic based on something you have experienced – like a recent trip, or a party you attended. You are asked to speak for 5-7 minutes, and you may take some time to plan out your thoughts before starting.

The teacher holding the exam will say to you: 

Du ska få berätta om en något du varit med om.
Du ska prata i 5-7 minuter.
Om du vill kan du ta en liten stund och planera vad du ska säga innan du börjar prata.

In the paired portion of this section, you are given a topic – like what is most important in school – and asked to have a 10-minute conversation about the topic. It should be a discussion, with both participants speaking for an equal period of time, and you will have access to some prompts in a “prompt card” to keep the conversation going.

The teacher leading the test will tell you something like: 

Ni ska prata med varandra om vad ni tycker är viktigt.
Ni ska prata i cirka 10 minuter.
Det är viktigt att ni lyssnar på varandra, ställer frågor till varandra och frågar varandra om ni inte förstår.
Tänk på att ni båda talar ungefär lika mycket.
Jag kommer inte att vara med och prata utan bara lyssna, det är ni som ska diskutera med varandra.

Till hjälp får ni den här tankekartan (lägg den på bordet) på den finns några punkter som ni kan diskutera, ni måste inte prata om alla men ni kan använda dem som stöd under diskussionen (gå igenom tankakartan snabbt).
Frågetecknet betyder att det också kan finnas många andra saker som är viktiga, som inte finns med på tankekartan.
Okej, då kan ni börja prata med varandra!

Could you at least understand that? Could you keep a conversation going on these topics in Swedish? Then you might be ready for the citizenship test.