Posted on April 22, 2013

Sweden’s Closet Racists

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, New York Times, April 20, 2013

Welcome to my body. Make yourself at home. From now on, we share skin, spine and nervous system. Here are our legs, which always want to run when we see a police car. Here are our hands, which always clench into fists when we hear politicians talk about the need for stronger borders, more internal ID checks, faster deportation of people without papers.

And these are our fingers, which recently wrote a very public letter to Sweden’s justice minister, Beatrice Ask, after she went on the radio to defend racial profiling of passengers on Stockholm’s subway.

On March 7, the minister told a nationwide audience: “One’s experience of ‘why someone has questioned me’ can of course be very subjective,” suggesting that racially profiled subway passengers were overreacting and that their anger was irrational. Without missing a beat, she continued, “There are some who have been previously convicted and feel that they are always questioned, even though you can’t tell by looking at a person that they have committed a crime.”

It was an interesting choice of words — “previously convicted.” Because that’s exactly what we are. All of us who are guilty until proved innocent. We Swedes who do not fit the outdated blond, blue-eyed stereotype of what a true Swede should look like. We whose personal experience makes us doubt our country’s international reputation of being a paradise, with equal opportunities for everyone.


And all the time, a fight inside. One voice says: They have no goddamn right to prejudge us. They can’t cordon off the city with their uniforms. They can’t make us feel insecure in our own neighborhoods.

But the other voice says: What if it was our fault? We were probably talking too loudly. We were wearing hoodies and sneakers. We could have chosen to have less melanin in our skin. We happened to have last names that reminded this country that it is part of a larger world. We were young. Everything would definitely be different when we got older.

But then we replaced the hoodie with a black coat; the cap with a scarf. We stopped playing basketball and started studying economics. One day we were standing outside the Central Station, jotting something down in a notebook (because even if we were studying economics, we had a secret dream of becoming an author).

Suddenly someone appeared, a broad man with an earpiece asked for ID, pushed our arms up and dragged us toward the police van. Apparently we matched a description. Apparently we looked like someone else. We sat in the van for 20 minutes. Alone. But not really alone. Because 100 people were walking by. And they looked in at us with a look that whispered: “There. One more. Another one who is acting in complete accordance with our prejudices.”

I WISH you had been with me in the police van. But I sat there alone. And I met all the eyes walking by and tried to show them that I wasn’t guilty, that I had just been standing in a place and looking a particular way. But it’s hard to argue one’s innocence from the back seat of a police van. And it’s impossible to be a part of society when everyone continually assumes that you are not.

After 20 minutes I was released. No apology. No explanation. Instead: “You can go now.”

And in the knowledge that others have it much worse, I chose silence instead of words. After all, I was born here. I know the language. I am not threatened with deportation.


And nothing changes. The low-intensity oppression lives on thanks to our inability to reformulate our congealed national self-image.

So tonight, outside a bar somewhere in Stockholm, groups of nonwhite people are systematically spreading themselves out so they don’t get stopped by the bouncer.

Tomorrow those with foreign names will use their partner’s last name when trying to rent an apartment. And just now a completely average Swede whose parents happen to come from elsewhere is writing “BORN AND RAISED IN SWEDEN” on her job application just because she knows what will happen otherwise.


[Editor’s Note: Muslim immigration has led Sweden to the second-highest rape rate in the world, after South Africa.]