It still surprises me to hear protests of “but you don’t look English!” when I answer “I’m from England” in reply to “where are you from?” questions. For people with Asian roots, where-are-you-from questions are as a rule followed by but-where-are-you-really-from questions. While I’m all for friendly curiosity, I do have a problem with people refusing to accept my answer due to their own preconceptions about race and nationality.

It’s the year 2009 fer chrissake! The Chinese have been in Britain for 323 years;[1] they settled the Americas along with some of the very first European pioneers in the 1500s.[2] Populations have been displaced and people have been moving around for centuries. You’ve got Turkish Germans, Algerian French, Chinese Cubans, Greek Australians, White Kenyans, Korean Swedes, Pakistani Londoners, Japanese Peruvians... you name it!

There is no sense in asking people for a full genealogical report and ancestral migratory flowchart just to satisfy outdated notions of where people fit in the scheme of things. The lines have been blurred for quite some time—increasing numbers of people are unable to explain their origins in the simple terms. Get real, get updated, get used to it!

Perhaps most people simply haven’t worked out their notions of nationality, race and culture, or realized that they are in fact separable things. Perhaps their intrusive questions are merely sincere attempts at relating to the persons with whom they are interacting. But is it not a mistake to consciously or unconsciously ascribe characteristics to people based on their ethnicity? Being on the constant receiving end of such interrogations, it’s easy to get the impression people are enquiring about race in an attempt to chart allegiances where none may exist; to assign one-dimensional solutions to the dilemma of their finding an Asian in their midst, in their domain in West: they have to belong to some other country, anywhere, just not here—this one is not one of ours!

“Positive” discrimination?

A well-educated Swedish woman once told me I should be happy that I “have it so good” for being an English-speaking Chinese, because “all Swedish people think highly of the Chinese as a model minority and respect them for being an industrious, hardworking people,” and “all Swedish people like to speak English.” The message was that I should be happy because for once, prejudice, ignorance and bias were working in my favor.

To add insult to injury, such relentless questions are frequently posed by people who beleieve they’re entitled to press the point, because “we should all know where we come from and be proud of our origins.” Life would be so much simpler, if everyone of us had the answers they wanted to hear, because when we don’t, the implication is that we are ashamed of the truth about ourselves—something that Ive been accused of on many an occasion by these individuals of pure pedigree.

What surprises me, is how even my African-American friends get asked “but where are you from, from the beginning?” [sic] repeatedly, because Swedes will not rest until they get “Africa.” And note: this is not a question they’d ever ask a Caucasian American. Swedes habitually criticize Americans for their low aptitude for world geography, yet they seem to exhibit considerable social ineptitude for relating to the real-life descendants of black-American history, clumsily fishing with obtuse questions such as, “Which part of Africa are you from?”

Get a clue, Swedes—it’s you I’m talking about here—not all of you, naturally, but perhaps the majority? Your line of questioning betrays you: you believe that America is the Manifest Destiny of whites only!

“Sweden is racist”
—government report

Integration policies contribute to structural discrimination in Swedish society, according to a government report presented on Wednesday.

"In practice there is a paradox, where 'Swedishness' becomes a goal which is never reached," wrote Professor Masoud Kamali. "The whole policy is based on the idea of 'us and them'."

Dagens Nyheter was treated to a sneak preview of the report, which itself has been the subject of allegations of political meddling. The report’s initial author, Anders Westholm, was booted off the job a year ago by the then integration minister Mona Sahlin after several researchers with foreign backgrounds said he was ignoring ethnic discrimination.

Masoud Kamali, an Iranian-born professor of sociology who was one of the fiercest critics, was handed the task - prompting 70 academics to write to Sahlin complaining that the research had been unduly influenced by politics.

Kamali concludes that integration policies themselves need to shift focus, away from the individual immigrant and towards society’s structures which the immigrant finds it so hard to access.

"We must look at our institutions and ought to reform them so that people who come here have access to work, influence and power in society," wrote Kamali.

"It’s natural that the roles of advisors, educators and keepers of order are reserved for 'real Swedes' while 'the others' are forced into a conditional existence where competence, honour, knowledge, commitment and even the right to be in Sweden can be questioned at any time."

Kamali used the media’s reporting of 'honour killings' as an example of discrimination, noted DN. He argues that when an immigrant girl is murdered by her father, it is reported as an inherent part of their cultural background. But when the same thing happens to a Swedish girl, culture has nothing to do with it, as far as the politicians and the media are concerned.

Racial ignorance can be found everywhere, but Sweden—a country widely-regarded as being quite advanced on humanist issues—has its own special brand, and Swedes lag far behind when it comes to awareness of their own racial stereotyping and insensitivity towards foreigners (and perceived foreigners). They tend to think of themselves as pretty-darn culturally-enlightened Embracers of Universalism—open and accepting of different races and cultures—yet they take racial ignorance to a whole new level, dishing out questions so imperceptive you’d be hard pressed to find them anywhere else in the world.

Racism may be on the rise, because ignorance—the precursor to racism and xenophobia—is flourishing in Swedish culture. Racial discrimination, borne of anything from innocent ignorance to outright conscientious racism, is most certainly alive and well in Sweden.

Discrimination, no matter how invisible, no matter how denied by Swedes, has very measurable results in Swedish society. Hyperbole or not, it is said that the greatest concentration of qualified doctors in Sweden can be found not in Swedish hospitals but in Swedish taxis, because skilled foreigners who can’t find jobs end up driving taxis. Due to the enormity of the problem, the European Union has commissioned special reports[4] and task forces to deal with nepotism and discrimination in Sweden.[5][6] Apparently Sweden is so backwards in this regard that it only recently enacted new laws allowing victims of discrimination proper legal recourse.

Although I try not to see discrimination or racism lurking around every corner, its presence is difficult to avoid. In my personal experience, Swedes will all too often classify you according to your ethnic appearance and their preconceptions of where you belong based on your looks.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do generally like Swedes. They have a sincerity and lack of guile like no other people. Unfortunately, Swedish child-like sincerity goes hand-in-hand with a naivety that leaves them ill-equipped to deal with genuine race issues. In 1992, former Minister of Culture and Immigration Birgit Friggebo asked a crowd of angry demonstrators protesting against racism and a series of race murders in the immigrant district of Rinkeby to sing We Shall Overcome. She was met with stares of incredulity. (see youtube Swedish news clip of the incident)

Swedes often mean well, but they’ll unabashedly stick their foot in their mouths, for no question is taboo for a Swede. Typically, a Swede who meets a disabled person in a wheelchair will begin to feel awkward (perhaps unfounded guilt for their own good health and fortune), and rather than act like there are untouchable subjects between, will do the disabled person a “favor” by breaking the ice and getting straight to the point: “So what the hell happened to you? How’d you end up in a wheelchair?” They’ll belligerently ignore the fact that the disabled person might be tired of telling the same story over and over. The interrogator’s self-serving point is that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their story or feel they have anything to hide.

By the same token, anyone who looks like a foreigner ought to explain themselves too—if you’re different, it just comes with the territory: “So what brought you to Sweden?” And Swedes will only get baffled if you let on that you are offended by their blunt questions. It’s no giant leap to believe that Swedes subscribe to willful ignorance—a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that some questions about ethnicity and origins may be inappropriate or badly timed.

The problem may lie in the very notion of “embracing” itself. Embracing sounds good in theory, but its de facto application leaves much to be desired: it falls terribly short of genuine color-blindness and the genuine, innocent acceptance of people as people. Lofty Embracers are so busy going around classifying people as different types, as categories of people whom they are “embracing,” so that they seek out the differences rather than commonalities between. They throw a wrench into what would have been normal interaction by accentuating the fact that there are differences between them and the people of other nationalities which they meet, just so they can highlight their own magnanimity in overcoming or overlooking those differences: “Yes, I embrace you, despite you and your otherness, thanks to my great accepting, humanist outlook on life.”

With Swedes, “embracing” is all too often a smoke-screen for aloofness and insensitivity, an opportunity to remind foreigners that they don’t quite belong. “Trivs du i Sverige?”—meaning, “do you like it here,” or more literally “are you thriving/doing well in Sweden”—is a common question innocently asked by Swedes to non-Swedes about how life is going for you in their country. On a closer look, the question might not be as innocent as it appears, and quirky Swedish hospitality, gästvänlighet, may not be all that is behind it. After all, it’s one thing to ask a visiting tourist or temporary worker/student if they’re enjoying their visit in Stockholm, and quite another thing to pose this question to someone for whom Sweden has been home for 20 years. Swedes certainly don’t go around asking other Swedes if they are thriving in Sweden. The unspoken implication is clear: I am the default, you are the other; this is not your home, you are a foreigner, a guest in my country, a fish out of water—so, are you coping alright?

Blame it on the jantelag or decades of socialist-middle-of-the-road conformist thinking if you will, but few Swedes have enough självdistans (self-detachment—considered a virtue by Swedes) to notice or even criticize the mindset of Swedish centrism abounding in their own ranks. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as ignorance about ignorance.

For years, journalist Stina Dabrowski was a fixture on Swedish television, interviewing anybody from Moammar al-Gaddafi to Clint Eastwood. Swedes watched on happily without so much as a whisper of protest, as their celebrated hostess found ingenious ways to embed insults into the questions she asked, demanding that anyone of an eccentric persuasion or non-conformist worldview defend and justify themselves. Her theme was consistent: we here in the center are normal and sensible, you out there on the fringes are not, so what’s your excuse for being such an inexcusable nut?

We all have our share of ignorance and prejudices. Centrism and bullying by the default—the mainstream and majority—is a phenomenon not confined to Sweden alone. However, what strikes me is that Swedes can really be quite blind toward their own racial profiling—many of them think in racial terms unawares and are loathe to believe it when you tell them so. What unsettles me is how backwards they can be on the subject of racial stereotyping: “It’s not stereotyping,” they’ll insist, “it’s the acceptance that we are all different.”

Swedes are quite incognizant to the fact that they actually practice a very special kind of racial profiling and marginalization reserved for Asians in particular. During the ’60s nd ’70s, Sweden took on a large number of adoptees from Korea. While Swedes have no trouble accepting Asian-looking Swedes as Swedish-but-adopted-from-Korea, or as “Korean adoptees who are practically Swedish,” that less-than-gracious allowance for Asians in their midst stops there. As far as they’re concerned, the only business an Asian-looking person has for stating they are “from Sweden” (or any European country), is if they admit to being adoptees. In their minds, an Asian-looking person cannot be “from” France or England.

The questions that beg to be asked then are: at what point am I allowed to say I am British, or English, or that I’m from England? Will two, or three generations of ancestry in England suffice? At what point does an “immigrant” cross over to become a citizen? And is crossing over or even “Swedishness” a reasonable goal or social requirement?

As Neil Gotanda explains it, Asians are especially subject to Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome:

Throughout America’s history, Asian Americans have been conceived, treated, and portrayed as perpetual foreigners; inassimilable and inherently foreign regardless of citizenship or duration of residence in America.

And I would add that it’s far worse for Asian-Europeans or British-born Chinese!

A consensus has developed that discrimination on a basis of race is improper—Swedes, blind to their own prejudice, will swear that they never discriminate according to race. However, a consensus remains that discrimination of the basis of citizenship is proper: citizens may enter the country and foreigners must seek permission. Some will even contend that the sovereignty of a nation cannot exist without a policy that favors citizens and disenfranchises aliens.[3] However, the crux of Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome is race and not alienage (by definition or proxy). Asian racial background is correlated with foreign status: ASIAN<=>FOREIGN. The perpetual-foreigner assumption is that Asians are sojourners, visitors and/or guests who cannot overcome their inherent alien status.

In 2007, Swedish television channel TV4 ran a series of “funny” commercials on behalf of City Gross stereotyping various nationalities. When it came to the Japanese stereotype, they were depicted as people making guttural, grunting noises—no real words were afforded them, unlike the German, French and Russian stereotypes. When I wrote to TV4 complaining, their legal departbment responded by outsourcing their own consultants—not an independent third party—to assess the commercials and give themselves the thumbs up. Consequently, TV4 ignored the studies I pointed them to, such as one by the ITC (Independent Television Commission) on the matter of Offence from Negative Stereotyping in TV Advertising... But this is a story that deserves an entire separate article!

Asians and Eurasians often have to explain and justify themselves for their existence in the West, much more so than those of African descent. Even ignorant Swedes who allow for the possibility that there is such a thing as an African American, will often not be inclined to accept the possibility of an Asian American, much less the existence of Asian Europeans. An “invisible” immigrant such as a Pollack “fresh off the boat” who has the “right looks” will not be interrogated with the same intensity by perfect strangers, nor bombarded with questions prefixed with “but,” such as: “but where are you really, really from,” or “but where are you from, from the beginning,” or “but where are you from originally.”

There is such a thing as patronizing curiosity. Insisting that Asians explain themselves is a form of bullying. It is the majority marginalizing the minority, reminding them that they don’t belong, that they are seen as foreigners.

What are the chances a Caucasian will get asked where he is really from and where his parents are from if he says he is English? Ask such a question, and chances are that the so-called “Englishman” might have a great-grandfather from France, a grandmother from Ireland and some Italian blood thrown in for good measure—but having the advantage of looking Caucasian, he’ll never be subject to the same lifelong botheration of having to explain himself to perfect strangers and never to their satisfaction.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. The Chinese in Britain — History Timeline
  2. The first Chinese to settle in the Americas arrived on Spanish and British ships in the 1500s and 1700s, centuries before the Gold Rush. See: Early Chinese settlers in the Americas
  3. “Indeed, serious theorists contend that the sovereignty of the nation and the meaning of citizenship status—ideas that undoubtedly have real consequence as matters of law and culture—cannot exist without a distinction between citizens and aliens that favors the former and literally disenfranchises the latter.” — Don T. Nakanishi & James S. Lai: Asian American Politics: Law, Participation, and Policy
  4. Responding to Racism in Sweden—a report by the European Network Against Racism, commissioned by the European Union
  5. Synthesis Report—Discrimination against native Swedes of immigrant origin in access to employment; a report by the International Labour Office
  6. Institutional Racism in Sweden and Europe