In an article this week in Expressen, one of Sweden's biggest newspapers, editor-in-chief Frida Boisen contends that Sweden is a racist country. She cites a study of the nations who are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; in this study, Sweden was found to be the worst in regard to giving immigrants jobs.
This means that for foreigners who move to the US, the UK, Israel, Japan, Estonia, or any of the other OECD lands, Sweden is the hardest place to get a job in, no matter how well educated you are. As Boisen writes, if you're an immigrant to Sweden, there's a good chance you might end up working as a taxi driver, even if you're a trained doctor or engineer.
Having lived in three of the OECD countries, I can definitely agree that Sweden was a very hard place to be a foreigner.
It wasn't uncommon for people to refer to me as "svartskalle" (literally, "blackhead") or "blatte" (slang for "foreigner"); once someone even called shouted "neger" (yes, "nigger") at me on the street. Charming.
It was hard to get a job in Sweden, despite being well educated and having learned Swedish fairly swiftly and being really eager to work. I sent out hundreds of letters and CVs. A few times, I was called for an interview, but then was actually told that they preferred to "hire Swedes", even for jobs such as teaching English. Once, I was memorably told that I seemed too independent and industrious to hire; after all, in Sweden you don't want to stick out or seem different from anyone else, so I guess I seemed as anti-Swedish as you could get.
People warned me about certain neighbourhoods where you wouldn't want to walk, shop, or live. "Foreigners live there," they said with caution in their voices, perhaps momentarily forgetting that I, too, was a foreigner, or maybe to some Swedes I was a more acceptable foreigner since I came from the US, rather than the former Yugoslavia or an Arab country.
Perhaps strangely, despite all this, I fell in love with the Swedish language and with Swedish literature. But when I left Sweden after a number of frustrating years there, I thought that though I wanted to work with Swedish and though I wanted to continue to visit the country, I wouldn't live there again.
But this isn't just about Sweden. Sweden may have been ranked number one in the OECD survey, but there are problems in many, perhaps all, other countries.
Here in the UK, after I gave a talk once, someone came up to me to warn me that Brits don't like Jews and if I wanted to have a career and a life here, I ought to change my last name. And I've heard such awful stories of "teasing" or racist remarks from so many people that though they sadden me, I'm no longer surprised.
The question, of course, is why people feel so scared of and unwelcoming towards immigrants. Why are we so protective about what it means to be a real Swede or a real Brit or a real American or a real whatever else? Who cares where someone was born or what background they have? Why are we unwilling to expand our definitions of nationalities? Why can't we appreciate and accept people for who they are and what skills and experiences they have, rather than fixating on where they are from or what skin colour they have?
As Boisen points out in her article, not giving all people the same opportunities means that some immigrants will turn to crime, and of course some will get angry, upset, perhaps even violent and dangerous. Why would we wish this on our nations? Why would we wish this on our fellow humans?
Racism is a serious problem in Sweden, and the OECD survey proves this. But it's also a major problem in many other countries, and it's time that we look seriously at ourselves and think about what we mean by nationalism.
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