In The News: Sweden’s Closet Racists


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 We Swedes who do not fit the outdated blond, blue-eyed stereotype of what a true Swede should look like.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.

We remember the shame and the slights.

Being 6 years old and walking toward passport control with Dad, who has sweaty hands, who clears his throat, who fixes his hair and shines up his shoes on the backs of his knees. All the pink-colored people are let by. But our dad is stopped. And we think, maybe it was by chance, until we see the same scene repeated year after year.

Being 7 and starting school and being told about society by a dad who was terrified even then that his outsiderness would be inherited by his children. He says, “When you look like we do, you must always be a thousand times better than everyone else if you don’t want to be refused.”

Being 8 and deciding to become the class’s most studious nerd, the world’s biggest brown-noser.

Being 9 and watching action films where dark men rape and kidnap, manipulate and lie, steal and abuse.

Being 10 and being chased by skinheads for the first, but not the last, time.

Being 12 and coming into a record store and noticing how the security guards circle like sharks. They talk into walkie-talkies, they follow only a few yards behind us. Move in a maximally noncriminal fashion. Walk normally. Breathe calmly. Walk up to that shelf of CDs and reach for that Tupac album in a way that indicates you are not planning to steal it.

Being 13 and hearing stories. A friend’s older brother tossed into a police van and beaten up. Dad’s friend N, who was found by a police patrol and locked up in the drunk tank because he was slurring, and the police didn’t notice until the next day that something was wrong, and in the E.R. they found the aneurysm, and at his funeral his girlfriend said, “If only they had called me, I could have told them that he didn’t drink alcohol.” All while our city was besieged by a xenophobe with a rifle and a laser sight, who shot 11 dark-haired men in seven months without the police stepping in.

Being 15 and sitting outside an electronics store when a police van pulls up, two officers get out, ask for ID, ask what’s up tonight. Then they hop back into the van.

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.

The years went by, and the politicians introduced their new effort to track down people without papers. The police started searching through shopping centers, interrupting weddings and standing outside free clinics. Families with children born here were deported to countries that the children had never been to.

Everyone was “just doing their job.” The security guards, the police, the customs officials, the politicians, the people.

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.

Everyone knows. But no one does anything. Instead we focus on persecuting people who have moved here in search of the security that we’re so proud of offering to some of our citizens.

And I write “we” because we are a part of this whole, this society, this we.

You can go now.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri is a novelist and the author of “Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger” and the play “Invasion!” This essay was translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles from the Swedish.