fredag 15 oktober 2010

Meeting the racist gaze

This is a piece I wrote over nine years ago, one day when I met some every day racist comments in the grocery store. I came across it now, and could sense the frustration I felt then, as I feel the frustration now at seeing a racist party take place in the swedish parliament. It's on speaking out against every day racism...

When I saw the big headlines about the immigrant suburbs on the morning news I should have guessed that day would be something out of the ordinary. On the news they spoke agitatedly of family feuds, neighbor quarrels and they pulled out cultural differences and agressiveness as underlying factors. The police officer invited to comment, sitting upright in the sofa, highlighted the importance of the local police, and that there wasn't actually a problem with the neighborhood itself.

Sure enough, those headlines made it to national media as well, just like the time when a vietnamese man had fired shots in a restaurant in Oslo and his picture was put on the cover of all the large newspapers to point out the connection between the violent act and his ethnicity. The press loves to point a steady finger when it comes to placing the blame on the immigrants. These may be stories of crimes committed, but the news really blow up by stating the perpetrators nationality, ethnicity or housing area.

When the media perpetuates the case of ethnicity as a cause of crime with vivid descriptions of barbaric knife fights and gun waving, the public opinion is sure to get fired up. Those were namely the exact opinions openly expressed by the two ladies ahead of me in the line at the grocery store later that day; "it almost makes you a racist, doesn't it?" "Well, if they come here, they have to adjust, at least when they step outside their appartment".

After a weekend when several friends of mine had shared their stories of repeated verbal racist confrontations, I found myself in a situation where I could no longer just pretend that I didn't hear and go about my business. I had to act.

After fumbling for words and encouraging them to read a book or something I got an astonnished reply; "Well you got some nerve! I actually work with immigrants, and many of them don't even want to adjust". I expressed my sympathies for those people who had immigrated to Sweden just to be met by her racist attitudes. Then she took a swing at me instead, saying "it's people like you who go to protest rallies and vandalize."

There I was, standing in my postal service uniform after a day at work and couldn't really put together her arguments. I let her know my opinion that everyone who lives in Sweden is an integrated part of society and contributes in their ways, and that the true obstacle to integration and participation is that people who have immigrated here have to struggle against racism and discrimination in swedish society on a daily basis. If immigrants aren't "integrated" it is because of the racism that shuts people out based on their origin and color. And regarding any protest rallies, I said that I thought there was a whole lot of change that needed to happen in society if we were to move forward, and perhaps one way to express that is through rallying around those issues.

The other woman, who had made the initial "it almost makes you racist" remark and then stood in the background making puffing sounds and rolling her eyes, I met again on our way out of the store. I encouraged her to check her own issues before accusing immigrants for being the cause of her xenophobic attitudes. She countered with the lame "it's a free country and people are entitled to their opinions", and she actually had friends from Iran and other countries. Yet again, my condolences went out to the iranians who had such a "friend" who would betray them and actually help perpetuate racism through expressing her blatant opinions behind their backs.

That day really had turned out not to be like any other day, at least not for me. But at least I had had the privilege to choose to confront the everyday racism that I had met. I wondered how many people of color had been attacked by racist slurs that day, without having the option to stay out of it. I wondered how many employers had put new applications in the "no" pile that day because they thought that employees with "different" surnames may just create a problem on the job. The last thing I wondered was perhaps the thing that worried me the most. I wondered how many of us white swedes had read the paper that day, nodded and sighed and thought that we gave those immigrants a chance, but they just couldn't adjust.

I propose that we check ourselves and our opinions, start believing the best in people, stop generalizing, and start realizing that there are differences in power in our society, where immigrants are pushed down by white swedes to positions of inferiority. If we even go that far, we will have actually gone further in our analysis than much of the media, who would rather sell papers by perpetuating racist stereotypes. Unfortunately we have a long way to go before we can reach a more antiracist and fair society, and unfortunately, the media is not likely to help us get there.

So start breaking the silence. Step out of your comfort zone and speak out when you hear racist remarks. That is the only way that we can make our society more humane and open.

/Ola Nilsson

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