Monthly Archives: July 2011

Hej från Sverige! (Hello from Sweden!)

Although I’ve lived in Europe for more than 30 years, there are still European countries I haven’t visited. Sweden is one of them. I admit to being  fairly unmotivated when it comes to discovering Scandinavia, but every place can’t be for everybody. I’ve heard wonderful things about all of the Scandinavian countries, but – with the exception of a few business meetings in Copenhagen – have never spent any significant amount of time there.

That obviously doesn’t mean that Scandinavia isn’t an interesting place for African-American students to explore, so I was particularly happy to encounter an article called “20 Things To Know Before Moving to Sweden” by Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, who is a Stockholm-based freelance writer and photographer!

Many of the 20 facts she mentions were either new to me or their significance wasn’t completely clear before reading her breakdown. Along with interesting factoids concerning customs and rituals in everyday life, here are a few that seem particularly relevant for anyone planning to do more than spend just a few weeks in Sweden as a tourist.

re Language:

You can probably get by with English for decades, but…

Chances are you can live in Sweden for years without learning a lick of Swedish. That’s because many Swedes are fluent in English and are always happy to switch so they can practice their English on you. This means it might take you longer to properly learn the language, and the Catch-22 is that fluency in Swedish is crucial to full integration.

Signing up for SFI (Swedish For Immigrants) — which is free and provided by the Swedish National Agency for Education — could be a step in the right direction.

re Education and Health Care:

Not all education and healthcare is free

Contrary to popular belief, not all healthcare and education is free, a common misconception many foreigners hold about Sweden’s subsidized social system.

As of autumn 2011, Swedish universities will charge students who are not citizens of the EU, EEA or Switzerland. The universities set their own fees, which will mostly vary between SEK 80,000-140,000 per academic year, depending on the subject. Fees for medicine and art programs will be even higher.

While healthcare is heavily subsidized by the Swedish government and taxpayers, don’t be surprised if you’re required to pay a few hundred crowns for a visit to the doctor. For routine doctor’s office visits, the maximum amount you may have to pay out of pocket for an entire year is SEK 900 (SEK 1,800 for prescription drugs).

Considering that works out to roughly USD 145 per year (USD 290 for drugs), that’s a lot less than what many new residents have to pay in their home countries.

re Gender Equality:

Daddies pushing strollers

When it comes to equality between the sexes, Sweden is one of the leaders, and men here definitely pull their own weight in staying home and raising infant children.

Couples are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, and this time can be shared between parents. So you’ll often find new fathers with parked strollers and babies strapped to their chests, having lunch and fika dates with other dads.

re Code of (Public) Conduct:

Try keeping it “lagom”

There is a societal code of conduct in Sweden which really has no direct translation in English. Loosely translated, the word “lagom” means “just enough,” “in moderation,” “appropriate,” and other synonyms you can pull out of the dictionary. When used in reference to societal behavior, it means blending in appropriately without extreme displays of emotion.

re “Green” Living:

Keep that plastic bag

Before you toss out that plastic bag, you may want to reconsider. Most grocery stores will charge you a few kronor for plastic or paper bags in an effort to keep waste low and encourage recycling. Sweden is one of the most eco-friendly countries on Earth, and its capital Stockholm was awarded the European Green Capital distinction in 2010 which recognizes exemplary recycling and sustainability efforts.

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To find out more about expat life in Sweden from a Black perspective, also check out Adrianne George‘s StockholmExpat.Com, including the article series “Nice things happen to me in Sweden“.


Racism Abroad: Less? Or Just…Different?

Over on racialicious.com, guest contributor Sonita Moss wrote an interesting article about what she perceives to be the scapegoating of America on the international stage where racism is concerned.

 He smoothly side-stepped my question and turned the focus to America’s racism. Because America is a popular topic in the media, the nightly French news frequently reported breaking American news. Thus, the world beyond our borders is informed of how race issues are part and parcel to American culture.

Although I agree with a lot of what she has to say – and also applaud her nuanced take on her experiences abroad – there were some issues I believe she assessed from a distinctly American perspective. A perspective that she seems to forget is not shared by the people she is referencing. For example, she notes:

I noticed, with a certain amount of chagrin, that many Europeans of color refer to their privileged compatriots as the standard of that country, while they are specifically marked by their race. “English” are white, but English blacks are, well, black.

By drawing the national line in the sand in black and white, so to speak,  (or rather: in white and “other”), the author is reverting back to a decidedly American dichotomy.

  • Both Europeans and Africans/Afro-Caribbeans, for example, when referring to themselves are more prone to see their nationality or other more specific ethnic allegiances as being their most significant identifier – not their skin color. This doesn’t mean that anyone denies being black (or white, for that matter), it just means that being Jamaican or Nigerian  or English or French( which are also ethnicities, and not just nationalities!) carries more immediate weight.
  • In contrast to the USA, which was officially established as a nation of immigrants from the very beginning, European countries only began their modern discourse on immigration in the latter half of the last century. Until then, there was no significant influx of non-European immigrants. (I am purposely not addressing the question of Judaism/The Pogroms in this context)
  • Unlike blacks in America, many immigrants still have a direct sense of allegiance to their (parents’) countries of origin. Where American blacks understandably only have a vague notion of where we come from in Africa, and therefore no specific point of reference outside of the US, immigrants often still have very real ties to another country and culture.

Take all three of these facts into account, and you see that grappling with the question of “Who is or is not (insert name of relevant European country here)” is a much newer challenge in Europe than it is in America.

Amazed at the utter whiteness of the venue, one night I asked my friend, “Do you ever notice that there are essentially no black people here – why is that?”

In a country like the U.S. where African-Americans make up about 13 % of the population, there are obviously areas in the country where the presence of black people is quite strong, though it’s certainly not true everywhere in the country. Anyone living in the States knows about the rich heritage of places like Harlem or that Washington D.C. is often referred to as “Chocolate City” or the dynamic atmosphere of the Southern mecca “Hotlanta”.  In comparison, the black population in European countries* is often in the (very low!) single digits. For example, approximately:

  • 2,9% in England
  • 2,8% in the Netherlands

Although these number are not only supplemented by black students and refugees (and tourists!), as well as other people of color (including those that identify as mixed race/bi-racial), it’s easy to see why it would be unrealistic to expect to find many cities across Europe with thriving black communities similar to those in Chicago, Philadelphia or Atlanta!

Obviously, it’s this “critical mass” of descendants of slaves united by the common link of oppressive racism in the United States that has propelled black Americans through the Civil Rights Era to where we are today. It’s why we have

  • a certain degree of political representation,
  • legal recourse against discrimination, and
  • increased visibility in the media,

and – indeed – a black president!

BUT: It’s taken us more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War to get here. By comparison, it’s hardly been 60 years that Europe threw off the yoke of Nazism.

As before, I strongly encourage all people of color to travel or live abroad, if it is feasible. Just know that the racial ‘baggage’ you take with you will be greeted with a brand-new, dare I say it, exotic version: racism exists abroad, you know, just not as bad as it is in America.

I wouldn’t say racism in Europe is not as bad, I’d say it’s simply different. How you ask?

That’s a post for another day!

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(Due to data protections laws, however, it’s impossible to get an accurate statistic for the number of Afro-France or Afro-Germans, as in those countries it is illegal to specify the race of German citizens on government documents and statistics.)