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How anti-racism strategies can backfire

While reading about refugee children in Sweden, I came across a study by Ann Runfors which looked at the way that schools on the multicultural margins of Swedish society instil identity in those they teach.

What Runfors found was that while the schools she visited worked hard to avoid emphasising the differences between people, with the aim to be anti-racist they instead reinforced a Swedes vs. Immigrants mindset.

In their desire to nurture an atmosphere of culture blindness and tolerance, the teachers in these schools avoided even asking where their students came from. The idea behind this was that if teachers didn’t recognise the differences between say Somalis and Kurds, or Afghans and Iranians, the pupils were less likely to see these identities as having an impact on who they should or shouldn’t associate with.

But the teachers still needed a way to describe the kind of behaviour which was desirable within Swedish society. And for this task they referred to “Swedes.” A Swede sees things this way, or does things that way…etc.

And who became the other to the teachers’ idealised version of a Swede?

Yes, you guessed it – immigrants.

In an environment that had been intentionally engineered to be prejudice-free, immigrant children were learning that they were not ideal citizens. They were second. Other.

The large group which was made up of many ‘invisible’ cultures was, according to the narrative told by the teachers, a unified block. This block represented the antithesis of Swedish culture.


I tell this story for two reasons.

First, that it is a reminder of the gap that can exist between intention and outcome. The teachers were not trying to educate their pupils to see themselves as lesser. This was an indirect effect of a well intentioned strategy. 

Second, it teaches us the need to reflect on the impact of our actions. It is easy to get busy with activities that are well intentioned but which reinforce destructive and inhumane power structures. It is important to seek the input of those who have a different point of view, especially if we are more closely aligned with the system of power than those who are affected by the things we do or say.

This can be applied to many contexts. It applies to the education of immigrant children, but it can also be applied to the #metoo movement. It has relevance to relief and development organisations, as it does the missionary world.

The more we are able to reflect on our own place in the world, the more we become aware of the voice that we have, the voice which can ask questions and challenge policies, which can prod and persuade and instigate change in the direction of a more just world.



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