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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.



Sweden’s new class system

A short time ago I visited a Syrian family with a friend of mine. My friend is an engineer and had decided to help this family’s two sons with their maths homework.

Our time with the family was lovely. We got there and the two sons were ready to get started right away. They started showing my friend their current schoolwork on a computer that they have been given by their school.

I sat on a mattress on the floor with the Mum and Dad, talking about life in Sweden, life in Syria and why, after two years, they still hadn’t been given a residence permit.

These boys had been placed in a class that reflects their age (they’re twins and both 12). The work they are doing is, by Swedish standards, several years behind their age.

Their parents are from the Syrian countryside. The mum is illiterate, even in Arabic. The Dad likes to read, but left school when he was nine.

In another setting in Sweden, the kids would be getting help with their homework from their parents, who would have the education level to understand the work their children have been given. But our Syrian friends don’t have those resources to lean into.

The Swedish system is designed to be a meritocracy – an environment in which people succeed based on their natural abilities, rather than the connections they were born into. Someone from a poor family who performs well at school has just as much chance of getting into a good university as someone from a wealthy family.

Kind of.

Although anyone who performs well at school can succeed, there are factors that prevent those from families like our Syrian friends succeeding.

One of these is not having parents who can help them with their homework.

Another is being taught in a language in which they are not yet fluent.

And then there’s the fact that they have been out of school several years because of displacement, journeying to Sweden, and then the time it has taken them to get enrolled in a school here.

Not to mention the trauma that accompanies witnessing war, travelling to Europe in a cramped sea vessel, seeing fellow travellers die, and being separated from family and friends.

All of this hinders them from competing with other children in their age group.

Which, to me, looks like the makings of a class system.

Because it’s theoretically easy to succeed in Sweden, and education is free, certificates are very important.

In fact, they are much more important than things that used to count for something, like experience.

I don’t know what the answer is for kids like these, who are so full of potential but have had so little opportunity to develop it. Perhaps it’s just the one-at-a-time offering of homework help by people like my friend.

According to Dave Eggers, the author who started the 826 Valencia homework club, a child who receives 35-40 hours one on one homework attention usually improves by one whole grade (see his TED Talk here).

That’s just one hour per week.

I wonder what could be achieved if enough people took this kind of  initiative?

Dear Habib

I found this video earlier today that tells the story of Habib, an unaccompanied refugee minor from Afghanistan who now lives in Britain.

It reminds me of some of the young men I had the privilege of getting to know during the research for my master’s thesis.

Many have experienced great loss, risked everything, and faced many challenges since leaving their homelands. They arrive in Europe having invested a lot of their time, energy, and resources in getting here. 

And when they arrive, they are eyed with suspicion by many in society. They are asked to prove their age. They are assumed to be the same as that one person from their country who was in the news for doing something bad.

They are over-represented in the mental healthcare system because of the trauma they have experienced at home, and during their travels. 

And yet they persevere. They go to school, they work hard, they build new friendships, and they do their best to fit in.