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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?

Is identity fixed?

One of the interesting factors in the immigration debates that take place around Europe is how common it is that we end up making identity seem like something that is set in stone. 

Whoever you ask what it means to be Muslim, or what it means to be Swedish, they will usually describe something that in their view is fairly concrete. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

A Swede is someone who was born in Sweden, loves eating herring and crayfish, would raise arms to defend her country, respects the royal family, celebrates St. Lucia, Ascension Day, and All Hallows Eve. Swedes are tolerant and socially liberal.

A Muslim is someone who is devoted to God, who prays five times per day, who doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, who sees himself as part of a community before he is an individual, who fasts during Ramadan and gives money to the poor. Muslims go out of their way to help others and never get involved with crime.

But there’s a problem with these definitions. While there are those who align with them, there are also many who consider themselves Swedish, or Muslim, who do not. That’s because the language we use and the definitions we have for our categories are dynamic – they are used differently at different times and in different places.

Some years ago , I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.”

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? pg. 3

The same is true of identity. I’m not the same person I was five or ten years ago. I have grown, changed, experienced new things, made friends with new people who have given me insights on life that I previously did not have. As I interact with the world, I am constantly renegotiating what it means to be me.

Although this process happens in everyone, it is particularly noticeable for those going through big changes like migration. It is common for those who move from one society to another to discard ideas and practices from their homeland, especially when those ideas and practices have been tainted by war or persecution. A person who went to church every week might stop going. A person who has always considered herself part of a particular social group might begin to distance themselves from that group. They might even begin to associate with another group altogether.


Kathryn Kraft interviewed Syrian refugees who came into contact with churches in Lebanon. Most of these refugees were from a Muslim-background. Even though they first came into contact with the churches through their relief efforts, many of these Syrians began attending other activities organised by the churches.

In her interviews, Kraft found that while only a minority choose to change their identity from Muslim to Christian, all began re-evaluating their beliefs about God and changing some of their views and practices. In other words, being exposed to a group of people with very different views didn’t make them less Muslim, but it did change how they looked at their beliefs and practices.


When someone moves to a new society, it is also necessary for them to acquire skills or dispositions that enable them to thrive in their new host society. They might learn the language, or begin making friends with locals. Each culture has its own rules and things that are seen as more important than others and newcomers are often forced to acquire some level of competency in the things which are valued by their new society.

This process is also instrumental in a person’s identity. In acquiring a new language, or adapting to a new worldview, they are forced to see themselves differently. They are forced to reflect on what they once took for granted. Sometimes this period of reflection will lead to them being more determined in their views they had before leaving their homelands. Other times, they decide to align with a new way of seeing things or seek some kind of middle path between the two.


So the next time you hear someone say something like “Muslims think _______,” or “men are ________,” I challenge you to remember that there are always exceptions and that assuming that the identity of a person or a group of people is fixed does not reflect reality.

The one who got sent back

In my last post I mentioned the young men I spoke to who had converted to Christianity within the Church of Sweden. What I failed to mention was one young man, Amir*, who converted to Christianity, was then deported, but returned to Sweden a second time in order to seek asylum.

Amir had lived in Iran since the age of three but was deported to Afghanistan. He was terrified of admitting that he had become a Christian. He found a place to live with some other young men, all of whom were Muslim. All of whom prayed together five times each day. Amir participated, but was torn up inside because he knew he was no longer Muslim.

I lived in Afghanistan for four months and I was afraid the whole time, every second. I woke with nightmares, when I had slept at night…I was scared for my life.

Amir

He feared being found out, but also felt conflicted.

When he would take trips to other towns, the buses stopped at  prayer times in order that all the passengers could pray.

One day he decided he had had enough of faking it. He told one of his house mates who he believed he could trust. This house mate became angry; he went outside and began telling the neighbours that they had had a Christian living among them. The neighbours became angry.

Amir fled the neighbourhood and found a friend who he really could trust. He told this friend what had happened and asked him to go and check on how things were going at the house. When the friend returned he told him, “you have to flee immediately. You can’t return. They will kill you.” So Amir left immediately.


After making his way back to Sweden, Amir was told that he had to wait a full four years after his denial before he could apply for asylum again. He went into hiding, biding his time before he could officially enter the system again.

Hearing this story, looking this man in the eye as he told me of his simple desire to live in peace and security, really put flesh on the harm that ill informed migration officers can do.

*not his real name

What does it mean to belong?

There’s a lot of talk these days about belonging: who’s in and who’s out. Everyone seems to have an opinion. No one really knows who gets to decide.

For some, it’s the immigrants who don’t belong. They’re the outsiders who should go back to where they come from.

For others it’s the racists who don’t belong. Here in Sweden some politicians have articulated that racists are un-Swedish. They don’t belong. But if they don’t belong here, where should they go?

On the level of society, there tend to be two parts to the belonging conversation: immigration and integration. Immigration is about who, and how many should be allowed in. Integration is about how those who are allowed in become part of the bigger group: society.

But the question of integration is complicated, partly because those who have the power to make political decisions have never had to consider the process of joining society.

They were born into a family who already belonged. They learned how to belong simply by hanging out. The norms of society are their default settings, trained into them from birth.

Very few of those making the decisions about how integration should work are experts at integration. Those with immigrant histories are usually far enough removed from the integrational process that they might be considered not to have skin in the game themselves, even though their parents or grandparents did.

When you join a group, you do so by proving to the others in the group that you belong. That’s true of the political elite. To join them you prove to them that you can work together, that you know the rules of the game they are playing and that you can join in without causing too much disruption.

There are so many different ways of looking at what it means to integrate into society. Perhaps it means to learn the local language and get a job. Or maybe it’s to have a mixed group of friends that include those from the host culture. It could involve intermarrying, so that you have families that are blended into the host culture.

We should also ask on what level does integration happen? Is it something that takes place on a micro-level, when someone builds a friendship with one Swedish neighbour? Or is it about the macro-level, gaining citizenship and speaking the local language with a local accent?

Whose responsibility is this process? Should the host be the one accommodating newcomers, acclimatising them to life here? Or is it the responsibility of the newcomers to sink or swim as they try to assimilate?

There are so many areas of contention, so much uncertainty as to the basic definitions of the concepts surrounding belonging to society, that it’s no wonder that progress can be slow.