A white boy who endured racism
An essay against race-based generalisations and the exclusion of individuality
There are a lot of blanket statements being tossed about the internet these days. Such as how white people can’t endure or have an opinion on racism. It’s a blatant overgeneralisation, but what’s worse, it ties into an intuitive dehumanisation approach taken by today’s many opposing ideologies, virtually flooding Twitter and platforms alike.
Let me start with an anecdote, please bare with me.
Outside my parents’ kitchen window
Malmö, Sweden, circa 1993. It’s a hot summer day. Some local boys have gathered outside our neighbourhood corner store. Mainly Arabs, but a few Somalians and Kosovo-Albanians, too. Brothers, cousins, friends, barely any girls. Some are playing “street soccer” between parked cars, even amid moving ones. Others are knocking about along the dead end, claiming their territory.
Battles for trading cards are taking place in what resembles a small urban bazaar. An onlooker is eating something from a plastic bag that looks like birdfeed, extracting the seeds with his teeth and spitting out the hulls. Two younger boys are pushing each other, whereupon a third who trumps both in height separates them and slaps the instigator. The boy doesn’t cry. He just walks away, muttering, accepting the dominance hierarchy of that deadend street. But when safe to do so, returns and pushes the same boy again.
A brand new BMW with tinted windows rolls up and double parks across the street. The boys gather in awe of its rims and paint job. The driver, with his slicked back hair and snug Armani t-shirt, who looks too young to drive let alone to afford such a car, demonstrates a few tricks with his butterfly knife.
Suddenly, the group scatters like urban pigeons. A terrified woman comes running out from the tenement where many of them live. Behind her is a crazed man with a soot moustache and a bulging gut, waving a large kitchen knife. Panic envelopes the street. Men and women are watching from balconies. Some intervene by shouting and gesturing.
A few seconds go by and the dust settles. The boys rendezvous outside the corner store to resume their boyish activities. Tooth-baring smiles reflecting in the hot shimmer. Balconies abandoned. I never see the man or the woman again. The police never shows up. Life continues.
I wanted to, needed to, be a part of this.
A “vault dweller” no more
The day has come. I’m no longer to be confined by my parents to the inner-courtyard of our oxblood tenement block: a relatively safe space, sheltered from the outside chimp world.
I’m stoked and fucking terrified.
Approx. 09:30 AM, “Our street”. The vault gates open up, and so I exit my brick prison. A scrawny little feller, accepting exile from life as I know it. Some neighbours are staring from their balconies like gargoyles. My spider-sense is quaking. Must… ignore… it lest a fucking Mortal Kombat Stage Fatality awaits me on a bed of spikes at the bottom of my anxiety pit. I reluctantly continue, pulled forth by a deep desire to belong.
Approx. 09:45 AM, “First encounter”. I’m watching the boys play soccer in a parking lot. At one end of it, where they have created an imaginary goal, there’s a yellow sign with big red letters bolted onto the fence that reads: SOCCER PLAYING PROHIBITED. It’s been keyed. They have clearly taken issue with this tyrannical adult rule. I’m sold! Something inherently anti and nonconformist deluges the chambers behind my fishbony ribs.
I sidestep along a garage door, pasted against its metal surface like damp bubblegum wrapper. Peering, probably staring. I stop, close enough to smell the leather tread of the ball, hoping my pale skin will blend with the bright sun and render me invisible. One of the taller boys walks over, ball in hand, as if called upon by some Ra-like deity. He’s skinny and has curly black hair drenched in cheap gel. Not at all physically intimidating, yet I view him as a Titan. “Are you playing?” he says, as if it was obvious that I should.
I nod in acceptance.
And just like that, I’m one of the boys. Only there are some clauses in this proposition.
I was unaware of the small print
Looking down from one of the Juliet balconies on the tenement where I lived, one would often see a gathering — or a mob, depending on the beholder — of black-haired boys with one little blond drowning among them. That’s not how I saw it, though. I happily swam among the exotic fish.
I swore, gestured, thought and ate in a quasi-[insert culture here] manner. I absorbed it all, chewing on my new brothers’ roots like khat.
But I wasn’t Iraqi or Chilean or anything remotely cool like that. I was a boring ass Swede. A pale potato. A svenne.
It’s morning. Summer break. There’s rat-race murmurs and binmen shouting over bygone possessions outside my window. I see not the sweet boy of old in my reflection, but an uglier, lesser version. I wish my hair was darker. If only I could speak their language. My skin is too pale… too fucking bland. I repeat the words aloud in a broken accent. Desperate for guidance, I ask my mother half-jokingly (and also dead-seriously) if I can dye my hair black, to which her face wrinkles in disagreement. That thought, or desire, now chucked onto an endless pile of obsolete resolvents. DEAD. So I shatter the mirror and observe in a single shard of glass that familiar ugly duckling swim in an inertia of Cultural Cringe.
I normalised feeling like an expat in my own fatherland because it gave me a sense of identity; a colouring to my canvas.
I AM part of the neighbourhood. Yes. We shoot the breeze, steal bikes and eat ice cream together. Sweeping across the streets like one uniform dust particle. But there’s an unalterable divide resurfacing now and then between us. I’m too Swedish; too blue-eyed (both literally and figuratively) and culturally divergent; and, to some, too bloody white. When in dispute, I’m often reduced to a svenne. A mere blond with arms and legs ridden with vellus hairs which is considered inferior, suspicious, other.
A svenne is easy pickings
I’m dismissed, cussed at and even beaten up for standing out as the only svenne, or for not posing a physical threat — both rarely mutually exclusive (picture the white dude from the 21st Street Gang in the movie Colors, ha). I’m “rich” even though I’m from a working class family and thus endure ridicule for being cheap. My parents must be racist because they are native Swedes. Yet, boys from the full range of the palette chill in my room. I constantly have to prove my toughness because Swedes are “pussies”. I endure racist slurs and am called a racist for reciprocating. Etc, etc, etc. Ironically, I would trade my pigmentation, hair colour and culture — probably my parents too — with any of these exotic boys in a frigging heartbeat.
The most destructive part, being an ethnic minority among my peers, was how my ethnicity ran synonymous with weakness; especially in comparison with those of my strong, patriotic and historically warring Arab, Somalian and Balkan brothers.
There is no rose without thorns
You’re probably wondering what on earth I was doing there if everything was so bad? Oh poor, poor me. Nonsense! It was also absolutely fantastic.
Some of its petals were our camaraderie: we truly were “multicoloured” brothers from other mothers. I enjoyed iftar during Ramadan. We barbecued ćevapčići and shish kebab, drank ayran and listened to strange, cool sounding folk and pop songs from faraway lands. Despite the cultural boundaries, we clicked up based on geographical lines. El barrio mattered. With the odd exceptions to the rule, such as religious or clan rooted loyalties. I learned about machoism, pushing boundaries and establishing/resisting dominance; all ingrained and proven essential for survival in our environment (with versions of it that still apply today). I address the necessity for, and some outcomes of, such behaviour here: A screwdriver to the ribcage, toxic ideals and a lack of fatherly advice.
Some of its thorns were interminority racism (with the ping-ponging native vs. foreigner kind sprinkled over it), antisemitism, religious chauvinism and vertical intersexual relations. It was all happening here in varying doses, in our multicultural quarters, back in the dizzay.
The petals and thorns partly stemmed from culture shock, post-war patriotism and the preservation of customs and traditions.
Influxes of families fleeing from an Iraqi dictatorship, a civil war in a Islamic and clan-oriented Somalia, or the Yugoslav Wars laden with cultural and religious tribalism; to a relatively sheltered Sweden with its beta culture (at least in contrast with those of many refugees), were bound to cause reactions on all sides.
We chomped on intergenerational biases and disgorged them into our surroundings as our own.
Racism is not restricted to particular levels of melanin
I was fed up of being the punchline of certain jokes or trampled down, often because my irreligious and ethnic makeup didn’t fit the accepted template.
So I bashed a few kids, got jumped by a few more and developed a defence-mechanism of parallel retort. Thus asserting some dominance and ironically got more accepted into the clan. I took “fucking svenne” to the chin and fired back with a “fucking [derogatory ethnic slur]” hook. If someone brought up my skin colour, you can bet your ass I struck back in the same spirit. Some would say we were out of line. Meh, you toughened up. The racist slurs became banter and soon the mighty stratus called crime overshadowed it all.
Individuality is key
Anyone in the wrong circumstance can endure racism. Broad brush approaches like “all white people…” or “white people can’t endure or have an opinion on racism” excludes individuality and context and thus retards — shit, even reverses — our progression toward inclusiveness.
I’m not denying that certain privileges exist (it’s requisite to take into account the various ethnic, racial and cultural majorities [communal and nationwide] around the world to avoid echoing the mindset of the “broad brushers”; privileges are not fixed nor are they limited to brighter pigmentation, they’re relative to circumstance and experiences), I’m merely objecting to the irresponsible, and often gross, usage of race-based generalisations.
I realise that racism goes beyond slurs and social exclusion. My experiences, however impactful at the time, are certainly not comparable with those of the Kurds living in Turkey or the Somali Bantu. There’s clearly a spectrum for which I sympathise deeply. In this piece, I’m focusing specifically on the lodestone that is the misdiagnosis of racism based on pigmentation with an unapologetic disregard for individuality.
I share my story not to seek attention or pity (I don’t consider myself a victim), but to prove a point for how key individuality is in identity oriented discourse — and, of course, in everyday life. We mustn’t default to skin colour or ethnicity as an arbitrary, absolute indicator of who can endure what and to what degree. It’s fruitless, lazy and divisive. And perhaps more wickedly, a way to weaponise racial identity to fit certain narratives. Sounds pretty darn close to some aspects of the R-word we’re trying to fight, doesn’t it?
To disclaim my experiences solely because of my race is unproductive and hardly an invitation to stand against racism (not that I ever needed one). It’s wrong and utterly backwards at its core… ah, such tragicomic hypocrisy tickles me on my way down memory lane where true reality awaits.