“Hey, Hey!” a fruit vendor called to me in the Hötorget square. I had my notepad in one hand and walked around with sort of a clouded gaze. I hate fruit. The texture… something about it… it gives me goosebumps. I can’t eat it. But I had an assignment to complete and a genuine interest in the people who were selling it.
I ate the cherry. It was from Pakistan, he told me, with a grin on his face. It wasn’t half-bad, but soon after, my stomach was churning and I felt the heaves coming on. I walked a few meters and threw away the other half.
I circled around the square, observing from afar this time. All of the vendors, as far as I could tell, were immigrants, and each called to me with a jovial, “Hey, Hey!” as I passed their stands. I learned later that this is somewhat of a universal greeting in Sweden. But with the fruit vendors, it sounds a bit different. Jovial, but also assertive. I listen again, and I feel something familiar in the vendor’s tone: a hint of desperation.
My mind drifts to American children and lemonade stands. We learn at a young age the ins and outs of selling and buying. Of surviving in a system where our worth is a monetary value.
I sit for a second, in front of the man who offered the cherry. My eyes follow his customers. Old White Swedes with sweaters tied around their shoulders. A middle-aged couple in Birkenstocks and Adidas, their hands interlocked with a blonde child clothed in white. Two women of color, one with a tote across her shoulder that says “Havana.” He talks to them longer than the others. Instead of a “Hey, Hey!”, they exchange laughs of solidarity.
The scribbles in my book fill up a page; it’s time to go on.
I head over to Vete-Katten, and I order a latte and an overpriced mousse-cake-thing and plop down exactly where Dr. McKnight told me not to go: next to people who don’t look like me. I was here, after all, to talk to White Swedes. Wealthy White Swedes. About immigration.
After a while, I decide to get up. Vete-Katten is broken up, segregated, into several different rooms, and I feel like Goldilocks as I traverse through its hallways and door frames.
The entrance is too mild; the people here are lost in conversation, and I think most of them are Americans, or tourists. It seems too easy.
On to the next room. An older couple sits in the corner with frowns on their faces. A woman with slim, square glasses eats a plain, leafy salad, hypnotized by her laptop screen. She acknowledges no one in the room. I sit for a while, trying to look as important as her. I begin to write, or to pretend to write. Then, another, older woman makes her way to the other corner of the room. She places her coat and her bag neatly on the back of her chair. She gulps down her coffee as though she’s in a hurry. She gets up. I smile at her, attempting to seem approachable. She frowns.
Confidence has faded to weariness, which has now faded to sheer terror.
Though the month-long reprieve from my real work is much-needed, I miss the familiarity of my hometown. Of knowing who to talk to and how to talk to them. My mind drifts to a story that I have on pause. The story of “The Chukker,” a torn-down hippie bar that was the birthplace of my parents’ middle-aged romance. Their old friends would think this place is lame.
I place my mug on the cart of trays that’s parked next to the older couple. They glare at me. An Asian worker takes their plates as well as the other two guests’. I hurriedly pack up my things and make my way outside.
But right before I throw in the towel and book it to the exit in hopeless defeat, I eye two sensible-looking women eating lunch together. Their names are Issala and Annette.
“Um.. hi. Uhhh.. This is weird,” I stammer.
They watch me as I struggle; their gaze seems to want to pull the words out for me.
“I’m a student from the States,” I explain. “My professor has sent us out on assignments… to talk to Swedes. Wait, um… You’re Swedish, right???”
They nod yes.
“Okay, good!” I laugh, nervously.
I take a seat and I ask them what they do.
They both work in upper level jobs – management… something with economics? Even they seem unsure.
“So I’m studying political science, sociology… things like that,” I say, easing my way in. “So, we’re studying Swedish life, essentially…”
I manage to keep their attention somehow. Their gaze has changed from sympathetic to interested.
“What I really want to ask… Is about immigration. I want to know your thoughts, as women who were born here.”
The women pause for a while to mull over their thoughts. Annette, who is older, is the first to speak. She acknowledges that it is “rather easy” for someone who is born here to succeed, or to live a good life.
I try to ask more prodding questions. Hypotheticals. “If, say, an Iranian doctor came here, how difficult do you think it would be to renew his license?”
Issala lets out a pleasant-sounding laugh. She doesn’t know; she hasn’t really thought about it. Annette assumes that it must be harder, but doesn’t know the protocol.
They’d have to interact with these people to really know the answer.
Annette continues. It is very difficult for immigrants here to find a place to stay, and the taxes are extremely high. I’m not sure if she is complaining about her own predicament or that of the refugees. But she concedes after a bit, admitting the benefits of universal healthcare and retirement.
I knew I wouldn’t get far before they asked about me. A student? Why here?
I feel like we’re getting somewhere, so I give my spiel – the unabridged version where I use words like “Black” and “White” and “segregation.”
They nod slowly, as if it is the first time they had heard anybody talk like this. I ease into what I had been wanting to ask all along: What was your school like?
Issala volunteers to answer this one. She went to a school in Stockholm that had difficulty integrating. She doesn’t know how zoning worked back then or now, but she knows that some schools were all-White and some were all-immigrant and some were mixed. She separated from many of her friends when she chose to take the general economics track when she was about 15. She didn’t have to take a test; it wasn’t difficult, she said.
“Do you think it is difficult for people who did not go through the same system you did to get a career?”
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” she said.
She trails off. The resulting silence says more than our 15-minute conversation. I end things there – I have to get to Södermalm, the last stop on my mission.
I get off at Slussen and trust my instincts as to where to go next. I follow the hipsters and interracial couples and eventually stumble upon Ilcaffe, where I think I fell in love a week ago. I look for the man with the Black Panther sticker. He’s not there.
But I’m not here to convince myself that love exists.
I order my second latte of the day and scan the shop for approachable people. All of them are on laptops; they seem busy. I could hear a pin drop in the back room. I peer around the corner; there’s an art student practicing his shading. Maybe he will talk.
I sit next to him, apologizing as I set up my workstation. I try to fit in, but my clunky US adapter gives my identity away. I try to come up with things to say. Whatcha drawin’? I like the lines on that one. You go to school here? But his silence is intimidating.
Then, Kyra and Claire come to my rescue, one by one. We converse about our days. Claire trapezed through the Skansen zoo to find a bench to sleep on. Kyra was waiting for Seth to leave the fotografiska so she could go alone. McKnight sent me to Vete-Katten to make wealthy White Swedes uncomfortable, and now it’s been about two hours since I’ve been able to work up the courage to speak again.
Ilcaffe is about to close, so I bite the bullet and make my way outside. A group of three sits outside, laughing. They look about mid-twenties, early thirties. Yuppies.
I dive right in. The guy, who had two blonde women wrapped under his arms, was the oldest and had lived through several of Sweden’s immigration “waves,” he called them.
The first were the Yugoslavians, the Bosnians, the Serbians, and the Croatians. Eastern Europe.
Next were the Southern Europeans, from Greece and Italy.
As new waves roll in, he tells me, immigrants from the former waves are more accepted, their existence more normalized. They are now a fizzle of foam sinking into smooth, White sand.
“What is the process to become a citizen here, or to work?”
You have to show papers from your previous education. You have to learn the language. I knew this.
“How have things changed since this most recent wave? Have they?”
“You always have to watch your tongue,” he said. “Like, before… If you said anything… you’d be called racist.”
I prod more. Is he colorblind or just stating the facts? I bring up the Swedish Trump.
“Yeah, yeah.. I think… people don’t understand…” he attempts to enlighten me. “It’s not a Nazi movement. It’s not racism. It’s more about greed.”
He’s studying to be a nurse, and so is the young woman to his right. The other woman is in retail. They’re all well-dressed, and the women don’t say much.
So I ask them, like I did with the women at Vete-Katten, what it was like in their schools. Maybe the 90’s were different – I know they sure were in the States.
One of the women went to school in the center of Stockholm, where half of her classmates were from either Bosnia or Yugoslavia. The others went to segregated schools.
But school choice, he chimed in again, is making segregation worse. I’ve been waiting weeks for my suspicions to be confirmed.
“Not everybody is able to choose if you are not educated to make the best choices,” he says.
I nod and the women nod. The conversation ends there. I move on to find others who might know more about the waves.
I circle an area of about six blocks to find a place to go. Time has run out, but I decided I would ditch dinner and meet the others at the bar later. The conversation is still spinning, and I’m in search of a consciousness I have yet to see or hear.
As I’m walking, my mind drifts.
I remember the time I walked into a pancake house in Canton, Mississippi, in search of something to eat before covering a workers’ march. I ran into a man who, unbeknownst to me, was friends with a worker I had been trying to contact. Later, when the march was over and my phone was dead, I recognized his face through the sea of people and made my way over to say “hi” and “thanks again for talkin’ to me.” Next to him was the worker I had spent all day looking for.
I remember friends of friends of friends of interviewees, and how I found the perfect kid to tell the story of Central High School.
I believe in serendipity, so I trust my gut to keep walking.
I walk in to a coffee shop - the name I forget, but I passed it at least twice before. I scan the room and find an empty seat next to three men who have divided themselves across two leather couches. Nils, Barakat, and Khalil. They seem to be starting a conversation.
This time, I feel comfortable. I tell them about my day. They joke that they’re the ever-so-coveted voices of color that I so desperately needed. I laugh. It’s true.
Nils is a White Swede from the suburb of Umeå. He hates systems. Especially the school system, where teachers told him music was just a hobby.
Barakat lives in Södermalm and has Ethiopian parents. He’s an entrepreneur who works within the system to encourage diversity and inclusion in the private sector. He writes books and has his own website. People don’t think he’s from here; they speak English to him.
Khalil is a curator from LA – Newport Beach. He has one of the largest collections of African-American artifacts and art in the States. His grandfather desegregated Florida schools in the 1940s, and a Harvard Case Study tells the story of his father, who created the model for a diversified corporate America that is still used today.
I knew that I was sitting next to conscious people. The words flowed; I have pages of them, scribbled in purple ink next to their initials – N and B and K.
Nils grew up with “generations of understanding and access to a system by default.”
“When you inherit that, it’s such a safe feeling,” he said. “Apartments, applications… as a kid growing up, you’re calmer.”
“[The system] was designed with you in mind,” Barakat agreed.
Color is a new thing for Sweden, Khalil said.
“It’s okay to talk about class and gender,” Barakat said. “…But affirmative action is a no-go right now… We have to discuss methods of inclusion.”
Khalil and I talked to the side about colorblindness in the States. About segregation here and back home. About the rhetoric. It’s the same in LA and Tuscaloosa. It’s the same in DC and Stockholm. “What Sweden is grappling with is a universal thing,” he said.
But there seems to be more hope here. The psychological damage that exists in the States, Khalil said, isn’t as deep-seated here.
Barakat overhears us.
“The system has to own up…”
When a system enforces tolerance, that is how progress is made, Barakat says. Beastiality is against the law, as of a couple years ago, so people do not do it. In the same way, if racism were illegal, the values of the people would change. They act this way because the system lets them, he argues.
We talk about power. Power is productive, not positive or negative.
“The brutal force of activism is needed,” Nils butts in.
“Yeah, you can do some dope stuff together,” Barakat agrees. “The empire of social media has made the world smaller… It’s empowering to know that you are marginalized together.”
He points to Khalil and thanks Black Twitter and African-American literature for giving him the vocabulary needed to be conscious. Growing up in White spaces is what taught a young Barakat that he was Black, but words like “white gaze” and “microaggression” have given him validation.
“That’s when I knew I wasn’t crazy,” he said. The others nodded their heads, especially Khalil.
We exchange emails, and Khalil tells me that I’d enjoy speaking with his girlfriend, who immigrated here from Saudi Arabia when she was three. She’s in LA right now, though, so I keep her in the back of my mind.
I leave them to their plans. This time with words to remember them by.