A segregated city or: you might not be as tolerant as you think
December 7, 2018
Every time I visit big cities in Western Europe, I am amazed by the diversity of people on public transport. I remember the awe when during a visit to my brother in London, I looked around and realized that he was the only white person on the bus. I was in my early twenties, and that was the first time I experienced this in any European country. Today, I live in one of the most segregated cities, not only in Sweden but in all of Europe. Segregated doesn't mean that there are no immigrants but that they are simply invisible in certain parts of town. So you can have that London experience in some neighborhoods but many other areas make you think that there are hardly any non-white people in Sweden. Riding the tram line 11 from one end to the other is one of the easiest and fastest ways to get a feel for the city’s division along financial, cultural, and racial lines. This is not my idea; a number of local journalists have done the ride and written about it, and I read these articles with interest and fascination. The tram 11 connects the Southern archipelago (where I live) with the city center and thus gets me into town on days when I am not cycling. At the time I moved here, I didn't know much about the city at all. Yet, it struck me how the average passenger on the line 11 transformed the longer you stayed on the train. Put in a nutshell, it changed from white Swedes to non-white foreigners the further you got towards the final destination, Bergsjön Komettorget. Most articles about this phenomenon didn't really delve into underlying structures or social mechanisms but to me, it raises a lot of questions about race, class, nationality, place, and belonging.
In extreme cases, the salary for one-and-a-half months of work corresponds to what people in the poorest areas of Bergjön may make in one entire year.
Crossing worlds: from Bergsjön to Saltholmen
Located at the North-Eastern edge of town, right next to beautiful forests and lakes, Bergsjön is one of the poorest neighborhoods of Gothenburg. The annual income averages around 140,000 Swedish crowns (about 13,500 Euro). 26% of the neighborhood’s inhabitants are unemployed, only 11% have got higher education. More than 60% are born outside of Sweden, a substantial part of the population is second-generation immigrants, born in Sweden to non-Swedish parents. Getting on the tram, you find yourself in the midst of an international crowd; dark hair, straight, curly, braided, hidden under hijabs, turbans, rastacaps, skin all shades of brown and black, languages that are impossible to allocate geographically.The train makes its way through the outskirts towards the city center, and the further you get, the less diverse are the passengers. The best representation of Gothenburg's actual population you may see around Brunnsparken. In this busy downtown area, people are changing buses or trams, and hundreds flock into and out of Nordstan, the city’s biggest shopping mall. By the time you pass Långedrag, about one hour after having left from Bergsjön, the passenger image has reversed. Most people on the train are now white, and the non-white passengers are the ones standing out. This is the where the most affluent citizens live. The average income is four times higher than in Bergjsön, and in extreme cases, the salary for one-and-a-half months of work corresponds to what people in the poorest areas of Bergjön may make in one entire year. Unemployment basically doesn’t exist (<1%). 46% of people got higher education and 89% are born in Sweden. Finally, you reach the final destination Saltholmen, where you can hop on a boat that gets you to one of the small islands in the Southern Archipelago. Here, the life expectancy of the inhabitants is up to 9 years higher than for those who live at the other end of town (same difference that Sweden’s population has compared to Nicaragua).
Next to a variety of political and economic dynamics (both general and place-specific) that account for the high degree of segregation in Gothenburg, there is also socio-cultural mechanisms that create and perpetuate the divide. It is an interesting exercise to shift the focus from the marginalized groups for a while and look in the other direction instead, at people who have a higher income, better education, and thus are mostly white Swedes. What role do they play for the segregation of the city?
Nature love is not natural love
The population of the archipelago is, by and large, white (although especially on the island where I live, there has been an amazing amount of solidarity with unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan). When I think about the reasons why, it is not only the difficult housing situation and the racist tendencies of some island dwellers and landlords that come to my mind. The notion of enjoying nature and actively seeking the solitude, introspection, and beauty it provides, is a cultural construct that can be traced back to Romanticism in the 18th/19th century. Obviously, there were people at all times in all places who have done precisely that but white men from Western Europe conceptualized it and made it a thing. Apart from that, Sweden has a distinct history regarding the nation's attitude towards nature. In the early 1900s, there was a state-funded and publicly promoted popular movement that propagated the importance of being outdoors and exercise regularly. Modern-day surveys and studies reveal that this thinking is still wide-spread among Swedes and to many foreigners, the Swedish affiliation with their gyms is striking.
From the beginning, it also had a lot to do with class. Who would be in the position to solemnly wander through the countryside, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and musing about people, society, and nature?
My own upbringing was infused with this kind of thinking, which is why I longed for the solitude and stillness of the countryside all the years I lived in cities. So to me, it is perfectly understandable why you would trade a city's conveniences for the quiet island life. But I certainly look at myself and others with self-irony. It always makes me laugh when I see immigrants shake their heads about the idea to go into a forest and then… Yeah what? We even read texts about this in Swedish class to create an understanding among us foreigners that this is a thing in Sweden. To be outdoors, to enjoy nature, to brave the weather, and enjoy the quietness and solitude. Friends of mine organize a so-called skogsmulle on the island, a bi-weekly meeting for families with small kids. Come rain or shine, they meet, wrapped up into little padded all-weather suits, and they’ll go to the forest or the beach, sing songs, play games, learn about animals and trees, have a picnic. I find this absolutely adorable and it almost feels like a cliché-epitomization of all things Swedish. It is important to consider though that the notion of a healthy life in closeness to nature is not merely a Swedish or European or white construct. From the beginning, it also had a lot to do with class. Who would be in the position to solemnly wander through the countryside, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and musing about people, society, and nature? And although today's society looks very differently, there is still a lot of conceit towards the uneducated simple folks who prefer to spend their weekends staying in, watching TV, or going to the mall.
You may not be as tolerant as you think
Living on an island is of course a special case. Most people, Swedish or not, prefer to live in town. I usually get surprised and skeptical reactions from everyone when I tell them I live on one of the islands. The other day I overheard a young Swedish woman talking on the phone. We were sitting next to each other on the tram no.11 into town and apparently, she was on her way back from visiting a friend. I really hope he finds a place in town soon, she said, you DIE from the dead silence out there! My God!
Looking at the study's results, I thought to myself: How peculiar that most of the leftist, cultural folks live and hang out there, but the ethnic diversity of the place amounts more or less to zero!
What struck me while reading about the segregation of Gothenburg was a study that revealed its most and its least diverse areas. Whereas most results were not particularly surprising, one area stood out: Majorna-Linné, the alternative, “cool” part of town ended up on the bottom rank. Majorna is where white folks hang out. Several adult education institutes that offer language and integration courses for refugees and other immigrants are located only a stone’s throw away from Järntorget, a hub of public transport and social life, but it rarely happens that the students make their way to the countless bars and cafés nearby. Looking at the study's results, I thought to myself: How peculiar that most of the leftist, cultural folks live and hang out there, but the ethnic diversity of the place amounts more or less to zero! Searching for explanations, I came across an interesting study on segregation and multi-culturalism in a middle-sized Swedish town. In her doctoral thesis, Maja Lilja (2015) studied young mothers and what they thought was the best environment for them and their small children. There was a strong consensus amongst the interviewees that a multicultural environment was desirable both for themselves and their kids. However, the study revealed a striking discrepancy between attitude and actual behavior. Whereas the women consistently agreed on the importance of a socially and culturally diverse environment, they all lived in predominantly white Swedish neighborhoods. Even those who lived in an area that was generally seen as diverse, actually resided in certain parts of that area inhabited by white Swedes, most of whom owned single-family homes.
Diversity is in (but only if it looks nice) To me it seems that the discrepancy between attitude and action that Maja Lilja reveals in her study is a crucial point when we look at segregated cities through the lens of critical whiteness. Sara Ahmed argues that “the Other” is frequently used to paint the picture of an open and heterogeneous society/nation. Including non-white individuals in e.g. advertising communicates that they are a welcomed part of Swedish society and everyday-life, when in reality, most of them aren’t.
My image of Sweden depicts a society that shows an amazing openness and progressiveness in certain areas, but is very restrictive in many other ways.
Swedish brands like monki sell a very inclusive image of their fashion but if you enter a store, you’ll only see white woman buying these clothes. Many of the ads depicting non-white people actually cater to a white audience because every detail of how the advertisement is set up says “WHITE”, except for the model’s skin color. I get the impression that a positive attitude towards immigration and multiculturalism is socially desirable and fits into a progressive and open-minded self-image. However, subtle and oftentimes unconscious prejudice and fears perpetuate othering, exclusion, and skepticism towards outsiders. This leads for instance to the so-called white flight, a term coined in the US to describe the social phenomenon of white people moving from their neighborhood as soon as the percentage of non-white immigrants crosses a certain threshold. In Sweden, this threshold is a mere 3-4%. The Sweden I have gotten to know during the past five years still amazes and impresses me with its openness and progressiveness in certain areas (e.g. LGBTQ issues), but is very restrictive in many others, and if you don't subscribe to the norms and rules, you'll face a lot of struggle to carve out your own existence. That applies to both Swedes and non-Swedes but being a non-white immigrant with a very different cultural and social background just adds a myriad of additional challenges to this.
Between hope and hypocrisy
One of the reasons why I found the study so intriguing was that I recognized myself in it, as well as my own social setting. In a hypocritical manner, I oftentimes criticize places that feel exclusively white - though those are the places where I usually end up. My former housemate left the island after several months and one of the reasons was that they didn't feel comfortable as a non-white person around here. I find myself in a weird in-between position: I really dislike the fact that I am standing out but it also makes me feel like home because this is how I grew up. If I had kids, would I send them to the cute little island preschool or a more diverse place in town? I like art galleries and classical music and organic food and forest walks and fair trade products and handmade gifts and yoga, all of which is a very clear indicator for where I socially belong. Would I trade that environment for a place that feels more diverse? Would I give up a life at a place where I don't need to lock my front door for the sake of my political beliefs? How would it feel to ride the other half of the line 11 every day? These are questions I need to ask myself even though I might not like the answers. And I guess this is what I wish more people would do. Instead of only pointing at immigrants and the problems their presence is causing, why don't we look into a mirror and ask ourselves what we might have done wrong and could do better? Instead of merely blaming structures and institutions, why don't we have the courage to critically scrutinize our own beliefs and actions? If you truly value diversity, you can't just pick the parts you like, the food, the clothes, the music, the symbols. You can't just expect people to behave like exotic-looking versions of yourselves and exclude them from your communities if they don't (because they won't!). You can't just ignore the problems and challenges and pretend we're all the same and living the multiculti dream. That would not do justice to the struggles immigrants are facing and it would not do justice to what it means to create a truly multicultural society.
Sources and related articles:
Maja Lilja "Det bästa för mitt barn": http://oru.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:794168/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Sara Ahmed "Embodying diversity": http://blogs.ubc.ca/span280/files/2015/12/ahmed_diversity.pdf
Sara Ahmed: "Multiculturalism and the promise of happiness": https://www.mcgill.ca/igsf/files/igsf/Ahmed1_multiculturalism.pdf
Sara Ahmed: "Recognising strangers" https://wattis.org/MEDIA/00415.pdf