My friend Sara’s post on Facebook the other day received a huge amount of comments. Sara recounted a conversation she had had in the lunch room at the hospital where she is working: a “tall, blonde” medical doctor had responded to Sara introducing herself by asking: “So where are you from? You don’t exactly look like you have viking blood in you” (the vikings are Sweden’s infamous seafaring warriors that terrorized other nations in the years 800-1500). Even though Sara simply had answered the woman with the name of the Swedish city she grew up in, the woman didn’t give in but kept pushing for my friend to explain her ethnic belonging and family history.
On Facebook Sara explained how tiring it is to receive this question over and over again and summed it up by concluding that no blonde medical doctor had to answer endless questions about their background on a coffeebreak on any given medical clinic in Sweden. Many commented with their thoughts and advice on how to handle such a situation, some of them being quite radical about asking the woman to fuck off or simply leave Sweden for a more tolerant country; most of them Swedes as Sara mostly has Swedish friends. I was about to agree with them then it struck me: I was once one of those people asking Sara where she was from.
When we had been friends for a while years ago she had brought up the subject of her being the odd one in the all-white Swedish middle class surroundings of university life where we both were, and in that moment I realized that when we first got to know each other I had asked her a million of questions about her home country. Why? I found her country so damn exciting and I wanted to know all there was about it (I had never been there myself). But I hadn’t seen it as a problem back then before Sara brought it up.
“Well you ask me a lot of questions, just like the others,” Sara agreed when I reminded her, then adding in a conciliatory manner: “But on the other hand you did seem genuinely interested.”
In my country some newcomers never make it into the Swedish society; they never learn the language, never make it to the jobmarket and their kids go to one of the ghetto schools where more than 50% don’t graduate junior high school. Being an outcast is also degrading and I have met a lot of anger in the ghettos in Sweden. But maybe as the glass ceiling is one of the hardest to break through this might create a lot of bitterness of another, more damaging kind than the feeling of being an outcast? If you are doing your best trying, graduating from high school with straight As, make it to medical school or another attractive university program, get yourself a good ass job and still neve becomes accepted for who you are because of your different name or (in Sweden) black hair – couldn’t this be worse?
Me myself I didn’t graduate junior high school and spent a considerable amount of time in special educational programs for troubled kids – but when I did make it to university in the end noone looked surprised when they saw me or asked if I was the first one in my family to attend university, when on my dad’s side I actually was one of the first, and my parents even made me give them a copy of my (usless) Bachelor’s degree in political science for them to frame and hang on the wall.
After quite some thinking I answered Sara’s Facebookpost and told her my thoughts about myself, saying I think she could point out to the blonde medical doctor next time that it is very tiring having to answer these kinds of questions. Because I don’t think she realizes herself that she’s a part of that glass ceiling that holds people back. I’m not free from prejudices and also I need an eye opener sometimes. And I believe in dialogue rather than telling that clueless person to fuck off. Sure, asking someone to fuck off is needed when the person knows what he’s doing, but most of us are just ignorant like me and needs to be made aware, just like Sara did with me once upon a time. I actually think the Swedish persons being so radical have made the same mistakes in the past.
I hope I will read a new Facebook update from Sara soon, with the result of the next answer on the question: Where are you from?
Photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org