As A Black Woman Who Lived In Sweden, #Swedengate Is All Too Familiar

Photo: Maskot/Getty Images.
Sweden used to evoke the usual stereotypes: blonde-haired blue-eyed people traipsing through green flowery fields, assemble-by-numbers furniture with simplistic yet functional design, perfect meatballs served with gravy, or a strange yet powerful chokehold on the world’s production of pop music (go watch episode 3 of Netflix’s This is Pop).
I regret to inform you that while some of those things are true, many of the things we think we know about the country are not. When it comes to Sweden, the more you look into it, the more things get curiouser and curiouser. And in the theme of the last few years where everything is either cake or even more terrible than we thought, Sweden’s reputation is the latest casualty. 
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Enter #Swedengate. It all started with a great thread on Reddit (which has since been deleted) asking people to share about their experiences with strange social customs while visiting someone’s home. Then, someone tweeted their experience as a child playing at their Swedish friend’s house and being told to wait in their friend’s room while their host family ate dinner. Another shared their experience of being left out of breakfast after sleeping over at a friend’s house the night before. The post generated thousands of upvotes and a screenshot of the discussion was shared to Twitter, where even more thousands of people learned that Swedish people apparently have no hospitality skills and are very, very stingy when it comes to feeding guests. 
#Swedengate then turned into a full blown discussion on Twitter about a) how and why people from Sweden would do such a thing as to not share food with visitors to their homes, b) how funny/messed up/just plain weird Swedes are, and c) Swedes defending themselves/their culture and customs from outsiders —which is especially amusing if you know about the phrase and mindstate of “Jantelagen” in Sweden. It means that they never like to talk about themselves or anything they do unless absolutely necessary.
Black Twitter (and other ethnic groups around the world and their diasporas) brought out one of the more interesting discussions I’ve seen on the subject: how Sweden, and other European countries like it, emphasise the notion that immigrants must integrate their lifestyles, customs and even humanity to that the country in which they’ve settled.  And many expect this assimilation even if those customs not only run counter to what the immigrants'  home traditions are, but against what most humans would do (like serve food to a guest in your house!). As a Black woman who lived and studied in Sweden, this discussion resonated with me quite a bit. I was able to identify with the immigrant experience in a European country, while also being able to tell what about the #Swedengate debate was real and what was speculative.
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Spoiler alert: Swedish people *do* feed their guests… sometimes. But in my experience, they are also quite excellent at making you feel quite alone/different if you’re not a white/white-passing person born in Sweden.

Spoiler alert: Swedish people *do* feed their guests… sometimes. But in my experience, they are also quite excellent at making you feel quite alone/different if you’re not a white/white-passing person born in Sweden.

Twelve years ago, I left my comfortable life in Toronto for a very big change in scenery to pursue my Masters degree, hopeful to change my uninspiring career trajectory in the process. Although I had considered myself well-travelled, I hadn’t been to any of the Nordic countries, so the opportunity for a relatively low-cost, graduate-level education and living expenses in a new country seemed very exciting. Apartment emptied, possessions sold, and student visa and life savings in hand, off I went to the land of IKEA and socialism to study at Mittuniversitetet (Mid Sweden University). 
My first three months in a little town in northern Sweden were jarring. I consider myself an easygoing person who makes friends easily and figures things out as I go, but the very things that make me who I am were against “normal” Swedish social norms. I was met with the stoic, stone-faced, expressionless wall of aloofness that they showed towards strangers, even after a night out of drinking and having in-depth personal conversations. There were awkward stares from people who couldn’t figure out who I was outside of their neatly confined boxes. I had to get used to the sharp inhale of air that replaces the word “yes” in Swedish (that’s only in the north, btw). I learned that a beloved chocolate dessert in the country was originally known as “negerbollar” (negro ball) before being changed to the more politically correct name “chokladbollar” (I still don’t like them to this day). Because of these experiences, the transgressions described in #Swedengate weren’t surprising to me. I deeply understood the unwelcoming culture people were joking about on Twitter, but I also wanted to understand why it was even happening in the first place. 
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There were exceptions to this rule of course. There was Johanna, my very sweet and inviting half-Swedish, half-Danish neighbour in student residence who became a fast friend in the first few weeks of my arrival. The motley crew of Swedish students and locals who I joined in a weekly round of volleyball at a local gym (and a round of drinks afterwards). Rike, my German friend who was my guide through Swedish life and shared my love of cooking (and yes, we shared meals all the time). What truly saved my sanity, and helped me develop my identity outside of the one I had made for myself at home and a new dimension of my Blackness, was the warm embrace and familiarity of the international student community — we were all united in our differentness from our friendly but exclusionary hosts.
Swedish society follows many “rules”; one of the most interesting ones to me is the concept of “allemansrätten,” or “the right of public access.” It’s the right of everyone to enjoy Sweden’s nature, including foraging for mushrooms and berries in one's local forest — (though I know people who keep their preferred locations secret, never sharing with even family members). If Swedes are apparently taught to make things available for everyone, then why are we hearing about people refusing to share food? Though the stinginess and exclusionary behaviour outlined in #Swedengate is unfortunately still happening to this day — albeit much less than in the past — whether you experience it for yourself truly depends on what part of Sweden you live in and who you’re interacting with. And based on that, there seems to be a general rule of “the right to refuse hospitality.”
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I spoke to a few people of colour who shared their experiences living in Sweden. 
Bianca*, a UX designer from Colombia who also studied at Mid Sweden University, gave me a quick and quirky anecdote about the time a mutual friend — let’s call her Sara — invited her and another friend to a house party a few years ago. They were greeted with strange looks from the other party guests (because Sara didn’t tell the hosts she had invited anyone). Despite a smorgasbord (pun intended) of offerings at the party, no food or drinks were shared with Bianca or her friend. Sara had to sneak food and drinks to their car so they could eat and drink. 
Simone*, an assistant professor at Mid Sweden University, left her native Brazil many years ago to travel abroad. She met her Swedish husband and settled in Sweden with him. She’s had the unique perspective of living as a Black woman abroad and seeing the changes in Swedish society first hand over the last couple of decades.
When I asked Simone about the customs described in #Swedengate, she told me that yes,  her Swedish friends and their families did withhold food from guests in the 1960s and 1970s but there were reasons other than inhospitality. “Their families would send visitors home for dinner, unless the kids slept over, in which case they would have breakfast with the family. All of this was considered normal; their parents grew up poor, and putting food on the table for their families was expensive. So in that sense, it was everyone for themselves; feeding other people was seen as unnecessary.”
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The very excellent book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth helps to illustrate this in his quirky account of Swedish history of the individual’s relationship to the state and how it manifests in everyday life. “...one must be able to solve one’s own problems. Swedes don’t like to ask favours of each other: they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence….to ask for help —or even to give it — is a low-level social taboo... Debt of any kind, be it emotional, a favour or cash, is to be avoided at all costs.”
Photo: Peter Berglund/Getty Images.
Simone went on to say that while baby boomers came from a mindset of being as economical as possible, their children were the first generation to start to move away from it. “...They don’t have the same attachment to that scarcity mentality as their parents did, even though they may owe their house to the bank. Their relation to money is different; unlike their parents, they would call the parents of the child who has been spending time at their home and ask if it’s okay for them to stay for dinner rather than just sending them home; and if they stay over, they would have breakfast with the family.”
A sentence that I’ve enthusiastically highlighted and underlined in my copy of Booth’s book, especially in light of #Swedengate, is this:  “The Swedish system’s logic is that it is dangerous to be dependent on other people, to be beholden to other people. Even to your family.” Given the history, customs and context, I guess you can understand why Swedes may choose to not want to be in debt to anyone (except maybe the bank or the state), but it’s still weird that anyone would see sharing a meal as being indebted to someone. The reality is that the very essence of humanity is to depend on other people to survive and thrive in your own life and in society as a whole.
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Some of my best memories of living in Sweden involved moments where I shared food and laughs with my fellow international students. I loved going to hang out with students from various African countries when they hosted house parties in the winter and BBQs in the summer; we’d eat, drink and dance all night. My classmates, a tight group representing nearly every continent, decided that we missed the food from our cultures so much that we would cook it for each other; we hosted a weekly night where we’d eat and enjoy Ethiopian food one night, Japanese curry another. Of  course I had to represent my West Indian heritage by making fried corned beef and rice. We’d always send each other home with extra portions for the next day, without a second thought. 
Every now and then, the Swedes would want to be part of the action despite quite literally having to go outside their comfort zones. The thing about Swedes is that on the rare occasion they decide they trust you and that stoic wall comes down… they’re all in. As a Black woman living there, I didn’t experience this openness often, but on the few occasions when I did experience this, it resulted in loyal, long-lasting friendships. One instance in particular comes to mind. To celebrate the end of the school year and our birthday, Bianca and I planned what we thought was going to be a cool Animal House-inspired toga party with a few dozen friends. A few hundred people showed up. When word got out that two international students were throwing a party that emulated the American college culture that Swedes are obsessed with, nearly every student in town showed up dressed in a toga made with their favourite material, drinks and snacks in hand to share with everyone (gasp!), and some even showed up with flowers for us.
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I suppose I should feel good for not having the gumption to send each of the Swedish guests home with a bill for the good time we provided them (or for not refusing to feed them)… but then again, I was raised to share with everyone, even if they don’t see me as someone they can share anything with.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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