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Three Seconds in Sweden: What I Learned About Race

I have always considered myself a tolerant, open-minded progressive.  Life in the United States perpetuated that myth, allowing me to remain ignorant of my biases, especially those regarding race.  But my first day in Sweden ripped that illusion to shreds.

It happened in the span of three seconds.  Standing in line in one of Växjö’s coffee houses, awaiting my latté, my cinnamon roll, and the joyous experience that is Fika, I came face-to-face with racial biases I had always ignored.  I was ready to use a blunter term, and outright say—that due to my default status as a white man—I am inherently racist.  No doubt, plenty of woke people out there probably insist that I should take my argument that far.  No doubt, plenty of woke people out there are probably irked that I’m not going to.

The biases, however, are real.  Before that moment, I never would have accepted that about myself.  Never.  Not even two years earlier when I stumbled into into a nasty Facebook feud with far-left “purity-testers” over a dispute about microaggressions.  But even though I still think that far-left apologists are crazy-bonkers, I also realize that, as a white man who has spent his entire life in the Midwest, I hold biases which, if left unchecked can fester and do a lot of damage.  And like I said, I learned it in three seconds.

Standing in that coffee line, a figure entered behind me.  He passed me to my left, walked away from me to a row of sofas along the shop’s window, and began conversing with a buddy in fluent, beautiful Swedish.  Absorbed at the time by the conversation at the counter, I darted my glance to the newcomer.  Settling into their seats were a pair of locals.  One who looked in so many ways—clothing, facial hair, and skin color—like everyone else in Växjö, and the other who did not.

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What was I thinking?

That other was a slim man, sporting a maroon New York Yankees baseball cap, a zip up sweatshirt (maybe Adidas or Puma) white sneakers, and tight denim pants.  He was also black.  The term that instantly crossed my mind was “African-American.”  I quickly checked myself, however. He wasn’t American, after all.  I have since learned from Marley, my daughter who studies abroad in Växjö, that correct term is “Afro-Swede,” but at the time I didn’t have that bit of vernacular on hand.

An absence of terminology, however, wasn’t the thing that rattled me.  My problem involved those precious three seconds, and the words which popped up in the thought-balloon over my head.

“What’s he doing here?”  I asked myself.

As soon as the thought hit me, I mentally face-palmed myself.  A torrent of “bad Dobby’s” went through my skull, and I turned my now blatant gaze away.  As the shame escalated, the blood rushed to my face.  No one noticed, of course.  No one ever notices.  And if I hadn’t made the decision to share it, I could have pocketed this incident away and gone on with my life, patting myself on the back for my forward-thinking, progressive view of the world.

As the day wound out slowly, I kept taking my thoughts back to that point in time.  Why did I think those words?  How could I do such a thing?  What was wrong with me?

Uncomfortable Answers

I’m still trying to find out the answers to my questions, or even if there are any answers to be had.  One truth I do know is that, over the course of my life, I had created an archetype of the “average black man” in my head.  It’s a stereotype created by pop culture—music, movies, and even the TV news.  I had subconsciously crafted a figure who was distinctly urban and even more distinctly English-speaking.  Had the man who entered the coffee shop uttered a sentence in a Southern drawl or a crisp British or South African accent, I wouldn’t have given as much thought to his presence in that Fika crowd.

His Swedish, however, was natural.  He was a Swede, and the fact that I had to mentally check-swing myself before accepting that as a given…that still embarrasses me.

Of course, something else complicates this dynamic more me.  Wendi, my fiancée of five years, is Korean by birth.  She was adopted as an infant, flown to the U.S., and raised in Indiana.  When she sits with me over a Hulu binge, when she wakes up with me in the morning, when she rides shotgun with me for a day trip to Indianapolis, I never think of as Asian or Korean.  She’s just Wendi.  Everything about her: her voice, her speech, her mannerisms, her ideology and attitude…all of that seems as average and Midwestern as anyone else I know in my home town.

Which leaves me facing a big question:  Why am I able to accept Wendi as a Hoosier first and an Asian last?  If I can accept Wendi without consideration of race, why did I react with surprise in the Swedish coffee shop?  Several answers run through my head, and only one of them—the least likely among my options—absolves me.

After confronting my biases, I realized that Sweden’s population is every bit as diverse as places like my home state of Indiana.

A Changed Perspective

For the rest of that day I replayed other assumptions though my mind.  I recalled the moment when we exited our flight in Copenhagen.  The crew assigned to cleaning up the cabin walked past us, all four of them young and blonde.  I remember turning to Wendi, who looked me with a wry grin.

“It really is true about this place,” we both joked. The rest of that first day abroad, as we settled into our hotel then ate at a nearby pizza joint, we encountered blonde after blonde after blonde.  Even in the gray shanks of the retired folks, we could spot the earmarks of a former, dazzling, handsome blonde.

But after that late-morning Fika session, Sweden’s “blondeness” faded.  Suddenly I saw brunettes and red-heads and minorities all over the peninsula.  And when I opened our hotel door after the cleaning crew politely knocked, the remaining vestiges of the Scandinavian myth evaporated.  Standing at the door was a young woman.  She was Middle Eastern, and she smiled directly into my eyes.

Did I need my room cleaned?  No.  Not really…but I could use a few more towels.

“Towels…” she uttered.  The word didn’t come fluently, and she fought it accordingly.  Once more, another uncomfortable epiphany hit me.  When immigrants come to the U.S., they have to scale the English language.  But these immigrants had to master that and Swedish as well.  With yet more embarrassment, I accepted the towels, thanked her, and wished her a good day.

In the weeks since my return I have replayed all sorts of memories in my mind.  The time when a blue-collar worker in South Bend referred to Barrack Obama as “the n*****-president,” the time when a former golfing buddy called Michelle Obama a “gorilla.”  The jokes I used to tell growing up in all-white, all-rural county in Indiana.  I used to congratulate myself on my ascendance.  I actually took pride in condemning others’ racist comments, smugly rewarding myself for my own “growth.”  But in those three seconds I realized I hadn’t grown very much.  And in the hours that followed I gradually accepted that I hadn’t grown at all.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

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