Swedish Racism: A False Image of Democratic Solidarity

Essay 3 (part one)

Swedish systemic racism: An academic perspective

The ways Swedish structural and institutional racism functions and hides itself behind the old mantel of its reputation—as a country of solidarity and equality—is discussed in this essay by providing examples of my own personal experiences in Swedish academia. In my first essay some months back I elaborated how Sweden has tried to hide the structural and institutional racism behind its famous image of solidarity and equality. Although the Swedish welfare state has never been free from white racism, indeed quite the contrary, there have been individuals in the leadership of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, such as Olof Palme, who tried to combat racism both nationally and internationally. I wrote that twenty years after the assassination of Olof Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for. Swedish political and academic institutions, which bear much responsibility for the reproduction of racism in the country, “shoot the messenger”, as Swedes say. In other words, instead of enacting policies and practices that combat racism, there has been a systematic response to discredit me and numerous others who took action against Swedish racism. (On systemic racism theory, see here)

In my second essay I presented the growing political mobilization and rhetoric against antiracism. This included increased character assassination of me and delegitimization of my governmental investigation on structural discrimination in Sweden as well as mainstream political attempts to situate disenfranchised immigrants as blame-worthy agents who caused their own structural discrimination and marginalization. In my second essay I also wrote about the growing transitions of mainstream political parties (including the Social Democrats) to be aligned with a far-right wing political agenda. This is a period during which politicians, who once offered moral and ethical political arguments about the human/civil rights of immigrants, embrace the ideology of realpolitik.

In this essay (Part one), I focus upon the Swedish university and higher education, as well as the role these institutions play in the reproduction of systemic racism and discrimination against racialized instructors, researchers, and students.

I was born in a middle-class family in Iran during the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 until 1979. As many know, this Shah was overthrown in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution. Starting to study sociology in Tabriz University provided me the opportunity to understand the mechanisms behind socioeconomic injustices covered by the glamorous façade of the Shah’s regime. I was very soon drawn into students’ protest movements and subsequently arrested by SAVAK – Sazman-e Etelaat Va Amniat Keshvar (Organization of Intelligence and Homeland Security) in early 1977, tortured and after a very short trial in a military court I was sentenced and jailed until the victory of the revolution in 1979. Continuing my political activities against the new Islamic regime and losing many of my friends in arbitrary executions, forced me to leave the country in 1987. Arriving in Sweden as a political refugee provided me with a new identity and social status, namely being a “refugee” at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I started working as cleaner, janitor and such. Simultaneously, I completed the Swedish requirements necessary for university studies. I had to do so because the Swedish Central Bureau for Higher Education refused to accept my credentials from my earlier university studies in Iran.

I began by studying Sociology at Linköping University and simultaneously Social Work at Stockholm University. I completed my studies in sociology and Master’s Degree in Social Work in 1991 and started working as a social worker in several municipalities. I applied for PhD studies in sociology three times and two times my applications were turned down, because the committee assumed that I had “language problems” with writing a dissertation. More specifically, the committee argued: “based on Kamali’s language problems, he could not be able to write his dissertation in due time”. Except for two members of the committee, who rejected the “language argument”, no one else had any contact with me in order to be able to evaluate my language abilities. I was in contact with a professor with an American background at the Department of Sociology and told him that I was working as a municipal social worker with many Swedish families and that I had never heard anybody complaining about my language ability. He told me that: “You know, you are Iranian, an immigrant, and you have written a Master’s Thesis, which is not appreciated by Swedes”. My Master’s Thesis, titled “Within Social Work Offices”, was a critical analysis of the Swedish municipal authorities’ discrimination against immigrant families. This was not welcomed by professors who saw themselves as the “guardians of the Swedish model.” Thanks to the efforts of the previously mentioned professor and an associate professor with Chilean background who evaluated my Master’s Thesis as excellent and accused the committee of having racist attitudes, I was accepted as a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, at Uppsala University in 1993. However, the acceptance was a compromise and the committee decided also that “Kamali has no right to salary during his PhD studies at the department”.

Initially, one of the professors who had been critical of my application was assigned as my supervisor! He very soon said that he was not able to supervise me since I “did not properly understand Weber”. This statement was made because in my dissertation outline I had criticized Max Weber—a famous founding white Christian scholar of sociology—for his misinterpretation of Islamic societies. I was assigned another supervisor. Because of the lack of graduate fellowship income, I had to work both as social worker in an Uppsala municipality and on a research project at the Department of Law in order to finance my PhD studies. Notwithstanding such problems, I successfully completed my dissertation in 1995. Writing my dissertation in such a short time depended partly on my hard work to counteract the falseness of the institutional racism of some at my department, and partly because I had already completed many necessary courses prior to the Phd committee’s decision. Significantly, my dissertation was published as a book with an excellent introduction by Bryan S. Turner, one of the world´s leading sociologists of religion, who considered the dissertation as one of the best sociological analysis of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Aware of the existing systemic racism in Swedish academia, which would probably prevent me from getting a job due to my non-west-centric research on Iran and other Muslim countries, I had to pursue a more accepted research path on popular topics such as immigrant integration. Based on one of my publications regarding the integration of immigrants in Sweden titled “Distorted Integration: Clientaization of immigrants in Sweden,” I was hired by the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden (Socialstyrelsen) to conduct research on the “cultural role” of immigrant social workers who worked with immigrant clients. I very soon realized that the Board considered immigrants to be “different cultural beings”, who need “culturally competent social workers.” Contrary to the Board’s expectations, the study showed that many clients did not appreciate having social workers with immigrant backgrounds who possessed so-called “cultural competency.” These clients indicated that these workers were harsher on their immigrant clients than native Swedish social workers. Social workers with immigrant backgrounds, on the other hand, said that they felt forced to be harsher toward clients with immigrant backgrounds because they thought that their jobs could be considered not necessary if they behaved like the white social workers with Swedish backgrounds. I was called to a meeting with the head of the Social Work section at the Board who ordered me to not publish the results. They called my findings “non-scientific” and accused me of assuming that social workers with a Swedish background were being racists. I did not accept their unjust exercise of power and told them that the report was a scientific product, that the Board had all the empirical materials, and that if they wanted, they could analyze the material. They did not accept my suggestion and I decided to publish the results of the study as a book.

Since that book’s publication, it has become a staple in social Work education in Sweden. (to be continued in part two)

Masoud Kamali
Uppsala, January 2020

Masoud Kamali has received his professorship in Sociology (Uppsala University), Social Work (Mid Sweden University), Middle Eastern Studies (South Denmark University) and International Migration and Ethnic Relations (Stockholm University). His recent publications include: Neoliberalism, Nordic Welfare States and Social Work (Routledge, 2018) and “Revolutionary Social Work: Promoting sustainable Justice” (Critical and Radical Social Work, 7(3), November 2019).

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