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As An Immigrant, I Benefit From My Whiteness

By Amelia Shroyer

I am an American living in Sweden. When I first arrived in Europe, I was drawn to self-identify with the word “expat,” not questioning the inherent privilege embedded in the term until I started to better comprehend immigration politics in Europe. Since my move, I’ve come to see expat as an example of coded language, one I used in the past without even noticing it. If I say expat, you might think wealthy, affluent, privileged. Almost certainly white.

I’ve lived in a foreign country before I had a work visa and while it was still pending — but nobody’s ever called me an “illegal alien.” I’ve moved from place to place in three different countries to find work — but nobody’s ever called me a “migrant worker.” And I plan to stay living outside the U.S. — but nobody’s ever called me an “immigrant.”

Why? Because I’m not what people have in mind when they hear these othering and dehumanizing terms. My whiteness allows me to walk through the world mostly unquestioned. No one stops me in public to ask me what I’m doing somewhere or demanding that I show my papers. No one overhears me speaking English and tells me to “go back to where I came from.”

Most of my American friends are at least marginally aware of the tensions around immigration in Europe, but not many western news outlets go into detail when examining the circumstances or discussing the impact of the refugee crisis. Not many people have heard about the dozens of fires set to refugee camps in Sweden last year, for example.

It might surprise American readers to learn about the xenophobic undertones inherent to European racism and immigration policy. But they’re very much present; it’s just that European racism is different in nuanced ways from American racism.

From what I see — with the caveat that this is an oversimplification of the issues — where American racism is largely (but not solely) centered on anti-blackness and contextualized by the effects of slavery and segregation, European racism seems to focus on religious and cultural difference. The vestiges of Europe’s colonial past have greatly influenced who is considered European, and while anti-blackness and colorism absolutely play a role in that, my interpretation is that racism manifests itself in the attitudes about who “doesn’t belong” in terms of things like European religion, culture, social norms, and language. In my experience, European racism is most palpable toward Muslims, Syrian refugees, and the Romani diaspora.

As more and more immigrants flee their homeland under duress, this racism has increasingly affected those most in need. My whiteness has shielded me from the crisis — but that doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, should be able to ignore what’s happening.

A Mounting Crisis

A refugee, by definition, is a person who is escaping having to live in a place where they are in constant danger. ISIS is sacking towns, killing men in front of their children, raping mothers and selling daughters to the same fate, while recruiting boys to tote guns.

The kind of senseless violence we watched unfold with horror in Paris is but a taste of the lived experiences of thousands of refugees who are so terrorized that they are fleeing by the millions, seeking refuge from the worst situations imaginable, and putting their lives in danger to do so. Last year, for example, nearly 4,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean trying to swim to Europe.

As the situation worsens for many in their homeland, Europe’s refugee count has swelled. In 2015, more than 1 million people fled from various countries into Europe by sea, and another nearly 35,000 by land; so far in 2016, almost 83,000 refugees have crossed into Europe by sea.

In Sweden, where I live, there are more asylum seekers per capita than in any other country in Europe, leading it to be called the “world’s capital of asylum seekers.” Last year, it accepted 160,000 asylum seekers into the country; earlier this year, it was announced that it would deport 80,000 “rejected” asylum seekers.

Among those fleeing to Sweden are a growing number of refugee children who are either unaccompanied or orphaned. According to the latest estimates from Migrationsverket, the Swedish immigration agency, there are 30,000 unaccompanied refugee children in the country. At the same time, there has been a shortage of volunteers and qualified advocates to help these children adjust to life in their new country. Many of these children have escaped war-torn areas and are dealing with trauma, yet Sweden has failed to allocate the necessary resources to treat them.

Meanwhile, no Swedish political party will publicly address immigration other than the Sverigedemokraterna (SDP), a right-wing extremist party that has been slowly gaining support. (In the 2014 elections, SDP won 13% of the popular vote.)

Worse yet, the country’s ignorance and xenophobia have fostered a culture of violence. In January, immigrant children were viciously attacked in Stockholm’s Sergels Torg train station by masked men. An estimated 100 men ran through the station, targeting anyone who appeared to not be an “ethnic Swede.” These attacks were apparently retaliation for a 22-year-old refugee-center worker who was stabbed, presumably by one of these trauma-rattled youth.

In the face of the tragedy these immigrants have experienced in their homeland, how is it that they can be met with such suspicion, indifference, and disdain in the place they’ve sought refuge? And why are they being met with such hostility, while I’m allowed to enjoy my expat status unscathed?

The Power Of White Privilege

Unlike those fleeing Europe to escape violent and dangerous situations in their home countries, I came to Sweden for a job opportunity. Being a native English speaker is prioritized in a place where tech companies are falling all over themselves to break into the American market.

When I contrast the way immigrants have been treated with the way I have been, I often feel ashamed. I feel ashamed knowing that my English will be understood anywhere I go, while others are forced to struggle to comprehend Swedish as quickly as possible. I feel ashamed when I look around the office and only see white faces, knowing that so many asylum-seekers are accomplished professionals in their home countries, and that their career reputations have been stripped away as just one more thing that doesn’t translate. I feel ashamed when I give some toiletries to the woman who is at my local train stop, only to realize that what she actually wanted was to come over to take a shower.

“White guilt” is something I’m often accused of, usually by other white people, when I openly discuss racism. All arguments aside, it’s honestly difficult for me to imagine how a white person couldn’t feel guilty for the staggering inequality that harms people of color. Of course, our guilt isn’t going to fix these problems. But what’s worse is to not acknowledge or discuss this privilege and the very real harm it causes, and to do nothing about what’s going on because you’re not personally affected by it.

Being able to identify what’s happening and talk about it is the only way we can change anything for the better. We’re in a time of global crisis, where people are fleeing a part of the world in the hundreds of thousands. It is irresponsible of us to turn blind eyes to this level of human suffering. Refugees, expats, citizens, asylum seekers, immigrants, aliens, residents — whatever you want to call yourself and other people — we are all human beings. And the only way to fix what’s happening is by accepting humanity as a condition of universal rights and status.

We need to stop treating refugees like criminals, and start viewing them as people who have been through a range of circumstances and can contribute value to society.

Every human being — regardless of whether or not they look like me — deserves to be free.