An Open Letter to Beatrice Ask

Jonas Hassen Khemiri

Artwork by Ellen Blom

In 2009, the Swedish government, along with law enforcement and the Swedish Migration Board, implemented Project REVA, a program meant to expedite cases dealing with people who are in Sweden illegally. This program has only recently been implemented in Stockholm, where police have begun to check IDs of anyone who they suspect doesn't have proper papers. Despite the fact that police are not to ask for ID solely on the basis of appearance, many say they have been questioned because they don't "look Swedish," raising concerns that police are practicing racial profiling in an attempt to increase deportations.

Not surprisingly, this created an uproar, but when Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask was asked in a radio interview whether she was concerned by this apparent profiling, she brushed off any concerns, saying that what people thought was racial profiling was just a matter of "personal experience," and she indicated that she does not intend to take any specific measures to address the matter.

The writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri wrote the open letter below in response to Ask's comments. It ran in the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter on March 13, 2013. By the end of that day it had broken the record for the most-shared article on social media. According to a DN article about the story, it was shared on Twitter enough times to theoretically have reached every Swede with a Twitter account. It is now the most linked text in Swedish history.

—Rachel Willson-Broyles

Dear Beatrice Ask,

There are a lot of things that make us different. You were born in the mid-fifties; I was born in the late seventies. You are a woman; I'm a man. You're a politician; I'm an author. But there are some things we have in common. We've both studied international economics (without graduating). We have almost the same hairstyle (even if our hair color is different).

And we're both full citizens of this country, born within its borders, joined by language, flag, history, infrastructure. We are both equal before the Law.

So I was surprised last Thursday when the radio program P1 Morgon asked you whether, as the Minister of Justice, you are concerned that people (citizens, taxpayers, voters) claim they have been stopped by the police and asked for ID solely because of their (dark, non-blond, black-haired) appearances. And you answered:

"One's experience of 'why someone has questioned me' can of course be very personal. There are some who have been previously convicted and feel that they are always being questioned, even though you can't tell by looking at a person that they have committed a crime [...] In order to judge whether the police are acting in accordance with laws and rules, one has to look at the big picture."

Interesting choice of words: "previously convicted." Because that's exactly what we are. All of us who are guilty until we prove otherwise. When does a personal experience become a structure of racism? When does it become discrimination, oppression, violence? And how can looking at "the big picture" rule out so many personal experiences of citizens?

I am writing to you with a simple request, Beatrice Ask. I want us to trade our skins and our experiences. Come on. Let's just do it. You've never been averse to slightly wacky ideas (I still remember your controversial suggestion that anyone who buys sex ought to be sent a notice in a lavender envelope.) For twenty-four hours we'll borrow each other's bodies. First I'll be in your body to understand what it's like to be a woman in the patriarchal world of politics. Then you can borrow my skin to understand that when you go out into the street, down into the subway, into the shopping center, and see the policeman standing there, with the Law on his side, with the right to approach you and ask you to prove your innocence, it brings back memories. Other abuses, other uniforms, other looks. And no, we don't need to go as far back as World War II Germany or South Africa in the eighties. Our recent Swedish history is enough, a series of random experiences that our mutual body suddenly recalls.

Being six years old and landing at Arlanda in our common homeland. We walk toward customs with a dad who has sweaty hands, who clears his throat, who fixes his hair and shines up his shoes on top of his knees. Two times he checks that his Swedish passport is in the correct inner pocket. All the pink-colored people are let by. But our dad is stopped. And we think. Maybe it was by chance. Being ten years old and seeing the same scene repeat itself. Maybe it was his accent. Being twelve and seeing the same scene. Maybe it was his holey bag with the broken zipper. Being fourteen, sixteen, eighteen.

Being seven and starting school and being given an introduction to society by a dad who was already, even then, terrified that his outsiderness would be inherited by his children. He says, "When you look like we do, you must always be a thousand times better than everyone else if you don't want to be denied."


"Because everyone is a racist."

"Are you a racist?"

"Everyone but me."

Because that's exactly how racism works. It is never part of our guilt, our history, our DNA. It's always somewhere else, never here, in me, in us.

Being eight and watching action films where dark men rape, swear gutturally, strike their women, kidnap their children, manipulate and lie and steal and abuse. Being sixteen, nineteen, twenty, thirty-two, and seeing the same one-dimensional characters being used over and over again.

Being nine and deciding to become the class's most studious nerd, the world's biggest brownnoser. Everything goes according to plan, and it's only when we have a substitute that someone automatically assumes that we're the class troublemaker.

Being ten and being chased by skinheads for the first, but not the last, time. They catch sight of our mutual body by the wino bench down by Högalidskyrkan, they roar, we run, we hide in a doorway, the taste of blood in our mouth, our common heart beating like a rabbit's all the way home.

Being eleven and reading cartoons where Orientals are mystically exotic, beautifully brown-eyed, sensual (but also deceitful).

Being twelve and going into Mega Skivakademien to listen to CDs, and every time we go there the security guards circle like sharks, they talk into walkie-talkies, they follow us at a distance of only a few meters. And we try to act normal, we strive to make our body language maximally noncriminal. Walk normally, Beatrice. Breathe as usual. Walk up to that shelf of CDs and reach for that Tupac album in a way that indicates you are not planning to steal it. But the security guards keep spying, and somewhere, way in here, deep in our mutual body, there's probably a shame-filled pleasure in getting a taste of that structure that entrapped our dads, in finding an explanation for why our dads never succeeded here, why their dreams died in a sea of returned letters of application.

Being thirteen and starting to hang out at the youth center and hearing stories. A friend's older brother who talked back to the Norrmalm police and was tossed into a police van and then dumped in Nacka with a bloody nose. A friend's cousin who was dragged in and knocked around by security in that little room on the subway platform at Slussen (telephone books against his thighs so it wouldn't leave bruises). Dad's friend N who was found by a police patrol and locked up in the drunk tank because he was slurring, and the police didn't notice until the next day that something was wrong and in the ER they found the aneurysm and at his funeral his girlfriend said: "If only they had called me, I could have told them that he didn't drink alcohol."

Being thirteen and a half and living in a city besieged by a man with a rifle and a laser sight, a person who shoots eleven black-haired men in seven months without the police stepping in. And our mutual brain starts to think that it's always the Muslims who have it worst, always those with Arabic names who have the least power (and completely represses the times when other structures were in power—like when the guy in school whom everyone called "the Jew" was chained to a fence by his jeans, with a lock through his belt loop, and everyone just laughed when he tried to get loose; he laughed too, he tried to laugh; did we laugh?).

Being fourteen and coming out of McDonald's on Hornsgatan and being asked for ID by two police officers. Being fifteen and sitting outside an Expert store when a police van pulls up, two officers get out, ask for ID, ask what's up tonight. Then they hop back into the van.

And all the time, a fight inside. One voice says: They have no fucking right to prejudge us. They can't fucking cordon off the city with their uniforms. They are forbidden to make us feel insecure in our own neighborhoods.

But the other voice says: What if it was our fault. We were probably talking too loudly. We were wearing hoodies and sneakers. Our jeans were too big and had a suspicious number of pockets. We made the mistake of having a villainous hair color. We could have chosen to have less melanin in our skin. We happened to have last names that reminded this small country that it is part of a larger world. We were young. Everything would definitely be different when we got older.

And our mutual body grew, Beatrice Ask. We stopped hanging at the youth center, we replaced the hoodie with a black coat; the cap with a scarf. We stopped playing basketball and started studying economics at Handelshögskolan in Stockholm. One day we were standing outside Central Station in Stockholm, jotting something down in a notebook (because even though we were studying economics we had a secret dream of becoming an author).

Suddenly someone came up on our right side, a broad man with an earpiece. "How's it going?" He asked for ID and then he pushed our arms up in a police grip and transported us toward the police van, where we were apparently supposed to sit while waiting for him to receive confirmation that we were who we said we were. Apparently we matched a description. Apparently we looked like someone else. We sat in the police van for twenty minutes. Alone. But not really alone. Because a hundred people were walking by. And they looked in at us with a look that whispered, "There. One more. Yet another one who is acting in complete accordance with our prejudices."

And I wish you had been with me in the police van, Beatrice Ask. But you weren't. I sat there alone. And I met all the eyes walking by and tried to show them that I wasn't guilty, that I had just been standing in a place and looking a particular way. But it's hard to argue your innocence in the back seat of a police van.

And it's impossible to be part of a community when Power continually assumes that you are an Other.

After twenty minutes we were released from the police van, no apology, no explanation. Instead: "You can go now." And our adrenaline-pumping body left the place and our brain thought, "I ought to write about this." But our fingers knew that it wouldn't happen. Because our experiences, Beatrice Ask, are nothing in comparison with what happens to others; our body grew up on this side of customs, our mom is from Sweden, our reality is like a cozy room full of pillows in comparison with what happens to those who are truly without power, without resources, without papers. We are not threatened with deportation. We do not risk imprisonment if we return. And in the knowledge that others have it much worse, we chose silence instead of words and the years went by and much later came the introduction of REVA, "the lawful and effective implementation project." The police started searching through shopping centers and stood outside clinics that helped those without papers, and families with Swedish-born children were deported to countries that the children had never been to, and Swedish citizens were forced to show their passports to prove they belonged, and a certain Minister of Justice explained that this had nothing to do with racial profiling but rather "personal experiences." The routines of power. The practices of violence. Everyone was just doing their job. The security guards, the police, the customs officials, the politicians, the people.

And here you interrupt me and say, "But why is it so difficult to understand? Everyone has to follow the Law." And we answer: "But what if the Law is unlawful?"

And you say, "It's all a matter of priorities, and we just don't have infinite resources." And we answer, "How come there's always money when those with few resources are to be persecuted, but never money when those with few resources are to be defended?"

And you say, "But how can we simultaneously combine a broad social safety net with welcoming everyone?" And we shuffle our feet and clear our throats, because to be completely honest we don't have a clear answer to that. But we know that a person can never be illegal and that something must be done when uniforms spread insecurity and the Law turns against its own citizens, and now you've had enough, Beatrice Ask, you try to leave our body, just like the readers you think that this has gone on too long, it's just a lot of repetition, it's not getting to the point, and you're right, there's never any end, there's no solution, no emergency exit, everything just keeps repeating, because the structures aren't going to disappear just because we vote down REVA; REVA is a logical extension of constant, low-intensity oppression, REVA lives on in our inability to reformulate our set national self-image, and tonight in a bar line near you, non-white people systematically spread themselves out so as not to be stopped by the bouncer, and tomorrow in your housing queue those with foreign names are using their partners' last names so as not to be dropped, and just now, in a job application, a completely average Swede wrote "BORN AND RAISED IN SWEDEN" in capital letters just because she knows what will happen otherwise. Everyone knows what will happen otherwise. But no one does anything. Instead we focus on locating people who have moved here in search of the security that we're so proud of being able to offer (some of) our citizens. And I write "we" because we are a part of this whole, this societal body, this we.

You can go now.

translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles