By Akemi Tamanaha, AsAmNews Associate Editor
On October 19, Katherine Zhou published a thread on Twitter before going to bed detailing her experience with racism while working and living in Stockholm, Sweden. She expected only a few people would read it.
When she woke up the next morning, the thread had gone viral. People were responding with messages of support, denial and more racism. AsAmNews spoke with Zhou about her experience as an Asian American in Stockholm and the response to her Twitter thread.
Microagressions, racism and physical intimidation
Zhou moved from Austin, Texas, to Sweden in January 2020 after taking a job with Spotify. She says the company gave her generous financial compensation, offering her a large relocation budget, housing assistance and a high salary. Spotify did not, however, prepare her for the cultural differences she would experience.
“It’s truly something we have to be wary of and find out ourselves,” she said.
So, Zhou did her own research about the country, its culture and its attitudes toward Asian people.
“My Google searches before I moved there were like: What are the racial demographics of Sweden? Are there Asian people in Sweden? Is there Asian food in Sweden? Is Sweden racist?” she said.
Google searches can’t capture an accurate picture of a country’s culture. Zhou found few written resources about racism in Sweden. What little literature there may have been was written in Swedish, which she could not read.
When Zhou arrived in Stockholm, she began experiencing microaggressions that she says would be considered archaic in most major U.S. cities. She was coughed at, tutted at and mocked for her eyes. People crossed the street to avoid her. Although Sweden’s political leadership in 2020 was more progressive than the Trump administration, the compounding microaggressions made her feel unwelcome and bothered.
“I like to compare it to death by a thousand cuts when these kinds of things happen again and again and again,” she said.
In February of this year, two men cornered Zhou while she was at a city train station. They mocked her eyes and flipped her off. Eventually, another man came over to assist her after she pleaded for help.
Zhou took pictures of her aggressors during the incident. Her ex-patriot friends from the U.S. and the U.K. suggested that she could post the photos on social media. Swedish colleagues working in the security and legal sectors told her that would get her in trouble.
“There are certain laws against defamation or slander that are constructed in a way to really compromise victims,” Zhou said. “I was told by multiple people that I went to get advice from to not share the photos or the videos.”
She reported the incident to the police as she was advised. She provided the police with time stamps that described when the men entered the station. She gave them a map showing where the incident occurred.
For two months, Zhou said the police led her to believe they were working on her case. Instead, they told her the case had been dropped because of insufficient evidence. They also claimed that in two months they could not find an English interpreter to assist Zhou.
In September 2022, Zhou watched as the political tone of the country shifted during the Swedish general elections. The Sweden Democrats, a right-wing Swedish political party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, won 20.5 percent of the vote, making it the second most popular party in Sweden.
The party espouses staunchly anti-immigrant belief systems and legislative policies. Zhou wanted people to understand that the political climate in Sweden and her experiences with racism are connected.
“This political party, this rise of fascism in Sweden, is enabling people like my attackers,” she said.
She began “rage-tweeting,” as she describes it, about the physical intimidation and microaggressions she has faced. Her thread described the traumatic incident she faced in February. She also discussed a video she took as she confronted a Swedish woman
Zhou’s thread about racism is met with more racism
There have been supportive responses to Zhou’s thread. She says that people who experienced similar things have confided in her. A few people have also helped her identify the two men that cornered her.
Many Swedish people responding to Zhou’s thread denied that racism existed in their country. They told her that the men who accosted her did not look Swedish. In an ironic display of xenophobia, they claimed they must be Kurdish or Balkan. Twitter users sent her links to an article that claimed Sweden was the second least racist country in the world.
Zhou said she also received “a gamut of responses that proved my point” about racism in Sweden. She was called racist names and sent death threats. One tweet, which was eventually taken down, leaked her address to the public.
Several people also accused her of being a Chinese spy. The accusations have forced her to repeatedly describe her heritage and family history.
“Some journalists were asking me, ‘Can you explain your background, your heritage so we can put this to rest?’ It’s so weird to have to litigate who I am,” she said.
Education and Bystander Intervention
Zhou does not believe that increased policing will help prevent the things she has experienced.
“What we can do instead of an increased police presence is community accountability of people looking out for each other, people standing up for each other, speaking up for each other,” she said, recalling how it was community members that found her attackers.
She also believes the country needs to stop ignoring racism.
“They need a baseline recognition that there is racism in their society. They need to not be in denial,” she said.
Zhou acknowledged that confronting racism is a “newer” problem for Sweden. Immigration to the country rose markedly after World War II but for centuries society was ethnically homogenous. Sweden may not have the toolset that the U.S., which she describes as having “an ugly legacy of racism,” does to talk about race and racism.
“We have the vocabulary, we have the tools to talk about it. Not all of that exists here,” she said.
She also suggested that Sweden cannot afford to alienate and abuse immigrants. Immigrants in Sweden fill important positions across a variety of job sectors, making them an important part of the economy. She recalled thinking it was ironic that people were telling her to “go back to China” when Spotify fought so hard for her to work in Sweden at an office that was predominantly staffed by ex-patriates.
“It’s really rich because this country needs immigrants,” she said.
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