Power, Privilege and Prejudice: Lessons from being a foreigner

Going abroad often reveals both positive and negative bias in others towards us based on what we look like and/or where we are from. A blond Swedish guy friend of mine says that during his semester studying near Shanghai, he and his best friends never had to buy any drinks, the locals bought for them, while when I and some other American students passed through Paris in 2003 (French-American relations were not exactly flourishing at that time) we got some dirty looks as we navigated the metro and sat in cafes. Scenarios like these lack much personal impact over the short term for a traveler.     

Living abroad- trying to establish a solid, happy and integrated life in a foreign country and knowing personally or being aware of other foreigners trying to do the same- has opened my eyes to more than just the types of overt and passing biases I mentioned above.

I’ve become more attuned to the nature and influence of prejudice, privilege and power; how people handle the presence or lack of any of the three, and how they can establish a smoother or more difficult path for an immigrant/expat (another post analyzing these two terms will come another day).

My biggest lesson is not really the state of prejudice and privilege in Sweden, but a broader understanding for how such things might play out in different ways in the lives of foreigners, expats and immigrants living in countries around the world, and also, how it relates to my life growing up in California in ways I never realized. That is the intended takeaway here.  


Any prejudices against me while I have been in Sweden have, in my observance, been mostly harmless and minimal. They have been primarily about the fact that I am foreign and not Swedish, not based on where I come from or what I look like. If I do not speak, I usually do not look obviously foreign in Sweden. It is not the same for everyone who isn’t from here.

Some foreigners I know living here appear more evidently non-Swedish, due to clothing style, ethnicity and their language or accent. They stand out much more in Stockholm than foreigners might in some other Western capital cities. A few weeks ago I became startled after a conversation with some of these people on the topic of “how to avoid not being let into a club or restaurant because we are foreign.” The guys were discussing how showing their new Swedish IDs let them walk right into a place, when their previous foreign identification used to result in the bouncers making them wait to get in or not get in at all. One example was of a popular restaurant where a hostess tried to tell them that the nicer outdoor patio bar was closed for a private party, when it was obviously not and some Swedes walked right in past them, and after persistent questioning, the staff person admitted it wasn’t a private party and let them in. The conversation between these foreigners on this topic had been very casual and humorous, and that’s what stayed with me after it was done. Prejudice against them had become normalized, even funny. That didn't feel right. 

It is a commonly discussed issue in Sweden that sometimes people with foreign, particularly non-Western sounding, names have a more difficult time getting selected for some jobs and for housing. I can’t know if my full name has ever not worked in my favor, but I’ve been told that as it indicates an English speaker, it doesn’t work against me. But some foreigners in Sweden, and even some people born in Sweden with foreign non-Western names have been known to change their names on CVs and rental applications and even on official documents in order to avoid this prejudice.

I was in a bathroom in a student club one time while studying in Lund and overheard some Swedish girls that were waiting for us mocking my friend and me for speaking English. International students are not high on the social totem pole in Lund, as I’ve discussed before, yet this scenario was still rare for me. But this kind of negative prejudice pales in comparison to the significant benefits I gain in living here as a native English speaker.

That leads me to privilege.


There is a great dialogue about privilege going on in articles written about the new show Orange is the New Black, which follows a white wealthy female named Piper adjusting to life in a women’s prison. Here’s a quote that I couldn’t stop thinking about:

“Piper is repeatedly confronted with the fact that her race, class and other privileges make her experience and perspective fundamentally different from most of the other women she’s incarcerated with.”

Note: I’m drawing no parallels to life as a foreigner to life in a prison, of course. Only that over the last three years in living in a different context, my realization of how different my experience and perspective can be from that of others due to privileges out of my control has expanded and become more nuanced.

When I was first looking for a job in Sweden, when I was already in the country and finishing my masters, the main thought on my mind was: I am at such a disadvantage, not being fluent in Swedish. It’s an uphill battle, some employers won’t even look at me, which makes total sense but is still hard to swallow.

A couple years and jobs later, I have realized that my situation is really not defined at all by this. As a native English speaker, I have the privilege of being a target type of candidate for many jobs in Stockholm, and this fact of my background, for which I have zero credit, lends me an incredible advantage. There are even more things about my background that I had nothing to do with that allow me the privilege of getting more attention for a job, apartment or a number of other benefits and opportunities. So I’ve been told, there is the perceived relevance in being from the San Francisco area for fitting in with the technology and communications industry I work in here in Stockholm. Moving to Sweden directly from Santa Barbara was how I was able to get an apartment secured even before I arrived in Lund, when many international students are lucky to even get a dorm room upon arrival… the student I emailed about the apartment saw where I was from and plucked me out of a couple hundred emails since she had Santa Barbara connections. Would be nice to call this a coincidence, but these types of connections have been helping me along my entire journey in Sweden in a way that most immigrants might never experience, even if they work hard and make the best of their contacts. As I mentioned, there are likely privileges that come with having a Western/anglo first and surname and a non-immigrant appearance, no doubt making it easier for me in Sweden in many circumstances, in whichever order they are made known first. I’ve certainly experienced next to zero issues getting into a club or restaurant in Sweden. And in fact, when I do need to show ID, I don’t mind using my California license anymore precisely because of the positive bias it usually entails.

In Orange is the New Black, Piper is repeatedly given extra privileges from prison management and guards based on assumptions about her race, class and gender presentation. It’s remarkable the way that Piper is at times indignant when prejudice or privilege in the prison does not favor her; she then understands things as being “not fair.” Yet she (mostly) subconsciously skillfully navigates the privilege that is placed upon her, and in turn, the power that she can wield because of it. Not unlike myself.


I recently read a great simple definition of power:

“The ability to make one’s decisions into reality — to think ‘this should be something that happens,’ and then actually be able to make that thing happen.”

This is the idea of power I want to speak about, not like CEO or military or intellectual power. The degree of prejudice and/or privilege that one deals with as a foreigner, over time, plays a heavy hand in where one lies on the spectrum from powerlessness to real consistent power. If one were to live in a place where the locals constantly bestowed the privilege on you of buying all your drinks (or offered higher salaries than that country’s natives), this would certainly end up translating into a type of power that allows you to make things happen that you want to happen. Some simpler examples include my earlier privilege references: being the native English speaker in an office is a privilege that lends me power of communication and authority. Being from California is a wonderful thing, but until Sweden I never realized it was an unearned privilege that lends me power in a way because people here find that very interesting, and thus give me their attention. 

If you were to live in a place where prejudice may not favor you, your spirit may suffer. I gave a presentation at my alma mater, Lund, earlier this year on Working in Sweden for international students. Afterwards I spoke with many of the job-seeking students one on one. A couple of the stories about the difficulties in getting taken seriously or even confronting obvious negative biases against them made me nauseous with guilt. I knew I would likely never confront such issues here, and I honestly believed that had I been in their place, or that of many other immigrants, I would be broken. I wouldn’t make it.

The times I witnessed the most frustration in my foreign (mostly Swedish) friends when they were living in California could usually be traced back to a lack of power, especially in a situation where they normally would have it in spades back home. There is of course the standard living abroad frustration of, “why are you people so freaking weird in this country!?!” But the more debilitating frustration came from the inability to affect their reality they way they were used to due to a lack of, among other things, having their own apartment, transportation, native language, or a native’s understanding of “the way things work.” Upon moving to Sweden, I experienced the same. Almost any foreigner would.

When you are living in the culture and area that you grew up in, there could be kinds of power you have that you don’t really see or that you take for granted. When you are in a circumstance that strips of you such, it becomes more apparent to you what you are lacking in order to “make decisions into reality.”

The difference in how effectively you, compared to someone else, build yourself out of the lack of power that comes with moving abroad lies in two factors:

1.     How much work you put into it.
2.     The combination of prejudice and privilege you deal with, based often on things outside your control.

Everyone deals with their own mix and level of factor 2, and it’s up to them how far they push factor 1. I have worked my ass off to build my life here in Sweden, and feel quite satisfied with my current sense of power to make what I want to happen, happen. But many immigrants/expats have worked harder and have less to show for it. My understanding of the interplay between factor 1 and 2, and the relative effect that one factor has compared to the other in various contexts will continue to evolve, and hopefully my blindness to my own privilege will dissipate. Though, like any scrappy foreigner, I won’t turn down the advantages that it allows.


Popular Posts