I was 19 years old and had just finished high school when I flew to Chicago to take up a scholarship at a small liberal arts college in the American mid-west.
My decision to leave Sweden for the United States was at least partially influenced by an unspoken but desperate need to get away from a place that was intimately associated with an often-painful childhood and to start afresh somewhere new.
The truth is I never felt completely safe and whole in Stockholm, my hometown, where I was born and grew up. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends – I did –but I was constantly aware of my wonky appearance and lest I forget my ‘ugliness,’ some teenage boy would make sure to remind me.
Meeting new people, I was always on my guard, in case someone commented on my appearance. Sometimes the questions were relatively innocent and not intended to hurt:
“What happened to your lip?”
“Did you have an accident?”
But other times, the comments came at me fast and hard as bullets:
“Hey you over there, did your boyfriend beat you up?”
“Do you know how ugly you are?”
“I’d rather die than kiss that freak!”
I grew increasingly wary of groups of teenage boys in public spaces. If alone, I’d take a detour to avoid catching their attention, or I’d put a hand over my mouth and look in another direction, hoping they wouldn’t notice me.
Even now, when I happen to come upon a group of teenagers while visiting Stockholm, I instinctively move away, despite the fact that I’ve never felt ‘at risk’ of bullies while living in the United States and Britain.
That is, until just recently.
For since Britain voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union, there’s been a worrying rise in racist abuse, even in London, which prides itself on being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
At first, xenophobic attacks were aimed largely at Britain’s hardworking Polish community, but there have also been incidents of verbal abuse against other European nationals, and most recently my 4-year old niece who’s half-English, half-Swedish was verbally abused in London for speaking Swedish to her nanny.
As a result, I find myself on alert when stepping out with my children.
“Perhaps it’s best you don’t speak Swedish when you’re out and about,” my husband said after the incident with my niece. “To avoid drawing attention to you.”
I’m not afraid for myself, but I am wary of anyone verbally abusing my very British daughters who are a beautiful mix of Swedish and Afro/Asian Caribbean heritage.
When I’m on the tube heading to and from school, I find myself looking out for anyone who might glower at my children or at any other passenger who looks foreign.
And I am reminded of how I felt as a young girl in Stockholm many years ago.
But I’ll be damned if my daughters grow up to feel anything but wholly safe and with a firm sense of belonging here in Britain where they were born.