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Living with a Skinhead, While Living in My Brown Skin

As an Indonesian adoptee in Sweden, I was alarmed when my new stepbrother started dabbling in white supremacy. I didn’t realize how far it had gone until I was lying in a dark field, getting kicked in the chest with a steel-toed boot.

Living with a Skinhead, While Living in My Brown Skin

It was right before midnight when I arrived on our street. I kept my eyes on the pavement and sped up my steps, squeezing the keychain in my pocket until the jagged edge dug deep into my palm. I leaped up the three steps that led to our front door. The only light came from a soft-lit teardrop-shaped lamp through our hallway window. The last person home at night was supposed to turn it off. I was almost an hour earlier than when I usually got back on Saturday nights, although I was right on time for my curfew as a 15-year-old. Once inside, I quickly kicked off my muddy tennis shoes and placed them on the shoe rack. I didn’t have to look around to see whose shoes were missing. I already knew. I left the light on. Without removing my jacket, I hurried across the hallway into my room and closed the door behind me. 

I stood frozen against the door, waiting to thaw. I locked it. Click. The sound disappeared in the dark. I was alone. I slid my right hand through the thick, coarse, jet-black hair on the back of my head. It was still there, the bulge where my head had hit the ground on a small tree stump earlier. The bump fit like a piece of a puzzle in my cupped hand. I traced my fingers lightly around the area, still hurting — just like it had been for some time now, even before tonight. Before there were steel-toed boots and skinheads. Before my stepbrother Tobias became one of them. I had already felt it all, I just didn’t know how to put words to it. I was Swedish. My skin was brown. Nothing made sense to me. (Editors’ note: This story includes references to racism and racist slurs in both English and Swedish.) 

That evening, I had met up with my friends out on the field like we always did on Saturday nights, even though mid-October had gotten a bit too cold for our outdoor hangouts. The field was an opening behind the pine trees where people usually took long walks with their dogs on weekend mornings. The sky seemed closer to the Earth this time of the year in Sweden, as the sun was already on its long journey away from us. In another month, we would barely see the sun at all. There were plenty of large fields in the outskirts of northern suburbia around Stockholm where we lived. But this one was the perfect location: close enough for us to get to from our neighborhood but far enough that no one would bother us. We’d spent the summer there making bonfires, drinking moonshine and smoking cigarettes. We were loud. We were restless. We acted tough. But we were harmless. I’d known most of these people for the past three years, since I had started junior high school. But lately, people from other neighborhoods had started to invade our space.  

At first, being a skinhead seemed like any other fad among the guys at school. Few seemed to know anything about its origin — a British subculture created by the working class who listened to ska music and carried nonpolitical views. Some kids just thought it looked cool, the shaved head, bomber jacket, suspenders and boots. When they realized how much neo-Nazism had hijacked that particular style, most of them let their hair grow back and moved on to a different fashion. But not Tobias. That’s when he thought it became interesting.   

Tobias and I had been part of the same family since I was 12. His dad, Rickard, was my mom’s partner. After my dad passed away from cancer when I was 10, my mom spent a few days in bed shutting out what little daylight there was that fall. It felt to me like by the time we had spent our first Christmas without my dad, she was determined to move on — a decision that seemed more practical than an honest desire from her heart. She had met my dad in the mid-1960s, the old-fashioned way, at a dansbandsmusik event. It was the most popular social event in Sweden at the time, where people went dancing in pairs. There was a live band, whose members wore matching outfits and sang happy love songs. My parents fell in love, got married and eventually adopted me from Indonesia. But now times had changed and dansbandsmusik events weren’t held any longer. Instead, social dancing was all about the younger generation, disco lights, shoulder pads and DJs. A co-worker had suggested that my mother submit her information to dataträffen, an early version of online dating where a computer matched people based on their applications. It was advertised in the back of the paper, on the same page as the obituaries. Rickard was my mom’s third match — a man so different from my dad one would think there was a computer error that day. Even though they met in what was considered a modern way back in 1987, Rickard was as old-fashioned as they came. He believed that the woman should cook and clean, and the man should be the breadwinner and rule the home.   

Rickard had two sons living with him: Tobias, one year older than me, and Henrik, one year younger than me. It didn’t take long before Rickard and my mom started to drag us kids back and forth to get to know each other better. One year and one month after their first date, my mom announced to me and my little brother that we were moving, along with Rickard and his two kids, into a brand-new home to become one big family. 

I was in the living room reading a book and listening to my mom and Rickard talk in the kitchen. “Trying to find a decent neighborhood these days isn’t what it used to be,” Rickard told her. They were looking into possible locations to move to.  

“Soon they’ll be taking over, these damn Turks. Stinking of garlic and just refusing to learn Swedish.” 

I wasn’t sure what exactly he meant. It seemed rude. I waited for my mom’s reply. She didn’t like when people spoke badly about others. But she just said, “I see.”  

“You see on the other side of the big road where the local supermarket is at?” Rickard asked.  

I was sitting on the oversized leather couch, my back facing them. I imagined Rickard pointing in the opposite direction of us, toward the front door and downtown. 

“You can’t even live there anymore. Filled with a bunch of utlänningar. Sweden is getting too soft.” 

It was the first time I’d heard someone say “foreigners” with such contempt. I put my book down in my lap and pulled my knees closer to my body. Something felt off about his comment, but I wasn’t sure what.  

“You see them from far away. Those svartskallarna. 

My shoulders stiffened. When I was younger, my mom and dad had told me that svartskallarna was a “very bad” word and that if someone ever called me that to let them know immediately. 

“I see,” I heard my mom reply again, although I wasn’t exactly clear on what she saw. 

Even though he had said it so openly, aware of the possibility that I was in the next room, it didn’t seem like he meant me. Still, my hair was black, my skin was brown. You could see me from far away among a crowd of typical-looking Swedes. I quietly turned the page in my book and tried to get back to reading. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. 

They found a house shortly thereafter, in a suburb north of Stockholm. We moved to a nice street where all the neighbors were hardworking, honest Swedish men who owned small blue-collar businesses, which was exactly how it should be, according to Rickard. 

I got to know his younger son, Henrik, well, and we even went to the same middle school for a semester. Henrik and I had a lot of friends in common. We played soccer together and always got invited to the same parties and birthdays. We naturally transitioned into our big-sister-little-brother roles. I felt comfortable making fun of Henrik’s daydreaming, messing with his girl crushes on the phone, and bribing him to get me candy when I was too lazy to go to the store. Having a “stepbrother” in the house wasn’t so bad after all.  

But I didn’t just get one new stepbrother. There was also Tobias. 

Tobias only seemed to have one friend. They played Dungeons & Dragons on Friday nights or watched Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo-type movies. Tobias was clumsy. He walked like he had lead in his legs and a heavy backpack strapped to his chest, his arms moving like pendulums about to come to a stop. Had he been anything like me and tried to sneak out at night with friends, he wouldn’t have gotten away with it. You could hear him from a block away. He was socially awkward, didn’t know any of the cool kids in his class, and was always home, even on Saturday nights. Sometimes I was embarrassed to introduce him to my friends when they came over. When he tried to make conversation, it was like the words got stuck somewhere in his teeth and he ended up muttering something uncool that didn’t make any sense. “They got a new flavor chip at Ludde’s. Bee-Bee-Cueee.” Really? You’re bringing up chips when we’re talking about who’s gonna be at the next school disco?  

Henrik and Tobias would interact the way brothers do, wrestling each other randomly for no reason, arguing about whether Pelé was the greatest soccer player of all time, and trying to embarrass each other in public. But they were such opposites. Tobias was just not very interesting. I didn’t think about him much, and neither did the other kids in school. To us he was a nobody, and I didn’t think he cared about it that much. But he proved me wrong.  

While I was sneaking out to smoke cigarettes and drink cheap beer that my friends had shoplifted, Tobias would join his dad in the upstairs living room to watch hockey. 

“Score! Hell yeah!” Rickard and Tobias shouted at the blue-and-yellow figures swirling around on the TV screen. One night, during the early days of us living together, I had just made a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich in the kitchen and was about to sit down. I heard the referee on the TV signal the end of the period, and Tobias and Rickard came to grab a snack. 

“Do you know why Negroes don’t play hockey?” Rickard asked, pulling a loaf of bread out of the bag. As usual, he spoke as though he were talking about the weather. 

“Because they have smaller brains?” Tobias answered with a mouthful of food. His mouth always seemed to be full, even when it wasn’t mealtime. 

“No, because they have weak Achilles’ tendons,” Rickard said. “Have you ever seen a Negro play in the NHL?” 

 “No,” Tobias answered. 

“It’s because their Achilles’ tendon isn’t as strong as in white people’s bodies. They can’t handle being in ice skates for that long. They have Achilles’ tendons built for running — that’s why they’re so good at it.” Rickard was confident about this information. “Just look at Carl Lewis. Right, Moon?” 

My mom, whom Rickard referred to as Moon, had just entered the kitchen to fill up the watering can for her plants. She had that annoyed look on her face, lips pressed together like her ability to speak had flatlined. She seemed more bothered that they were in her kitchen than she was by the topic of discussion. 

“Yeah, all those Negroes are so damn fast,” Tobias said. He squinted his eyes and nodded like he’d just come up with a genius idea. 

“Yes, they are. But Negroes are also not as smart as white people,” Rickard continued. “It’s actually true. I learned that back in school when I was a kid.” 

Back when people rode horse and carriage, I thought to myself. 

“Nature is quite amazing like that — it creates people for what they’re meant to do.” Rickard put butter on his piece of toast. “It’s also why Asians are so short. They’re meant to pick rice.” 

There was an awkward pause that only I seemed to notice as they put the leverpastej and pickles back in the fridge. I glanced at my mom, but the comment didn’t seem to have landed with her at all. She turned off the water, turned around with a full watering can, and paced her way toward the peonies on the balcony. 

“I’m not sure if that’s all true,” I said.  

There was doubt in my voice as the words came out, even though I’d been told as a child by both my mom and dad that all people are the same underneath the skin.  

“Of course it is. Duh,” Tobias said. “Why are we not starving then like Africans?” 

When Rickard spoke about these ideas, it was as if he didn’t see me as a person of Southeast Asian descent. It was like being adopted meant that I was an exception to the genetic rule. Yet he would acknowledge, even with excitement, whenever “my people” were on TV. “Hey, that’s your people, Anna. They look just like you!” I would note in silence what I saw around them: political chaos, a natural disaster, extreme poverty. I didn’t comment. I didn’t want to look like poor people who couldn’t even take care of themselves or their own children. And I wanted even less so for others to see me that way. I couldn’t ignore how guarded I felt hearing Rickard talking about “those people,” regardless of how he saw me. Each time, I wanted to hold my breath, hoping it would make me invisible until the conversation was over. I felt like I was missing something. I was told by everyone around that I was smart. I was ambitious. I was talented. But according to natural selection, I shouldn’t be any of those things. I was not a real Indonesian or Asian because I was adopted. But whenever Rickard or my friends made jokes about Asians, they always made sure to say, “but not you, you’re Swedish,” though I knew they didn’t see me as a real Swede either. They would never say that to someone who looked Swedish.  

While Tobias grinned at his own comment about Africans starving, Rickard announced that the game was about to start again, and they headed back into the living room as if nothing had happened. I looked toward the balcony to see if my mom was going to show some sign that she’d heard me try to say something, or perhaps explain how this all made sense, or maybe even give me a look that she was not having it and was getting ready to walk into that living room, turn off the TV and set them both straight. But she was busy watering her plants.  

As I sat there, I thought of a recent time when my mom and I had been picking up takeout from a restaurant. I’d gone inside to wait, while my mom went to the restroom in the lobby. In the dining room, I was met with cold looks from both the guests and the host. I felt like I had done something wrong just by standing there waiting. Once my mom rejoined me, making it obvious that we were together, the room immediately shifted to a warmer atmosphere and some people even smiled at us. I didn’t want to believe what had just happened then, yet every cell of my skin knew.  

In the car on the way home, I told my mom that I felt like people had stared at me because they thought I wasn’t Swedish. “You’re overreacting, Anna,” she said. “They just think you’re pretty.” Her response reminded me of the time when I was 5 and told her I believed there were ghosts living in my closet. 

The sound of the referee blowing the whistle to resume the game Richard and Tobias were watching took me back to the present moment. I watched my mom pass through the kitchen and into the bedroom, holding that large watering can steady. She showed no expression that suggested she had heard or seen anything. I heard cheers from the game on the TV. Everything was normal. Everything was the same. Except it wasn’t.  

Rickard wasn’t the type of dad who spent time doing activities with his sons. The way he spoke about people and race seemed to be his way of bonding. Rickard may not have intended for his opinions to turn malicious, but his ideas planted themselves as seeds in Tobias’s head. Ideas that grew deeper and larger in one way, and frighteningly narrow at the same time. Sweden was going through a serious economic downturn in the beginning of the 1990s. Unemployment was at a record high, and the country had opened its border to accept the largest number of asylum-seeking refugees in its history. By 1991, Sweden had lost its socialistic charm and became what Rickard called “too soft.” Tobias, on the other hand, had become the opposite. He went from a nobody who made inappropriate, ignorant comments about people from other countries to fully believing that it was his right as part of the Aryan race to be superior. He was not going to sit back and watch centuries of a homogenous Swedish society of blond-haired, blue-eyed people change. His clumsiness turned into unpredictable rage, his social awkwardness into fearlessness. It was like he had merged into a different body. One that stood up straight, walked with a purpose. 

“Did you see how they stared at us?” my classmate Jessica asked. We all knew she was referring to the three men we’d passed on our way to school. They were wearing turbans, dressed in what reminded me of gowns. “You know they lock up their own women and rape them, right?” 

“Oh, c’mon, they didn’t stare at us more than anyone else,” Nina said. She was the most reasonable of us all and didn’t get easily carried away with things people said. “They’re probably just coming from some war, from who knows where.” 

“So what, they have to all come here? You know they’re only coming to live off of our system, you know. Those Arabs don’t even know how to take a shower. Ugh.” Jessica shivered with disgust. “All these fucking filthy utlänningar making Sweden stink, right?” 

She was referring to immigrants, the same way Rickard had that day back in the kitchen. People who weren’t born here. People with black hair and dark eyes that you could pick out from a typical Swedish crowd. People who didn’t belong here. In school we had learned about situations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and other places in the world affected by war, corruption and dictatorship — situations that forced people to seek asylum here in Sweden. I didn’t fully understand how this puzzle fit together, but every time I heard someone say utlänning, I thought of a rare disease everyone tried to avoid. 

 “Oh, and by the way. I saw your stepbrother hanging out at Ludde’s with Nicke and those guys when we got cigarettes last night.” 

“Henrik? Really?” I frowned. Henrik didn’t like trouble, so there was no reason he’d hang out with those guys. They were trouble. And outside Ludde’s on a Wednesday night wasn’t even a cool place anymore. 

“Not Henrik. The other one. What’s his name again?” Jessica paused and flipped her shoulder-length hair. There was really no reason: It still looked exactly the same — not like mine, which would double in volume and need a seat of its own. “Tobias? The one who can’t drive a moped?” 

“He’s not my brother, okay?” I replied. 

“Well, you live in the same house.” Jessica could be such a bitch at times. “So, what’s up with his head? Is he like a real skinhead now?” 

I rolled my eyes and didn’t answer at first, mainly because I didn’t quite know how, but I wasn’t going to let it look like I didn’t have it together. It seemed like just yesterday that Tobias barely had any friends, and now he was hanging out with the most notorious guys in our suburb. Young people into their early 20s who had barely graduated community college and now hung out at the strip mall claiming white power and pushing immigrants from the refugee center around — or worse, kicking them to the ground. 

“He’s just a follower,” I replied. “They’ll soon figure out that he’s a loser.” 

But inside, I wasn’t sure how much of that was true. Lately he’d been getting home late, getting into fights and in trouble in school. Even if he was a loser, he had started to become a reckless one. 


What happened that Saturday night happened quickly. Tobias arrived at the field with his two new skinhead friends. They were standing away from the main crew, mostly people that I knew. I wasn’t sure whether most of them knew that Tobias and I were part of the same family and shared the same address. All my close friends knew, since they had known me for some years by then, which might have been why they didn’t seem that worried that my nobody stepbrother had turned into a skinhead.  

People were drinking, a couple was arguing farther away, someone threw a bottle and it smashed over a rock close to the bonfire. It was freezing. We were too young to go to a bar, but too old to stand around in a field. More people came. The crowd shifted and started to mingle. Tobias and his two friends only tried to interact by making fun of people. I could tell that the negative energy was escalating, and when my friend Lina, adopted from Guatemala, made a joke about Tobias’s style, he insulted her like a slap in the face. “Go back home, jävla neger hora.” 

I didn’t hesitate. I got up in his face, told him how much of a loser he was. He pushed me back with both hands, and I felt the disgust in his fingertips dismissing me like he had touched something rotten. I stumbled but didn’t fall. Instead, I gathered the mucus from the back of my throat and retaliated straight into his face. The reply: a hard kick to my upper abdomen. The impact of his steel-toed boot forced my lungs to cave, closing my chest like the wings of a shattered butterfly. With my tongue plugged in the back of my throat, my world plummeted with a force dark and purple behind my eyelids. All I heard were Tobias’s words bouncing off my eardrums. “You stupid fucking guling.” Gravity won. I was out. 

There were voices floating around in the far distance until I opened my eyes and realized that the voices were just above my head. Four pairs of eyes stared down on me, people I didn’t know well, except Nina. She kneeled next to me and put her hand on my right shoulder.  

“Are you okay?”  

I turned my head her way. Somewhere in my body there was pain, and nausea, but there was also so much more. As I lay on the ground, I watched Tobias sideways walking off with an upright back toward his group of new friends. Skinheads. Neo-Nazis. I slowly sat up and brushed the dried leaves off my jacket. Someone assured me that I had not been out for that long. Someone else expressed that this was absolutely insane and volunteered to get back at Tobias. But I knew it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t change a thing.   

I held the back of my head for a little while longer as I stood still in the darkness of my room. My breath found its way back to my belly, and I finally backed away from my locked door until I felt the edge of my bed touching the back of my legs. There was a thin strip of light coming through the bottom of my door from the hallway light. That was about as much light as I could handle. In the dark I could still pretend I was the same as everyone else, that I looked the same as everyone else. I could even pretend that perhaps it was all in my head and that it wasn’t as serious as I’d made it out to be. How racist can one be when they live in the same house as their brown-skinned stepsister? Maybe it was like I’d heard adults and teachers in school say: These skinheads were just teenagers going through a phase. If I was in real danger, wouldn’t my mom say something to Rickard about the swastika flag that covered Tobias’s wall? And why was I so offended anyway? I was Swedish. My friends were probably right. I had nothing to worry about. It wasn’t like another Hitler was emerging.  

I removed my jacket and suddenly felt my eyelids heavy and my breath full. I started to undress and was about to lie down when I heard a familiar sequence of sounds across the hallway. The key turning in our solid oak front door, the stumbling steps onto the rug, the dragging heels. I heard him plop down on my mom’s wooden ottoman, the one that made a creaking noise. I heard him take off his boots and place them away from the door in the only open spot, right next to my muddy tennis shoes. I stared at the light strip under my door for what seemed like a lifetime. Then the hallway lamp went dark. 

I was no longer frozen, but I wanted to be. Thawing out meant that my anger and fear floated around like liquid, impossible to control. It wasn’t the kick that scared me. What scared me was something I couldn’t express or was not ready to admit. But what I sensed, buried in my body far beneath the pain and nausea, was that my world had shifted into two parts: the Sweden I shared with my family and friends, and the Sweden where I was separated from them, where I was seen as “the other.Utlänning. Svartskalle. I didn’t understand it. It was all just a feeling, both fleeting and clear. 

I felt stupid for not being able to figure out where in that equation I belonged. Deep down, I feared that it all might be true; maybe I was not as smart as white people, because if I were, wouldn’t I know how to feel or what to say? I lay down on the bed, but I knew I wasn’t going to sleep. I just kept staring into the dark, hoping that somehow the morning light would kindly erase not just the night, but all that came with it.