Interview: Kate Wexell


Kate Wexell is a talented staff writer at The Diversity Story. She speaks German and loves learning about her German and Swedish heritage. Writing has always been a passion of hers as shown through her articles at The Diversity Story. Kate believes in the importance of sharing our own culture with each other to promote peace and harmony. Read on to learn more about her!

NOTE: The opinions reflected in this article are those of the interviewee, Kate Wexell, not of the interviewer.

Interviewer: Where were you born? Where do you live now? And do you think that has impacted the way you view your culture? How so?

Kate: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. Currently, I live in a city called Belleville which is on the other side of the Mississippi River in Illinois and has a population of about 60,000 people.

Interviewer: There’s a Belleville in Ontario too! Just a few hours away.

Kate: I think that’s a common name! But yeah, I definitely think where I live has certainly impacted my culture because, first of all, I live in this weird kind of upper middle class suburban mixture of everything. If I want to go to the city, it’s right there. And then, right near where I live—about 20 minutes east—it's all rural. So you can get the “small town'' feel.

Interviewer: Oh, wow!

Kate: Also, Belleville is a very very Germanic town, which is part of my heritage. I think that that has definitely impacted me a lot as I have had the opportunity to learn German at school. I’ve also had the opportunity to go to all sorts of festivals and attend German Easter services. We have a Christkindlmarkt that I actually just went to on Friday with my boyfriend and all his friends!

They have festivals all throughout the year that are German-related: Parades, music… they even have dance groups! I’ve gotten to go to ballets about the fall of the Berlin Wall at a university in St. Louis, Missouri— that’s only about 30 minutes away.

It’s definitely allowed me to be more in touch with my culture. Honestly, all of eastern Missouri is very very Germanic as well. So even if I were to leave and go to Missouri, it’s still there!

Interviewer: Yeah?

Kate: It’s just a German hotspot!

Interviewer: You’re also Swedish too, right?

Kate: Yes.

Interviewer: Are there a lot of Swedish people living in your area too, or is it just mostly German?

Kate: I mean, most of the people in my area are very German. We do have a lot of diversity since we live so close to a big city. There’s also a military base right next to my house. It’s right next to my house. You can hear the airplanes all the time. So we get a lot of different kinds of people, and then we get a lot of immigrants here. So my school is pretty diverse, but there are not a lot of Swedish people.

The Swedish side of me is from my father’s family, and they actually live in northern Illinois. And that’s about four hours away.

Interviewer: That’s a lot.

Kate: Yeah. They live in a Swedish community called Bishop Hill. It was founded in the 1840s.

Interviewer: That’s what you wrote about in your last article, right?

Kate: Yes! Bishop Hill was a community created by the religious leader Erik Jansson. He disagreed with the Swedish Lutheran Church, so after being arrested for violent protests in Sweden, he escaped prison by dressing as a woman and sailed with 1,000 of his followers from Norway to the United States. They settled in Northern Illinois and served as a communistic agricultural society for about two decades before the colony was disbanded. Now, it’s a historical site in the state of Illinois and features museums about colony life and Swedish culture.

Interviewer: So since you’re Swedish from your father… you’re German from your mother?

Kate: Yes. My mother is German and Scottish. She has the red hair and everything. And my father is definitely very, very Swedish. All of his family has blond hair and blue eyes. That’s what I have too.

Interviewer: And are you connected with your Scottish side too?

Kate: So that’s just a little tiny portion of our family. But actually yes, I’ve done a lot of genealogy research, so I’ve traced where our family came from in Scotland. My mother and I found our Scottish clan in the highlands.

My family is from Inverness, in Scotland, which I thought was super cool, because my mother and I love the show Outlander and that’s where that show takes place.

Interviewer: Oh, nice!

Kate: But she has all of the kilt patterns for our clan. We go to a Renaissance festival every year where they have many Scottish activities and clothing, so it’s nice that we’re able to take part in that.

Interviewer: That’s great! So my next question is that - since you mentioned that you did not grow up speaking German, Scottish, and Swedish prior to this interview - did not speaking these languages at home impact the way you view your culture and was your culture one of the reasons you decided to learn German at school?

Kate: Yeah, definitely. I have my great-grandfather’s German hymnals. We have all sorts of stuff from his family in our house and that made me want to understand more about my culture. Being in German class has definitely helped me out a lot with that. And I realized that I just love the language in general. I can literally just sit there and read my German dictionary, and it brings me joy.

Interviewer: I think we already talked a bit about this, but my next question is, “Does your culture play a role in your daily life?”

Kate: For the most part, I just have a standard American culture. But I guess it affects me a bit more in the holidays because whenever I go to visit my grandparents for Christmas or for Thanksgiving, we’ll make a bunch of Swedish foods. And then, during Christmas time, we get out all of our German nutcrackers and our Swedish Saint Lucia figurine. We also get out our glockenspiel, which is another German thing. And we do eat some German food sometimes. I’ve learned a bunch of German cake recipes. Sometimes I make strudel, but that turns out terribly every time I do that.

And then, I know one Swedish thing from the region where we’re from—the Dala horse. I wrote an article about this as well. It’s like this little wooden horse figurine. I have one in my room. Hold on, let me show you.

Interviewer: Oh, wow. It looks really cool!

Kate: We have a bunch of ornaments that look like that that are hanging up. And I have my own Dala horse. I think that’s about it though. It’s not something that completely affects my everyday life.

I mean, sometimes my grandparents will swear in Swedish. That’s the only Swedish that we know.

Interviewer: Do your grandparents only know the swear words too, or do they speak Swedish?

Kate: No, I think that my great-grandparents spoke it, but at this point, everybody who is still alive doesn’t know the language.

Interviewer: Yeah, it was generations ago when your family came to America, right?

Kate: Yeah. My last relatives to immigrate to the United States moved here in the 1920s.

Interviewer: Okay. Are there holidays that are special to you and your family that are related to your culture? Or do you only celebrate Christmas and other Christian holidays?

Kate: I mean, most of them are just the standard Christian holidays from being an American and also, my family comes from western Europe. Actually, literally all my ancestors, except for the Scottish ones, came from Protestant countries, so not much has changed there.

I will say that one cool thing that we do follow is: my grandparents’ town hosts this harvest festival. It’s literally just a harvest festival. So they’ll have traditional dancing and they’ll sell cider and they’ll have different demonstrations of what life was like in colonial times. So that’s interesting to go to!

And then, whenever my father and his siblings were younger, they would participate in a Sankta Lucia night in their town.

Interviewer: What is that?

Kate: It’s basically celebrating Saint Lucia. So the girls in the town would dress up in all white and they would put a wreath of candles on their heads. They would go around delivering cookies.

Interviewer: Sorry, did you say “candles”?

Kate: Yes.

Interviewer: Like, lighted candles?

Kate: Yes. I have many photos.

Interviewer: That’s so cool. But, also freaky!

Kate: I wouldn’t trust myself with it!

Interviewer: And is it Sankta Lucia or Saint…

Kate: So the Swedish version is Sankta Lucia, but my family calls it Santa Lucia from mishearing the term. I mean, that’s what Santa is derived from - the word “saint.”

Interviewer: Oh, I didn’t know that!

Kate: Yeah, it was actually a Dutch thing. Whenever Dutch people came to America, they called Saint Nicolas, “Sankt Nikolaus.” So then it turned into “Santa.”

Interviewer: Interesting to know! So, is Sankta Lucia an important saint for your culture?

Kate: I guess so.

Interviewer: Is Sankta Lucia an important figure for all Protestants or is it more of a Swedish/German people thing?

Kate: It was traditionally important in Nordic cultures, although saints are a Catholic phenomenon.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true.

Kate: Religion is confusing. I mean, southern Germany is very Catholic. I don’t know about Sweden. I think Sweden has always been very Protestant. I mean, the main sects in Christianity are Protestants and Catholics. There have been entire wars fought over the differentiation between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Interviewer: So the next question is “Do you participate in any activities that relate to your culture?” I think you’ve talked a bit about that. Are there any more or should I move on to the next question?

Kate: Around the holidays,I help my grandmother make Swedish food. Just so you know, cinnamon rolls are actually Swedish! Every year, we make this stuff called, “Potato Bologna.” It’s made out of pork and potatoes. So you put it into a casing. It looks really disgusting, but it tastes really good.

Interviewer: Ha ha. My next question is “How has your culture (if it has) affected the way people treat or see you? What are some incorrect assumptions people have made about you, your family, or your culture? And are there any untrue myths or stereotypes that particularly annoy you”?

Kate: I mean, I guess I have been called a Nazi. So many times.

Interviewer: A Nazi?

Kate: Yeah, a Nazi.

Interviewer: Why?

Kate: Because I’m German. And I’m in German Club.

I guess, also, people never think about this, and they become super upset with me for saying this amidst all of the conversations about racism that have been taking place, but people like to assume that all White people are just rich and successful.

I personally think that reverse racism is a thing, and racism happens to all people. I definitely think that it happens more to minorities. I definitely think we should all try to be kind to other people and to stand up for each other whenever racism is occurring. But my family has not come from a privileged background. I come from a privileged background, but that’s because my parents have worked for the success they’ve achieved.

My mother grew up in “the hood” in St. Louis. My father grew up in a small rural town. Just because it’s cool and has Swedish festivals doesn’t mean anybody there makes any kind of money. Both of them were the first people in their families to go to college. And I feel like what a lot of people have said to me hasn’t been completely fair. I have been told that the wealth of my parents has been part of a system that continues to oppress minorities in the United States. And I have been blamed solely for being White and told that I have done something wrong and that I am a racist due to the color of my skin when I have only ever tried to treat other people with kindness and respect. So to be told that my family is the reason for other people’s suffering when they have been in the same position as those who are disadvantaged feels disingenuine. Especially because my family has never taken part in the genocides in Germany, weren’t slave-owners (and in fact several were abolitionists), and in fact, my family from Scotland was subjected to oppressive regimes and in some cases slavery from living within the Highlands.

Of course, none of this makes the oppression of minorities justified, but I don’t believe it is productive to blame other groups of people who may not be responsible. I believe change can occur through unity between all people, not the incitement of more anger against others.

Interviewer: Okay. So then, my next question is “What are some unique experiences that you have had that are related to your culture?” This could be any unique experience.

Kate: I guess, it’s been kind of interesting singing hymns with my family in German during Christmastime. In Christian worship, on Christmas Eve, everybody goes to Church. So I’ll be at my Church here on Christmas Eve. And so the last song that everybody sings is always “Silent Night.” We sing Stille Nacht, which is the German version.

Interviewer: Your entire church?

Kate: No, no. Just my family.

Interviewer: Ah, okay.

Kate: I guess there are a lot of things about being American that have been interesting. Or I guess, just living in this community has been interesting. Understanding more about Germany has let me understand more about this area and how it was founded. I’m a little bit of a history nerd.

I know our area was founded by German immigrants, who then founded parts of St. Louis. It was kind of cool that this area sort of reflects all of that.

My church was actually the first church in this area, so the town surrounding me would not exist if it were not for this church.

And then, it’s interesting to meet a lot of German bakers, who live in the area. Oh! We also have Oktoberfest every year! Oktoberfest is like the biggest German festival every year. People go to drink beer and sing songs.

Interviewer: You have a lot of festivals over there, right?

Kate: Yeah, we’ve got all sorts of parades during the summer. I mean, I’m probably in three or four parades every single year.

Interviewer: Wow!

Kate: We have Fourth of July parades, Homecoming parades, Veterans’ Day parades, Memorial Day parades, and Thanksgiving Day parades.

Interviewer: Oh yeah! In New York, right?

Kate: Yeah! You know, my school’s marching band was one of the top marching bands in the country. They’re going to this huge New Years parade.

Interviewer: Are you in the marching band?

Kate: I was in it last year. Not this year, though.

Interviewer: Well, you must be busy with writing. I’ve read your articles for The Diversity Story. You’re a great writer!

Kate: Thank you!

Interviewer: Anyway, my last question for you is, “Why do you think it is important for you to share your story or for others to share their cultural stories in general?”

Kate: So in regards to culture, I personally believe that it’s really important for people to promote understanding between individuals. I’ve had a lot of different experiences with a lot of different cultures, religions, and perspectives, and what I have found out is a lot of people are very caught up in their own worldview and they don’t really think to look outside of it. And that’s not to say that you should necessarily adopt someone else’s world view and abandon your own. But you just gain so much more acceptance whenever you learn about how other people live and more importantly, why they choose to live that way. There is a lot of hatred in the world. And I don’t know if it really comes from people trying to be hateful towards others. But I think that most of it just comes from not understanding one another. I truly believe that understanding other people’s perspectives is how we can keep peace in the world and sharing people’s stories is definitely a great way to do that.

Sharing culturally diverse stories to educate, inspire, and empower others