Recension av det svenska forskarnätverkets för kritisk ras- och vithetsforskning bok ”Ras och vithet. Svenska rasrelationer i går och i dag” i senaste numret av den akademiska tidskriften ”Capital and Class” (vol. 42, no. 2).
Review of ”Race and whiteness. Swedish race relations yesterday and today” which was published in 2017 by the Swedish research network for critical race and whiteness studies in the latest issue of the journal ”Capital and Class” (vol. 42, no. 2).
Book Review: Ras och vithet: Svenska rasrelationer i går och i dag by Tobias Hübinette (ed.)
As Tobias Hübinette writes in the introduction to his edited volume, the title of which translates to Race and Whiteness: Swedish Race Relations Yesterday and Today, ‘The category of race and the social and cultural representations of race in relation to historical and contemporary Sweden, and to past and contemporary Swedish whiteness, is still a relatively unexplored area’ (p. 9, translations by the reviewer).
While applications of critical race theory – and explorations of power, privilege, and oppression – have become a norm within American academic writing across disciplines, the same cannot be said of Sweden, which, for the most part, still imagines itself a society where the category of ‘race’ is not applicable.
However, the 21st century has witnessed a growing body of academic and popular work on issues of race and racism. In 2007, Uppsala University published an anthology exploring structural discrimination faced by immigrants to Sweden (Burns et al., 2007).
Hübinette himself has co-authored two books on the challenges faced in Sweden by people of African descent and by those adopted from other countries (Hübinette and Tigervall, 2008; Hübinette et al., 2014). The growing profile of hate groups has also served as a catalyst for some national self-reflection in recent years. Mattias Gardell, a professor in religious history, used the life of serial killer and white supremacist Peter Mangs to interrogate the phenomenon of ‘new racism’ (Gardell, 2015), while journalist Gellert Tamas (2016) paired the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with anti-Islamic, right-wing extremists in his Det svenska hatet.
However, there persists an aversion to applying ideas of race or whiteness to the Swedish experience, past or present. Ras och vithet, therefore, works to counter this aversion by offering a broad range of essays showcasing how critical race theory can capture certain nuances of Swedish social relations.
The first half of the book consists of historical perspectives. Andréaz Wasniowski opens with an overview of scientific and ideological race-thinking, focusing particularly on ethnopluralism, a right-wing alternative to multiculturalism that supports segregation of ethnic groups on the basis of their purported right to be different. In 1922, Sweden became the first nation in the world to establish an institute for the study of racial biology, based at Uppsala University, and Ulrika Kjellman surveys the work of the institute, especially its use of photography to present racial differences; instead of photographing naked bodies for ‘scientific’ analysis, however, workers at Statens institut för rasbiologi sought to present what they already knew to be true: ‘Those races seen as inferior were photographed … in threadbare clothes and in impoverished environments, while the Nordic population, perceived as superior, was placed in opulent interiors or in idyllic pastoral exteriors’ (p. 60).
In similar vein, a chapter by Jeff Werner covers how Swedish photography and television broadcasts were calibrated, consciously and unconsciously, in accordance with normative whiteness. Standard to critical race theory is the acknowledgement that race is not simply a function of pigment but also of class, gender, language, and more, and Pia Laskar illustrates the fluidity of whiteness in a chapter covering Swedish academic efforts to place Finns outside the boundaries of the Nordic race despite their own stereotypical blond hair and blue eyes.
Closing up the historical section of the book are two chapters touching upon the Swedish American experience. First, Jens Björk Andersson covers the little-known story of the New York–based newspaper Folkets Röst (Voice of the People), which reflected for Swedish immigrants the American racial hierarchy – namely, by comparing other European ethnic immigrants ‘with non-whites, and by conferring upon them non-white attributes, the newspaper placed other ethnicities on a lower level in order to make it possible for Swedish Americans to be viewed as white’ (pp. 134–135).
Therese Svensson closes the section with a chapter on the 1920 novel Chi-mo-ka-ma by Dan Andersson, which touches the fluidity of whiteness for Swedish immigrants on the American frontier, whose condition put them in the category of ‘poor white trash’.
The second section brings the reader up to the present-day applicability of ‘whiteness’ as a category in Sweden. Nina Jakku and Anna Waara reveal the experiences of ethnic Swedish women who have converted to Islam and begun wearing the hijab; not only are these women treated as ethnic outsiders upon the adoption of Muslim dress, they undergo a class transformation due to stereotypes of Muslims as lower-class immigrants.
Race and class undergo a paired analysis in Lena Sohl’s chapter on the downwards class journey of immigrants to Sweden, where a trained doctor may end up working as a taxi driver due, in part, to the structural racism of the labour market. Daphne Arbouz reveals, in the experience of multiracial Swedes, the paradox of a nation ‘that has not had success in formulating and rearticulating a new Swedishness in time with the demographic changes that have occurred in the country’ (p. 210).
Exploring this paradox further are two chapters on ‘colour-blind racism’. First, Magnus Dahlstedt and Vanja Lozic, through interviews with those who work with non-white communities in public service fields, illustrate how the traditional Swedish welfare state is increasingly viewed not ‘as a collective entitlement but, in greater and greater degree, as a question of the individual citizen’s own responsibility, priorities, and choice’ (p. 233). Second, editor Hübinette explicates some of the key themes underlying Swedish resistance to the use of race as a category, including a widespread belief that ‘use of the word race risks creating a race-thinking that doesn’t exist in today’s Sweden’ (p. 243).
Closing up the volume is a piece by Zahra Bayati on the persistence of a racial hierarchy of languages in Sweden’s education system, in which many instructors behave as if those from a different language background are fundamentally incapable of mastering Swedish – and thus finding their proper place in society.
Ras och vithet is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of Swedish race relations, and there are many areas of Swedish history and contemporary society that would prove ripe for the application of critical race theory, from the legacy of anti-Semitism (as has been covered in great depth by Henrik Bachner (1999 )) to issues of indigeneity and the country’s Sami population.
However, Hübinette has assembled a sufficiently strong collection of essays to demonstrate the usefulness of categories like race and whiteness for analysing Swedish society; the historical cases establish the longevity of race-thinking in Sweden, thus making the contemporary cases not instances of Sweden grappling with new demographic change – not recent innovations but, instead, examples of how older cultural categories have persisted to the present day.
As such, this book marks more than a milestone for Swedish academic writing; it ranks as a milestone in the field of critical race theory in general.
Bachner, H (1999 ) Återkomsten. Antisemitism i Sverige efter 1945. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.
Burns, TR, Machado, N, Hellgren, Z. (eds) (2007) Makt, kultur och kontroll över invandrares livsvillkor. Multidimensionella perspektiv på strukturell diskriminering i Sverige. Uppsala: Uppsala University.
Gardell, M (2015) Raskrigaren. Seriemördaren Peter Mangs. Stockholm: Leopard Förlag.
Hübinette, T, Tigervall, C (2008) Adoption med förhinder. Samtal med adopterade och adoptivföräldrar om vardags rasism och etnisk identitet. Botkyrka: Mångkulturellt centrum.
Hübinette, T, Beshir, S, Kawesa, V (2014) Afrofobi. En kunskaps översikt över afrosvenskars situation i dagens Sverige. Botkyrka: Mångkulturellt centrum.
Tamas, G (2016) Det svenska hatet. En berättelse om vår tid. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.