White melancholy

Today a quarter of all Swedish citizens are of foreign origin. In spite of this, both xenophobes and anti-racists associate Swedishness with whiteness and with something good. With such a colour-blind analysis of society, we can never understand the greatly segregated Sweden of today, according to two researchers.

The success of the far-right Sweden Democrats party is surprising and bewildering. How can a progressive, anti-racist country like Sweden be home to such a large group of unhappy xenophobic voters? The traditional image of Sweden is beginning to fall apart.

Catrin Lundström, senior lecturer in Culture Studies and researcher at the research unit of Culture Studies (Tema Q), paints a picture of a Sweden at a breaking point. In order to understand what is happening, we have to make whiteness visible, along with the privileges that go along with being white, she postulates. In conjunction with Tobias Hübinette, senior lecturer in Intercultural Pedagogy and researcher in the Multicultural Centre, Lundström is constructing a theoretical framework to illuminate the history of Swedish whiteness. In 2011 they published an article in NORA, Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research. It provoked an enormous reaction and quickly became one of the journal’s most cited articles.

A lot more in common

Racists and anti-racists in Sweden have a lot more in common than they would like to think, goes the argument. Both connect Swedish whiteness with something good and progressive. But, they are looking backwards to different eras in modern Swedish history.

Lundström-Hübinette describes three phases: The first, “old Sweden”, was created around the image of a homogenous white society, an age that stretched on until 1968. Racist values and even racist biology were par for the course. In the 1700s, Linnaeus created the first scientific system for racial classification; in the 1800s, Anders Retzius devised skull size as a racial indicator; and The Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology was founded in 1922. Sweden also initiated one of the world's most efficient sterilisation programmes, which affected more 60,000 Swedes before it was abolished in the 1970s.

Lundström-Hübinette places the second phase, “the good Sweden”, between the years 1968-2001. Then Sweden emerges as the most tolerant, progressive, anti-racist and egalitarian country in the world. It stood against colonialism, segregation and apartheid, and became the conscience of the world; anti-racism became an integral part of Swedishness.

Unable to see discrimination

In our own country we solved the problem of racism by making it invisible, or as Catrin Lundström put it: “We became colour-blind. Racism became a non-issue and the word “race” became taboo.”

One example is how official Swedish statistics do not differentiate between people via self-defined ethnicity, but only between Swedes (or “Swedish background”) and immigrants (“foreign background”). And in this way we have lost a lot of knowledge, she says.

“We are not able to describe our own society; we are unable to see the structural discrimination. Compare this with the USA, where particular non-white minorities maintain that it is important to produce this knowledge; they need it, they say, to see the inequalities in society.”

Today Sweden is in the third phase, which they call “the white melancholy”. It is characterised by sadness over the whiteness that used to prevail, but which is about to lose control to a kind of Swedishness that we don’t know anything about. Sweden has changed. Both “the old (homogenous) Sweden” and the “good (anti-racist) Sweden” are gone. The welfare state is beginning to crumble, cracks are appearing. A xenophobic party is represented in parliament and there is a somewhat confused debate about what racism is and isn’t.

Multicultural society

And yet modern Sweden is a multicultural society. Almost 25 % of the citizens are from a foreign background, and the figure rises to 30 % for those under 18.

But, while Swedes happily adopt children with a different skin colour and marry non-Swedes, segregation in a number of other areas is large-scale. The statistics speak plainly and clearly:

Since 2000, poverty has halved among “completely Swedish” children and young people. Currently it stands at approximately 5 %. At the same time poverty among children and young people with a foreign background has remained stable, and currently stands close to 40 %. In the case of those children born abroad, over 50 % live in poverty.

”We maintain that there is a need for another type of analysis in order to understand the discrepancies that exist between Sweden’s image of itself as a country where race is of no importance and the differences, shown by the statistics, in income, social and financial vulnerability, unemployment and segregation between whites and non-whites. This is where the colour-blind point of view comes into play,” Lundström says.

Idea of superiority

The paradox, continues Lundström-Hübinette, lies in the fact that the image of Sweden, both the “old” and the “good” Sweden were built on the idea of the superiority of Swedish whiteness. There is not really that much difference in the view of “the others”, among racist and anti-racist Sweden. Even anti-racist Sweden sees Sweden as a model for “the others”, for example for Muslims who oppress women. Swedish equality should be exported to other less enlightened countries with the help of foreign aid. The Swedish and the white are best in all situations, whether it be defined as homogeneity or as tolerance and solidarity.

“Anti-racism and solidarity have, despite humanitarian aims, gone hand-in-hand with superiority and homogeneity.”

Today, as Sweden engages in the war against terrorism, this becomes even clearer. Sweden no longer claims to be the conscience of the world; it is a country like any other.

“Sweden is really part of the European colonial project, whereby Europe is seen as superior to every other continent, the cradle of civilization.”

Another example is the issue of equality, which is also colour-blind. Equality in the modern Swedish home is maintained by its tax deductible status. Swedish women nowadays don't need to negotiate with their husbands; housework is instead handed over to another woman.

“Values we thought we had given up a long time ago have survived and are appearing again. Maids are back in Swedish homes.”

Whiteness and Swedishness 

At the same time the debate on racism is flaring up again, as in the cases of Tintin and Lilla Hjärtat. Swedish anti-racists are bewildered when this behaviour is condemned as building on racist stereotypes.

At the bottom lies the idea that whiteness and Swedishness belong together, and are interdependent. The difference between the physical concept of race and the cultural concept of ethnicity has collapsed, writes Lundström-Hübinette: they have become the same thing. So, for example, a black adopted child may be classified as non-Swedish, despite that he or she culturally, linguistically and ethnically is part of no other group than Swedish. But, in appearance he or she can never be “Swedish”.

“It is high time,” Lundström says, “for us to extricate the ideas of whiteness and Swedishness from one another in order to be able to deconstruct and reveal a “Swedishness” that doesn’t give “non-whites” the opportunity to be completely Swedish. We want to develop a theory of the history of Swedish whiteness and to open up a fresh anti-racist perspective not based on colour blindness.”

The article in NORA, Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, is called ”Sweden after the Recent Election: The Double-Binding Power of Swedish Whiteness through the Mourning of the Loss of  ‘Old Sweden’ and the Passing of  ‘Good Sweden’ “.


2013-02-07