Race and racism in Sweden

An unpublished piece that I wrote in June 2020.

The problem is not that Swedes are racist. Of course they are. The problem is that Sweden has never engaged seriously with anti-racism.

This was the response I gave to a Swedish friend over dinner this week in which I related my experiences as an American living in Sweden during a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. Swedes, I told him, view racism as a binary phenomenon: one is either kind to non-whites or racist. Being anti-racist means taking actions to combat the reproduction of racist thought. Non-racism is passive; anti-racism is active.

Swedish protests this week and the reaction to them have been jarring, to say the least. A massive online demonstration on Tuesday saw 60,000 Swedish residents “checking in” at the US Embassy in Stockholm on Facebook with an image declaring: “Sweden in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter.”

I, for one, find the slogan problematic, relegating black lives (or more specifically, black deaths) to something Over There, with which one can decide to feel solidarity (or not). The slogan inscribes domestic Swedish territory as superior, free of racist violence. There is no racism here, and if there is, it’s not a problem worth protesting.

The reaction to Wednesday’s protest in Sergels Torg revealed further Sweden’s pitiful engagement with anti-racism. The criticism on social media was vituperative, labelling protestors as stupid for spreading covid-19. Where was this indignation last month when white people ate brunch elbow-to-elbow on Stureplan, contradicting Folkhälsomyndigheten guidelines?

Even some who stood at the square in violation of the law defend the police brutality that ensued in the aftermath of the protest, documented in videos and shared widely on social media. These police actions – slamming a young girl to the ground – I was told by my Swedish dinner companion and many others, were about order, not brutality. This is what the police must do if the law is broken.

I have attempted to elucidate: these views are fundamentally incompatible with Black Lives Matter as a social movement. One cannot stand “in solidarity with” Black Lives Matter somewhere and endorse police violence anywhere. Whatever else American politicians tell you, it is in many ways an anti-policing movement. As one friend at the forefront of Black Lives Matter put it, laws that were not written to be explicitly anti-racist cannot be enforced ethically.

“But I trust the Swedish police to know what is an appropriate use of force,” said my friend. The implication, I assumed, is that black Swedes (and Black Lives Matter protestors) should too. I offered a thought experiment: Can you imagine how it feels to be followed by security guards or police in a store because you look suspicious?

Of course, he said.

Can you, I asked, imagine how you would feel if that happened in every shop you ever entered, every day of your life?

No.

But the problem is perhaps not merely or primarily present-day policing. I certainly don’t believe Swedish police are violent on the scale of American police (although isn’t that more about being anti-gun than pro-black?). Perhaps we must look closer at history.

American failure on the anti-racist front might be rooted in a fixation on – or what Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called a romanticization of – slavery. I have vivid recollections of slavery lessons at school, but no real memory of learning about Jim Crow segregation in the American South. Many Americans do not understand the extent to which segregation continued and continues.

Swedes, on the other hand, have never reconciled with their history of slavery. My dinner companion noted that most Swedes are not aware that Sweden used its colony of Saint Barthélemy as a veritable duty-free store for slaves. Sweden also supplied a substantial portion of the iron chains for the ships that brought enslaved Africans to the New World. If so many racist structures derive from a legacy of slavery, and if learning about this legacy is crucial to combatting prejudice, the erasure of Sweden’s slave trade from collective national memory explains its failure to embrace anti-racism.

Given the significance of iron wealth to Swedish industrialization, one wonders if it is an exaggeration to say that the foundations of the modern welfare state were laid on the graves of black lives that, for Sweden, did not matter.

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