Nordic Whiteness: An Introduction
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Nordic Whiteness:
An Introduction

To be white is to be Nordic; to be Nordic is to be white. These are associations centuries in the making. Nordics have long functioned as whiteness standard bearers in pseudoscientific race typologies. Alternately, in the contemporary world, non-white residents of the Nordic countries experience themselves as perpetual outsiders—as eternal "immigrants"—regardless of their place of birth or degree of integration (Rastas 2005; Lundström 2007; Vassenden and Andersson 2011; Kristín Loftsdóttir 2011; Kristín Loftsdóttir and Jensen 2012). However, Nordic whiteness is by no means natural or static. Majority Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Finns, and Icelanders have at various times and settings had their whiteness questioned or rejected. Moreover, whiteness in the Nordic countries is today in flux due to influxes of non-white migrants and the increased mobility and mobilization of domestic minorities like the Sámi, Jews, and Roma.

This special issue seeks to examine Nordic whiteness as a fluid and contested but also an enduring and powerful phenomenon, one that continues to shape global politics, culture, and social relations. As testament to the multimodal nature of the topic, the disciplinary backgrounds of the authors featured in this edition span multiple subfields of humanities and social science research. Combined, their case studies and analyses offer empirically based examinations that reveal how white identities in the Nordic countries, like those elsewhere, contain internal hierarchies and contingencies. Moreover, they stand to qualify disciplinary trends that would frame the Anglo-American experience [End Page 151] as definitive of whiteness. Here, the Nordic case appears to be both an exception to and a backbone of racial ideologies throughout the postcolonial world.

The Nordic Race

Though members of Nordic majority populations have long benefitted from the privileges afforded to whites, the association between Nordic identities and whiteness is neither natural nor archaic. It is instead the product of ongoing circumstance and construction. Indeed, Nordics have in the past found themselves excluded from the category of whiteness, particularly in the Anglo-American world. For example, Benjamin Franklin, in his controversial 1751 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., placed Swedes outside the white population:

The number of purely white people in the world is proportionally very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.1

The exclusion of Swedes from a whiteness centered on Anglo-Saxons was also common among everyday Americans. Minnesota lumberjack Horace Glenn, for example, described Swedes thusly in a 1901 letter to his parents:

[Nine-tenths] of the men are Roundheads & the most disgusting, dirty, lousy reprobates that I ever saw. … There are probably 15 white men here to 60 Swedes & those 15 keep them so they don't dare to say their soul is their own. … It is only evenings that I am forced to associate with these beasts they call Swedes that I get depressed. … Walking behind a string of Swedes is something impossible to a person with a delicate nose. … It is an odor which could only come from generations of unwashed ancestors & no man can hope to acquire it in one lifetime without the aid of heredity.

(quoted in Vecoli 2001, 17)

If the immigrant experience rendered Nordics secondary citizens in a white race-state, their whiteness would be elevated with the rise [End Page 152] of race biology. In 1909 in Sweden, Svenska sällskapet för rashygien (The Swedish Society for Race Hygiene) was installed, lobbying for public health and biopolitical reforms to protect the Swedish nation from social degeneracy and race mixture (Broberg and Tydén 2005; Furuhagen 2007). A decade later, in 1922, the first Statens institut för rasbiologi (State Institute for Racial Biology) was founded in Uppsala, with support from all political parties. In 1930 at the Stockholm Exhibition, Swedes were presented...


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