Embodying Exoticism: Gendered Nuances of Swedish Hyper-Whiteness in the United States
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Embodying Exoticism:
Gendered Nuances of Swedish Hyper-Whiteness in the United States

Just the fact that you are Swedish—or rather a Swedish woman—makes you very interesting. When I go shopping, I always hear: "Oh what's that accent, where are you from?" They are so interested. Sweden is so interesting. Sweden has a very good image in the world.

—Lise-Lotte, 55, residing in the United States for 20 years2

Being Swedish in the United States represents a particular version of whiteness that is related to the history of the Nordic race (Lunde 2010). The idea of a superior Nordic whiteness, or "race Nordique," has been a persistent phenomenon associated with racial purity and homogeneity (Garner 2015). In the modern era, the term "Nordic" is used to designate "a superior race" reflecting the racial standard: tall, blue-eyed, and, if a woman, blond (Painter 2010, 305). Pure Nordics are described as having fair skin and as being white par excellence, who have "not only given the world civilization, enterprise, and bravery; they also possess heavenly beauty: the gods of lovely ancient Greece were, of course, blond" (Painter 2010, 309). [End Page 179]

It is perhaps the echo of these racial layers that makes being Swedish, "or rather a Swedish woman" in the United States, "interesting."

This article follows some of the transnational "traces" of Swedish whiteness that emerged in interviews with Swedish women who had migrated to the United States and encountered a version of whiteness that was very different to that they had experienced in Sweden. The history of racial purity and privilege for Nordic migrants makes the white position tangible for these women when moving from a dominant discourse of color blindness in Sweden. The women, who migrated to the United States from the 1940s onward, are ascribed historical and contemporary images of Nordic whiteness and Swedish femininity, thus making them symbolic bearers of the racialized boundaries of the nation and its "national qualities."

In her book, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter points to the racialized aspects of migration and the feasibility of Nordic immigrants integrating into the US melting pot at a time when non-Nordic immigrants in a similar situation are doomed to "absolute failure" (Painter 2010, 307). This article argues that the lingering idea of certain characteristics, coupled with the Nordic race as the embodiment of purity or beauty, is still true for these contemporary migrants from Sweden. Their experiences are also gendered, in that the women are ascribed certain notions of Swedish (or Nordic) hyper-whiteness that are attached to standards of racial purity, extraordinary beauty, and sexual liberation. Consequently, their accentuated whiteness implicates re-configurations of femininity and respectability, including aspects of sexuality and morality.

Transnational Whiteness

The editors of the collection Transnational Whiteness Matters, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Maryrose Casey, and Fiona Nicoll (2008), point out that whiteness as an imperial project has undergone several changes over the centuries and across geographies. This article explores the social and cultural boundaries of a "particular" whiteness—Swedish whiteness—as it travels and assumes a "new" shape in a different context. The aim of the article is to unpack the layers of whiteness that are tied to Swedishness and to particular ideas about the Nordic race as they are experienced by Swedish migrant women in the United States.

The concept of "an ideal whiteness" points to an internal hierarchy within the category of whiteness (Lunde 2010; Garner 2015). In [End Page 180] this context, Swedes still tend to be identified and thought of as the purest people of the white race, representing a kind of hyper-whiteness (Hübinette and Lundström 2014; cf. Roediger 1991). In fact, in Carl C. Brigham's estimate of the proportions of blood stock from different European countries in the United States in 1923, Swedes are classified as the whitest of all (white) because they were thought to be the only race in Europe to have 100 percent Nordic blood (Brigham 1923, 159).

Hence, whitenesses can be similar, yet different (such as Swedish whiteness or Polish whiteness). Pursuing Swedish whiteness in the United States implies that whiteness is...


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