- Figuring Blackness In A Place Without Race:Sweden, Recently
i. 20 february 2014, meeting with ellen n., pom & flora café, södermalm, stockholm
We've just moved to Stockholm again; I'm meeting Ellen, mother of one of my son's new classmates. She is a member of TRYCK/PUSH, a newly established group of Afro-Swedish artists and cultural workers, and therefore an excellent contact for me. Adopted from Eritrea, she grew up in Stockholm; she had been living in Denmark for the last 20 years, having gone there for acting school. Ellen is nimble and quick in her movements and, perhaps because she is an actress, is much less reserved than many Swedes would be on a first meeting. Over coffee, hot chocolate, and a fruit juice, we talk at a table near the window for nearly three hours about all things Afro-Swedish, including the differences she sees between the Swedish and Danish racial and political climates. What bothers her most is Sweden's sense of its own goodness and exceptionality: Sweden thinks of itself as a place that is morally superior and advanced, having avoided the most direct political, social, and cultural consequences of twentieth-century Europe's most significant upheavals: the Second World War and the so-called official end of colonization/imperialism. Thus, racial problems happen elsewhere, in places like America and South Africa, as evidenced by Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal's famous study of American race relations and Sweden's unprecedented support of the African National Congress.1 Despite its reputation as one of the best and happiest places to live, Ellen sees Sweden as a kind of time bomb that will soon finally be forced to acknowledge a lost innocence in terms of its self-perceived goodness in the world. She's worried that another Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed 77 people in Oslo in an act of white supremacy-inspired domestic terrorism, will happen here because Swedish people, mainstream media, and public culture is really unable to talk about racial issues, discrimination, and racism in a meaningful way.2 [End Page 377]
For Ellen, Sweden's perceived innocence and goodness has actually been compromised a number of times, but Swedes will not acknowledge this. As examples, she talks about the serial killer known as Lasermannen, who shot and killed (some say hunted with a laser-guided rifle) immigrants in Stockholm and Uppsala in the early 1990s.3 Going further back in history, she notes that she did not learn about Sweden's involvement in the slave trade at all until she heard a lecture at one of the first Slavery Remembrance Days in Sweden a few years ago. In the spring of 2012 she directed a play, "A Performance about Swedish Weapons Export" [En föreställning om svensk vapenexport], about the Swedish arms trade and its relation to immigration which alleged that Sweden exports arms to conflict areas and then takes in refugees from those same places, that there is a direct correlation between Swedish arms export and its refugee crisis. This play was met with extreme criticism because Sweden, like many other European nations, does not want a complicated vision of itself and its history; instead, Sweden wants to maintain its goodness, its righteousness, and an idea that it is at the forefront of modernity both historically and in the contemporary period.
Towards the end of our conversation, Ellen turns to thinking about blackness in Europe and tells me of her memory of a moment from Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father (1995). She notes that when Obama recounts his travels through Europe as a student, he mentions that when he helped a friend to work out a visa issue in Spain, he felt Europe's rejection of brown and black bodies and remarks, paraphrasing Obama, "This place is not for me. It is set up to keep me out." She understands Europe as a place that is not for foreigners and not for black strangers, in particular. It is not open to them and structurally does not accommodate movement of "others" in and through. It is a difficult, foreboding home...