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  • I Felt So White: Sámi Racialization, Indigeneity, and Shades of Whiteness
  • Astri Dankertsen (bio)

this article explores how whiteness and race are often understated but relevant categories of identification in Sápmi. The Sámi people are an Indigenous people of Northern Europe who live in a large territory called Sápmi by the Sámi themselves. The area encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Their traditional lifestyle has historically been connected to hunting, fishing, and trading. While other colonized people often have a clear beginning of the colonial process, often with people traveling over oceans, the colonization of Sápmi was more of a gradual process. The topic of race and racism is also an ambiguous and complex issue in Sápmi today. On the one hand, the Sámi are often classified as white, and on the other hand, they have been perceived and see themselves as “looking different” and share a history of racialization and scientific racism with other Indigenous people of the world. There is a history of colonization and racialization of the Sámi people, with race biology and racist politics starting from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, defining the Sámi as a primitive and exotic race of Asian origin rather than as white Europeans (Kyllingstad 2012).

With concepts from feminist, postcolonial, and antiracist theory, I discuss how the social construction, categorization, and embodied practices of “race” are part of being Sámi even today. In the field of whiteness studies, researchers focus on the social identity and location of whiteness and the often taken-for-granted privilege of whiteness (Frankenberg 1993; McIntosh 2004; Roediger 1992; Lipsitz 1995; Berg, Flemmen, and Gullikstad 2010; Dyer 2016; Rothenberg 2008; Bonds and Inwood 2016), sharing some perspectives with critical race theory (Crenshaw 1995; Delgado and Stefancic 2012). Whiteness in this perspective is more than a skin color. It is a political and cultural term that signifies status, power, and character (Perkins 2004) and a place from which people look at themselves, at others, and at society. It is also a cultural practice (Frankenberg 1993), a social and historical identity, and an epistemically salient and ontologically real entity that has survived constantly changing boundaries (Alcoff 2006, 2015). [End Page 110]

I use autoethnography (Ngunjiri, Hernandez, and Chang 2010; Ellis and Bochner 2003; Spry 2013) in combination with qualitative interviews. I am thus inspired by “doubled research practice” (Berg 2008; Gunaratnam 2003) and use this as a strategy to challenge the silence around whiteness in relation to the Sámi people. In this way, I critically investigate the status of whiteness as unmarked majority position. I analyze the racialization of Sámi bodies through the concepts of comfort/discomfort (Ahmed 2012, 2014) and argue that the old ideologies about the Sámi as a distinct race still are implicit in everyday life, as well as in research, and that there is a need for a theoretical debate about these issues both in academia and in society in general.

A Guided Tour

I am in Uppsala, participating at a symposium on race biology and its history in Sápmi. The participants include researchers, Sámi politicians, and other people interested in the topic. On the first day, there is a guided tour of Uppsala University’s collections from the State Institute for Racial Biology, a research institute founded in 1922 with a focus on eugenics and human genetics. (It changed its name to State Institute for Human Genetics in 1958.) I feel like a tourist, walking through the university buildings. At the end of the tour, we end up at the university library, where we sit down at a table in a basement room. The guide fills the table in front of us with dozens of photo albums and books from the days of Herman Lundborg, the head of the institute from 1922 to 1936. The guide informs us that the pictures were taken for research purposes by the researchers involved in the racial biology project.

We all start looking through the albums. At first, it feels like looking at ordinary family photos. We sit silently with the albums, which contain pictures...


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pp. 110-137
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