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  • Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America by Erika K. Jackson
  • Benjamin R. Teitelbaum
Erika K. Jackson. Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. Pp. 367.

Scandinavians in Chicago opens with an America of the late 1700s where Scandinavians were considered White (sometimes swarthy) but not quite civilized and therefore imperfect compared with Anglo-Saxons. The book ends analyzing a post-World War I society in which "Nordic" was replacing "Anglo-Saxon," as well as "Greek" and "Roman," as the moniker for those most distinguished White agents credited with crafting the United States and civilization at large. Explaining what happened in between is Scandinavians in Chicago's invaluable scholarly contribution.

It is an understatement to say that Erika Jackson's book fills an urgent void. The history of Scandinavian Americans' racial identity contains a confluence of scholarly inquiries; core among them are efforts to understand [End Page 546] the process by which whiteness in the United States has been created and shaped. While scholars from ethnic studies, anthropology, sociology, and history have explored the flexibility of White identity in the United States, most of this work has been devoted to understanding the racial mobility of European ethnicities who gained a White identity after having previously been excluded from the category—especially Italian, Polish, Irish, Jewish, and more recently Albanian Americans. Scandinavian Americans' dance with whiteness is fundamentally different from that of these groups. It was seldom a condition of outright exclusion from the racial category first typified in the United States by Anglo-Saxons, but Scandinavians nonetheless made a journey through whiteness, from being a broadly accepted, though subordinate member, to being an unquestioned standard-bearer. Their story, too, is one about the constructed and pliable nature of racial identity, one often overlooked in scholarly and journalistic commentary because of the intensity of Scandinavians' eventual claim to American whiteness, and one that therefore hasn't received extensive consideration of its process—until now.

The core of Jackson's chronology explores the experiences of Scandinavian Americans and their relationship with White identity from roughly the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s, and with a conclusion revisiting the status of Scandinavian ethnicity and Nordic race in the 2010s. She focuses her analysis on Chicago, a fine choice given the city's centrality as a destination for European immigration and a laboratory for the interaction of ethnic groups in the early 1900s. Throughout Jackson's history, we learn of Scandinavians' movement both through social classes and, correspondingly, through geographical space in the city, from the slums of "the Sands"—a predecessor to Streeterville—to the manors of the North Shore as household assistants, and later to the wealthy suburbs like Lakeview and Andersonville. We follow the growth and transformation of the Scandinavian American press; the foundation of cultural clubs, schools, and churches; and the lives of individuals traversing these places, institutions, and identities.

Chapter 1 explores the first waves of migration from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark to Chicago and characterizes the prevailing racial ideology among America's White elite at the time. Amid intense focus on the imperiled whiteness of Irish Americans, Scandinavians were broadly categorized as White, though their reputation as predominantly rural rather than urban made theirs an un-modern and therefore an inferior whiteness to that of the Anglo-Saxon. However, Jackson argues, their status as proximal to the WASP standard, given their northwest European racial and Protestant religious profile, also allowed them to comingle with and [End Page 547] gain from elite White Americans' social and economic lifeways. Beginning as proto-elite-Whites, Scandinavians in Chicago received additional assistance in climbing the racial hierarchy from American popular culture. As chapter 2 describes, the US entertainment industry helped construct and project an image of Scandinavians as generally unintelligent but also physically beautiful. That commentary on beauty fed into expanding narratives of Scandinavians as being the purest racial population in Europe. They may not have been cultivated, but they were the finest raw human material available. Meanwhile, Scandinavian nation-states and Scandinavian Americans began impugning the limiting aspects of their characterization, highlighting the legacy of...


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