Black bodies and white anger
When the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, came to Sweden, the need for it was questioned in the public debate. At the g16 conference, gender researcher Victoria Kawesa analysed the Swedish blindness to Afrophobia.
– This issue has to be addressed. The situation in Sweden is becoming increasingly worse for black bodies.
Victoria Kawesa was visiting the Almedalen Week when she learned that three black men had been murdered within just one week in USA. The Almedalen Week, which is arranged every summer and attracts Swedish politicians from all camps for meetings and debates, was in full swing. But nobody talked about Philando Castile, an innocent person who was fatally shot by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter after having bought food in Minnesota. The Afro-American man was about to show his driver’s licence when four shots went off.
– I walked around in that white, political ocean of people with a lump in my throat. I felt that something had to be done. This problem has to be understood also in Sweden: that black people are threatened, oppressed and murdered is part of everyday life, says Victoria Kawesa.
It is Thursday evening and a large audience has gathered to listen to her keynote presentation titled Black Bodies and White Anger: Reactions to Black Lives Matter in Sweden at the g16 conference in Linköping.
The Black Lives Matter movement started in USA as a reaction to racism and Afrophobia in the US legal system. Today it has evolved into a broader civil rights movement for social justice that is fighting back against the systematic subordination of black people.
After returning home from Almedalen, Victoria Kawesa began working on a short film for Swedish political party Feminist Initiative together with filmmaker Jakob Möller and black activists, actors, musicians and politicians from Sweden. The film shed light on the oppression and was an act of loyalty with Black Lives Matter globally. The film spread quickly to a large audience and became part of a movement. Activists from the major Swedish cities gathered for manifestations and Swedish Black Lives Matter was born.
– All of this made the media start writing about Black Lives Matter. They wondered why this type of movement was relevant in Sweden? Why were we imitating the struggle in USA? she says.
Victoria Kawesa is a PhD student in gender studies at the Unit of Gender Studies in Linköping. The topic of her PhD thesis is black feminism and whiteness in Sweden. She is also a co-author of a government report on Afrophobia. She says that the questions asked by the media are a clear indication of the ignorance that surrounds the situation of black people.
Statistics show that Afrophobic hate crimes have increased more than any other type of racist crime in Sweden since 2008. At present, they make up one-quarter of all hate crimes in the country.
– I’m deeply concerned about the situation, says Victoria Kawesa and points to a PowerPoint slide with a list of cases.
Fifteen-year-old Ahmed Hassan from Somalia was murdered in a Nazi terror act in the community of Trollhättan in October 2015. In March this year, Alexander Bengtsson, a 20-year-old politician from the city of Uppsala, was found dead in a burnt-out car far from home. Prior to his death, the black homosexual politician had received 50 death threats from Nazi sympathisers.
– Despite this fact, the police didn’t suspect any wrongdoing, but instead concluded that he must have committed suicide.
She says that the violence against black people is made invisible because of the structural racism that exists in society. The problem is often reduced to acts committed by far-right extremist groups.
– If you’re black, you feel very unsafe when the violence is not acknowledged by the police or in the legal system. Black lives are being treated as if they don’t have any value.
The film that Victoria Kawesa initiated after the Almedalen Week also encountered a slew of criticism. A politician representing the Sweden Democrats, wrote in a media article that Black Lives Matter was a criminal organisation that divides society and demonises the police. Hateful remarks were noted in social media. The movement was also criticised in major tabloid editorials, with arguments like ‘racial fixation leads to division’.
-It is interesting that the media are enabling politicians from the Sweden Democrats to discuss people in a way that can be classified as racial agitation. And that you see the same arguments in the editorials of nationally leading tabloids. This is a sign of a normalisation of racism, says Victoria Kawesa.
According to Victoria Kawesa, there is a belief in Sweden today that racism can be eliminated though legislation. There is a notion that Sweden is exceptional compared with other countries and that the country has never owned colonies or oppressed any ethnic groups.
-This is a widespread understanding of Sweden’s past that is completely false, she says.
The truth is that Sweden was the first country in the world to establish a state institute for scientific racism. The oppression of the indigenous people in northern Sweden, the Sami, permeates the country’s history, and Sweden also participated in transnational slave trade, Victoria Kawesa points out.
According to Victoria Kawesa, society is characterised by a colonial whiteness norm where the white body is viewed as superior to the black. White people do not notice this norm, it is invisible to them. But to black people, the whiteness norm is a straitjacket.
– This issue is rarely discussed in Sweden. White people feel very uncomfortable about talking about race, she says.
The whiteness norm is evident in all domains of Swedish society. For example, of all black people with a university degree, only 32 per cent of the men and 40 per cent of the women have a job that corresponds to their academic training. Victoria Kawesa says that racist views and ideas where black people are still seen as something else are to blame for this.
-The reactions to Black Lives Matter in Sweden made it very clear how differently black and white Swedes perceive the world. The absence of support was scary, says Victoria Kawesa.
Photo Justin Makii