Portrait: ‘Research on racism is not considered real knowledge’

2018-05-03 11:51

She was first to show how racist structures are to blame for the widespread housing segregation in Sweden. Irene Molina’s PhD thesis shook up a nation in denial. Today, she works as a professor and heads the first centre for research on racism in the Nordic region. ‘We’re in a state of emergency’, she says.

It is a sunny Thursday afternoon and I am visiting Irene Molina in her cosy flat in Uppsala, Sweden. The busy professor of human geography is working from home today. Anders, Molina’s partner, is making plans for going out exercising. I can hear the muffled sound of a coffee maker from the kitchen.

‘It has become more dangerous to live in Sweden. This centre is badly needed – we need to help neutralise the racist forces,’ says Molina.

Molina splits her working hours between the Institute for Housing and Urban Research and the Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CEMFOR), where she serves as director of research together with Professor Mattias Gardell. CEMFOR opened last year, but the ambition to institutionalise research on racism and discrimination dates back more than 20 years.

‘When we started to make plans, we couldn’t even imagine the development we were about to witness. Refugee shelters are being burnt down around the country. Not only have the Sweden Democrats entered the Swedish parliament, racism as a political ideology has expanded dramatically. Even Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén has said that he is considering sending the military to some suburbs.’

When we started to make plans, we couldn’t even imagine the development we were about to witness. Refugee shelters are being burnt down around the country.

CEMFOR’s central aim is to build up a new research field and be a hub for researchers and knowledge. The Centre is funded by Uppsala University, which is no coincidence, according to Molina. What she is alluding to is that Uppsala University became home to the world’s first institute for racial biology back in 1921.

‘We’re not going to be a closed academic bubble. We need to be as present as possible in the public debate.’

Molina is known for having introduced the concepts of racialisation and intersectionality in Sweden. She developed an interest in injustices already as a child in Chile. When she was 10 years old, she decided to stop believing in God and refused to attend the Catholic school her parents had chosen for her. At age 12, she led her friends in a campaign against sexual harassment on the school bus. The girls armed themselves with sewing needles in their pockets.

‘We used them to defend ourselves against the boys when they came too close. It actually worked!’

She laughs and takes a sip of her coffee. She was inspired by political protest songs and read everything there was to read about Marxist theory at a young age. She was 16 years old when the military coup in her home country changed everything. It was a time of violence, torture and persecution.
‘It was like crashing into a big block of concrete in the midst of the identity-seeking years. Some of my friends disappeared and my sister was put in prison. I got married at 17, started a family and was able to study at the university with the support of my mom.’

In Chile, she started doing research on housing segregation from a class perspective. In 1986, Molina moved to Sweden.

‘I started fearing for my life in Chile. The military police were out to get me.’

After some time in Sweden, Molina returned to research, at Uppsala University’s Department of Social and Economic Geography. At Uppsala, her PhD supervisors encouraged her to approach the issue from an ethnicity angle. Molina hardly knew what that meant but started to review the few reports that had been written on the topic. She could not believe the conclusions reached in the studies.

‘The central explanatory model for the ethnic housing segregation in Sweden at the time was that immigrants preferred to live near each other. There was no empirical data to support this. Instead, the idea was based on studies from the US,’ she says.

The Swedish housing market had already become difficult to access, and people were forced to adapt their lives to the few housing opportunities that were available to them. The belief that migrants could make active choices simply was not true.

‘In order to understand the whole thing better, I looked for alternative explanatory models. That’s when I came across postcolonial and critical race theories. I soon understood that the prevailing attitudes were rooted in an ideological structure of racism.”

According to Molina, there is a clear pattern in the cultural racism that is based on the notion of migrants as ‘the others’, as those who act and think differently. By focusing on differences and shrinking migrants to mere representatives of their respective cultures, there is no reason to look for rational similarities with ethnic Swedes. In her PhD thesis, which she finished in 1997, she introduced the concept of racialisation.

‘What I mean is that the organisation of all resources and actors involved in the Swedish housing market is based on a racist logic. The idea that immigrants don’t need quality housing because they are used to a low standard, or that they are messy and break things, is legitimising discrimination in the housing market.’

The thesis received a lot of attention. Molina was both praised and criticised for her work. Many people denied that racism existed in Sweden.
‘This is an area in which people have a lot of opinions. Everything that has to do with discrimination is another. Opinions seem to be more important than facts. Just like the field of gender studies, research on racism is not considered real knowledge.’

Opinions seem to be more important than facts. Just like the field of gender studies, research on racism is not considered real knowledge.

In her thesis work, Molina also came across the concept of intersectionality, which still had not been introduced in Sweden. Feminist perspectives had always been of central importance to her, but she had never seen an opportunity to use them in her research.

‘So for me, finding intersectionality was incredibly important. It made me whole as a human being and political subject. Suddenly I was able to connect all of my ideological convictions,’ says Molina.

Together with Paulina de los Reyes and Diana Mulinari, she published an anthology titled Maktens (o)lika förklädnader [the different disguises of power] in 2002. At that time, such a clear description of the intersection between racism, class and gender had never before been given in the field of gender studies. Today, the concept of intersectionality is well established and is widely used also outside academic institutions, for example by several political parties. The same is true for the term racialisation.

‘I think it’s great that concepts that first emerged in academia are spreading everywhere. However, it is important to remember their original meaning, their core, so that they don’t get watered down,’ says Molina.

I think it’s great that concepts that first emerged in academia are spreading everywhere.

But when the anthology was published, many people did not want to open their eyes to how different power structures could interact. According to Molina, the book was provocative as it questioned the very core of the gender equality project.

‘Every era has its struggles. In the 1970s, there was a focus on the unequal relationship between the genders. A lot of that gender equality ideology is based on structural explanations that tend to neglect the complexity.’

In her opinion, the entire Swedish gender equality project is based on a heterosexual nuclear family norm, and the early women’s movement was both ethnocentric and elitist – sprung out of the academic middle class.

‘I’m not saying that the gender equality project is a bad thing, but it is not responding to the power structures that determine how people are able to live their lives.’

I’m not saying that the gender equality project is a bad thing, but it is not responding to the power structures that determine how people are able to live their lives.

Molina says that we live at a time when it is necessary to talk about utopias. That we need to question the very foundation of the gender equality ideology that has informed Swedish policymaking. If the same reforms would have been formulated based on norm-critical perspectives, the results would have been even better.’

‘It is high time to construct the utopias that an intersectional feminism needs. We need to liberate our thinking and surpass the boundaries of what is and has been – what type of society do we want to achieve?

Author Ida Måve
Photo Mikael Wallerstedt
Irene Molina chooses
Three favourite theorists: Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Michel Foucault, Franz Fanon. Three favourite authors: Mariana Enriquez (Argentina), Almudena Grandes (Spain), Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia). Three favourite directors: Gabriela Pichler, Guillermo del Toro, Ava Duvernay. The best thing about working in academia: To be able to question everything. The worst thing about working in academia: That the format of what is said and written is a bit too rigid and that collaboration with activism and the arts does not have a high academic status. Person(s) I would not be able to do without: Anders, my kids Ivan and Simona and my grandkid Benjamin. The number one place to think: My office in Uppsala, although I’d like to move it to the beach!
show more news ›