Photo: Riksdagen (Parliament of Sweden) from Jan Hammershaug flickr photostream

“Our fight against right populism is needed in Europe”

The quote above was the campaign slogan of the Center Party (Centerpartiet) in Sweden during the recent EU election, which clearly positioned the party as having an anti-right populist political stance at a time of rising right wing-populism in Europe, including Sweden. For example, the right-wing populist party Sweden Democrats received 15.34% of the vote in the EU elections; an increase of 5.68% compared to the previous election (Sweden has eight political parties represented in the national as well as the European Parliament, with the centre-ground divided by half a dozen of them). In the Swedish situation, where an ideology of colour-blindness prevails in public policy, this recent upsurge in populist politics raises a number of important issues in addressing the context of Swedish racism.

Members of the Centerpartiet who declared their intention to fight right-wing populism in Europe planned a conference to take place at the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) on May 15th2019 in cooperation with the Afro-Swedish Association. The topic was Islamophobia and Afrophobia in Sweden and the event was titled: “Afrophobia and Islamophobia; what is happening before the EU elections”. The conference was planned to reflect on the racial discrimination that Afro-Swedes are subjected to in various institutions namely education, healthcare and the labour market. The final presentation addressed the importance of collecting what is referred to as ‘equality data’. This was particularly contentious because Swedish law does not permit the collection of data based on ethnicity or religious affiliation. Finally, a debate between candidates from various parties and seeking election in the EU parliament was planned to take place after the presentations.

As a group of researchers, we are currently researching racism in Swedish healthcare and we were asked by the Afro-Swedish Association to present at the conference. Given that racism is so little discussed in public in Sweden, this event, to be held in the national parliament, was of great importance and we prioritized making a presentation. To our surprise and disappointment, we received an email one day before the planned conference informing us that the event had been cancelled. The reason provided by the organizing political party for the cancellation (which, just to remind you, had promised to work against right populism), was a change in the routine for making bookings in the parliament building.

However, according to the Afro-Swedish Association, this was not the only reason. Rather, it was because a right-wing populist individual had found out about the event and had subsequently written a Facebook post attacking Centerpartiet, accusing them of going “too far” (to the left). Furthermore, this populist individual attacked the presenters and accused them of being the country’s

“worst Islamists and identity political activists”

The post has only been shared 156 times and received some 55 predominantly supportive and racist comments from other right-wing populists. The post did not go viral in any way or form and judging from the number of shares and comments, it did not receive much attention. It appears it was nonetheless enough for the organizing political party to cancel the conference.

After the conference was cancelled the same right-wing populist wrote another post praising herself for creating

“so much political noise that the conference had to be cancelled”

To understand why this conference expected to discuss issues of racism in Sweden was cancelled, there is a need to give a review of Swedish colour-blindness.

Sweden’s exceptional exceptionalism and colour-blindness

In 1965, the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, in his Christmas speech stated:

“Democracy is firmly rooted in this country. We respect the fundamental freedoms and rights. Murky racial theories have never found a foothold here. We like to see ourselves as open-minded and tolerant”.

Sweden is often viewed as a role model for its gender and class equality. The country is frequently praised for having tolerant and hospitable policies and a haven for refugees. Nonetheless, as noted previously on this blog, new regulations implemented in 2016 have restricted the number of refugees accepted into the country, as well as giving support to EU programmes aimed at restricting refugees from entering Europe for example, the Turkey deal and the Khartoum process.

The general discourse in Sweden echoes an old argument made by the Swedish government in 1973 to the United Nations, around claims that Sweden was inherently antiracist and thus laws against racism were not needed. This self-image as inherently anti-racist is well-established and it was not until 1994 that Sweden legislated against racial discrimination in the labour market. However, in 2009, the term race was removed from Sweden’s anti-discrimination law, making Sweden one of the few countries in the world to do so, meaning that it is legally difficult to prove that a given discrimination case is based on race. In 2014, a suggestion to remove the term from all other legal bodies such as the criminal law was put forth by the Swedish government. As argued by Bonilla-Silva, these forms of colour-blindness entail a reproduction of power and privilege using covert methods. Colour-blindness offers an ideological cover for covert and institutionalized maintenance of white privilege without identifying those either punished by or rewarded by, the system. In Sweden, the ideology of colour-blindness operates through seeing “race” and racism as irrelevant. This lack of public legitimacy of racism not only makes Whiteness further invisible and unmarked but also facilitates the structural reproduction of racism.

This exceptional picture of Sweden continues to exist despite growing evidence of racism in the country. A recent report highlighted how racism plays an important role in relation to the integration of Afro-Swedes in the labour market. There is evidence of increased segregation and conflict, antisocial crimes against minority groups as well as rising levels of right-wing populist rhetoric.

Researching racism in healthcare

Ideas about Swedish exceptionalism and the accompanying difficulty of discussing racism are matters of concern in healthcare. While researching racism and healthcare in Sweden, we encountered several obstacles in recruiting for the project, and in reporting our findings. Difficulties in recruitment are often due to staff’s anxiety about discussing racism for fear of losing one’s job even though we had stressed the research was confidential. While some of our research presentations have been well received, especially within healthcare settings, they were also often met with a palpable sense of disbelief and unease. In other instances we have observed body language, for example avoiding eye contact, leaving the room and giving minimal responses, as clearly suggesting a good deal of unease with the topic. The lack of a suitable social space to discuss issues of racism in healthcare is evident.

These difficulties are of course related to colour-blindness in Sweden. This functions to block further exploration of racism and the structures that support it. It is easier to dismiss the ‘talk’ of racism than to dismiss racism itself. Instead of racist discourse becoming the issue and the object from which further discussions and debates can be generated, anti-racist research and events (such as the conference planned for May 15th) are constructed as the problem and dismissed. Discussions around racism are thus seen as doing racism, exaggerating or making something out of nothing, while simultaneously continuing to reproduce racism.

The political party campaign slogan on the need to fight right populism in Europe coupled with the inaction when confronted by exactly that right-wing populism at home, raises a number of questions: What kind of rhetoric is this? If parties cannot fight right-wing populism at home, how do they expect to influence Europe? What sort of fight is implied? And lastly, is this rhetoric mainly propaganda to win EU elections at home and hence an empty discourse? At this point, it is hard to know, but what is clear is that there is a very real and pressing need to ensure that there is a public debate about racism in Sweden, as the ideology of colour blindness is no longer appropriate.

About the authors:Sarah Hamed is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Uppsala. Beth Ahlberg is research coordinator and Professor of International Health at the Skaraborg Institute, Skövde as well as undertaking research at the Department of Sociology, University of Uppsala.  Suruchi Thapar-Björket is docent at the Department of Government at the University of Uppsala.