The original Swedish version of this article was published by Krakel.
The course “Critical Race and Whiteness in Sweden” at Karlstad University in Sweden has been marked by the infiltration of a far-right individual who harassed teachers and exposed students during the fall semester of 2023. As a student in the course, I see how Christian Peterson’s participation has provided us with additional material to understand how the (far) right actively opposes the concept of racism which protects and expands its power position in society.
Everyone has, in different ways, a relationship with racism. Racism expresses itself directly and indirectly. Quietly and violently loud. By opening and closing doors, welcoming, and shutting people out. It makes visible some and hides others, it shapes, moves, changes, and creates conditions, boundaries, rules, and routines.
Talking about “race” sounds unpleasant. The often-overlooked history of the Swedish eugenic tradition comes to mind. We hear “racism” and think of sterilizations, oppression, violence, forced relocations, groupings, and purges. By the end of the 1960s, the ideals of racial biology were replaced with a color-blind discourse resting on a political unwillingness to acknowledge or talk about how people’s conditions and opportunities largely depend on how they look. In the course “Critical Race and Whiteness in Sweden” at Karlstad University, we read about “race” as something that takes shape and expression through norms, rules, repetitions, and representations (in this text, I write “race” to emphasize this). The reluctance to talk about this as something existing has partly led to the avoidance of discussions about the political rise of racism.
How can we talk about oppression and privilege if we don’t dare to name their foundations? Swedish white hegemony means that the image of Sweden is constructed around the idea of a white homogeneous culture in which white expressions have more influence than others. It builds up an “us” strengthened by alienating “the others”. For the Swedish Democrats as well as for Christian Peterson and his supporters, this (white) world, this “us” is under threat.
But what is presented as the threat? I have searched for answers on various pages and forums where there seems to be a concern, for example, that Swedish tax money goes to an unfounded research topic aimed at solving a non-existent problem. Critical race and Whiteness studies are perceived not only as offensive but also as threatening and racist against whites. However, critically examining how whiteness is constantly privileged in society is not, as claimed by the far-right, racism against whites. On the contrary, it is making visible the structures that form the basis of racism.
Within this debate, I read about gains and losses, as if this were a battle with a winner and a loser. I see people writhing in discomfort. But more than a war between two individuals, this is actually about how we handle the racist advance of the far-right in our society. Do we settle for explaining it with discomfort? As a student, I find it uncomfortable when the space for learning is sabotaged by the far right. It gets too close. Our professor Tobias Hübinette himself was subjected to racism in his course about racism. Our features and appearances are commented on and mocked on far-right forums. Some were even exposed with names.
Discomfort is a trap, especially for those with privileges (myself included). We withdraw with discomfort, become paralyzed, and thus become part of the problem because, then, racism can continue to be normalized. To be racialized as non-white is also to constantly be in discomfort because it is freely (and increasingly) associated with something deviant or problematic in normalized racism.
The advance of far-right extremism is dangerous, not just uncomfortable. It needs to be exposed to resistance, and theories of racism alone are not enough. Racism is a spectrum we navigate, and working against it requires constant practice and training. But studying the history, effects, changes, and continuities of “racisms” (in plural) enables us to not forget, hide, or make oppression invisible.
So, why do I study “race” and whiteness in Sweden?
As a student, I need the course to deepen my understanding of how meaning and power come into being.
As a citizen and human being, I need the course to find tools to understand and manage the existence and effects of racism.
As a white anti-racist, the course brings out in me critical constructiveness and solidarity.
A teacher I once had said that the absence of knowledge can be life-threatening, and this undoubtedly applies to the lack of knowledge about the mechanisms of racism. In the spring semester of 2024, 150 people enrolled in Hübinette’s course. This may partly be at the urging of Christian Peterson for more right-wing people to enroll in the course and sabotage it, but it surely also includes individuals who understand the importance of the course and the subject.
To those who follow his urging, I wish you an early welcome! Here you get close to facts and read literature about xenophobia, antisemitism, institutionalized racism, privilege, everyday racism, structural racism, Islamophobia, racism against indigenous people, and intersectionality. If your participation is based on a denial of science, it might be good if you prepare your counterarguments; we are happy to respond with facts.
We will always be more, us who believe in equality and justice.
Written by Alice Wästberg.
Cover photo by Merle Emrich.