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Tobias Hübinette on why the concept of race is a loaded word in Sweden
Tobias is associate professor in intercultural pedagogy at Karlstad University and teaches and researches issues of race and whiteness. He is current with the book "Den svenska färgblindheten" and has also fact-checked our new translated book "Min färg, din färg" which deals with racism and anti-racism and which uses the concept of race as a way to approach racism. But the word race is a loaded word in Sweden and we have asked Tobias to give his view on why that is so. He believes that Sweden still has an old idea about the concept of race, while in English-speaking countries the word nowadays has a different meaning. He believes in the same way as the author Laura Henry Allain that the word race in the new meaning is needed to access and change racism.
Why is the word race loaded and why do you think it's important to talk about?
There are many indications that questions about race, including the word itself, are much more charged in Sweden than in other countries on earth. This is something that I myself have come across for many years and in many contexts in the capacity of both teaching and researching issues of race and whiteness in relation to Sweden, the Swedes and Swedishness.
This displeasure and this resistance probably has to do with the fact that during large parts of the 20th century Sweden was almost completely obsessed with race and was internationally regarded as a leading nation in terms of both racial biological research and racial hygiene application. Our times' strong aversion to issues of race and to the word itself comes simply from a desire to leave the Sweden of the 20th century behind us as soon as possible.
This is what I arrive at in my book "Den svenska färgblindheten" which I wrote when I wanted to get to the bottom of when, how and why the resistance to talking about race arose in the late 20th century and which reached its climax in 2000 century in that the word race itself was removed from all legal texts and all public text production through a Riksdag and government decision.
The book Min farg, din farg is written by an author and illustrator who themselves are exposed to racism and who believe that we must talk about race to get to grips with racism. You have helped adapt the book to a Swedish context. Was it difficult? How differently do we talk about racism in Sweden and England?
It was a challenge to adapt the text to a Swedish-speaking context because the English-speaking world, including the British, generally has no problem whatsoever with talking about race. In short, we Swedish-speakers talk about race in the form of paraphrases ("immigrants", "ethnic Swedes", etc.), while people in the UK talk about these issues in a more explicit way.
The author in the book talks about race as a way of grouping people based on, for example, appearance. Is it a different way of thinking about race than we have in Sweden?
In Great Britain, as in the English-speaking world in general, the term race is used today only to talk about people's different appearances and nothing else, which means that it is not about any innate characteristics or "natural" hierarchies . But Swedish-speakers instead associate the word race with racial biology, Nazism, colonialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa and therefore perceive that the person using the word believes in the previous idea that the different racial groups have different innate characteristics and can be hierarchized among themselves.
It is precisely this that causes Swedish speakers to perceive that anyone who just utters the word race must be a racist in the classic sense who believes that certain groups of people have certain specific characteristics depending on how they happen to look and that they are more or less worth than other groups of people based solely on what they happen to look like.
So the concept has changed meaning, but we in Sweden still have the previous idea of what it stood for? Do you think we should adopt this new definition and work as they do in eg England?
Yes, within the Swedish-speaking community, the word race has continued to mean more or less the same as in the 20th century, which means that there is a lock-in as soon as the word is pronounced in Swedish. In England, however, race only refers to the aspect of appearance and that is the meaning that I also put into the word and that I think we need to be able to talk about in Sweden as well in order to be able to address the racism that people suffer solely because of how they happen to look out.
What can it bring to start working with racism at a young age? To use the word race in this new way, as a way of grouping people based on appearance, not characteristics, in today's Sweden?
In light of the fact that Sweden is today one of the most diverse countries in the western world, it is necessary to be able to put into words issues related to race, and not least this applies to children and young people who grow up in the western world's probably most segregated society where people, including children and young people, are treated based on how they look - that is to say that race is also important in Sweden and not only in equally diverse countries such as Great Britain, the USA, France, Belgium or the Netherlands.
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