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Black and Swedish: Racialization and the Cultural Politics of Belonging in Stockholm

Lena Sawyer





My 2000 Ph.D dissertation, Black and Swedish: Racialization and the Cultural Politics of Belonging in Stockholm, focused on construction blackness among differently positioned Swedes of African ancestry living in Stockholm during the mid 1990s. The project had three findings: 1) The existence of specific under-recognized “routings” of racial meanings about Africa and Africans into Sweden (for example those tracked through children’s books, development and missionary discourse, and later television and radio). The presence of these images are then used to re-write Sweden into an Atlantic history where I argue that Africa and Africans have been an important “Other” employed in envisioning modern Swedish identities,

2) Hegemonic national stories of Swedish “exceptionalism” in regards to European racism, as well as the linkage of Swedishness with anti-racism and solidarity, have presented an obstacle for contemporary discussions of racism and racialized identities in Sweden, and that different tellings of national history lie at the center of much of these debates. 3) That Swedes of African ancestry are forced in the everyday to negotiate hegemonic meanings that link Swedishness with whiteness and that thus challenge their belonging. 4) For many Swedes of African ancestry African diasporic belonging and writing oneself into a transnational community of persons of African ancestry is one way to negotiate Swedish racism and challenges of non-belonging. 5) Their strategies point to the plurality, as well as hierarchy, within African diasporic communities. For example some communities “routes” link to specific national and ethnic communities (for example, Gambia), while other communities are formed through “routings” that lead to Black America, and still other communities create belonging that include other non-white immigrants and is based on experiences of exclusion in the Swedish society.

6) A final chapter deals with race and globalization in the marketing and consuming of African cultural productions, in this case, African dance courses in Stockholm. Here I look at how post-colonial discourses are negotiated and reproduced in discussions of authenticity by white women dancers and black dance instructors in these spaces.

My new research interests on African diaspora include two specific diasporic community formations. The first project is interested in transnational welfare networks between Sweden and the Gambia. This is a diasporic community that has been directly formed by the Swedish tourist industry’s establishment in The Gambia in the 1980’s. While initially migration to Sweden consisted of mostly young Gambian men, today almost half of the Gambians in Sweden are women. Migration from the Gambia to Sweden can be understood as a result of the development of particular unequal economic relations, and thus the Swedish tourist industry in the Gambia (Combo area) can be understood as a having created a specific and gendered ”contact zone” of globalization. As a result of this particular history, Gambians are today the fourth largest group of Africans in Sweden and there is considerable economic and symbolic traffic between these spaces. I am interested in understanding these transnational networks as an informal social security system that strategically negotiates the unequal power relations created via globalization. As the possibility of migration is increasingly seen as a key strategy for household enrichment, I am interested in understanding how gender relations are negotiated, for example preliminary research has been carried out in the Gambia, with men and women in their 20s living in the tourist area, about their understandings of migration and thoughts about what life is like for Gambians abroad.

A second research interest is on the African American diaspora in Sweden. In particular I am interested in conducting oral histories with the generation (mostly men, but also women), who migrated to Sweden in the 1950s-70s as part of the European jazz musician circuit, were war resisters, artists, or migrated through marriage. While it is unclear how many people came during this period (since statistics do not count Americans by 'race'), and some of these persons have moved back to the US or passed away, I know of a handful of persons from this generation who have lived in Sweden for over 30 years and are now in their 60s. As part of a documentary project that has ramifications for Afro Swedish generations to come, I believe that this group of elders has important specific experiences and knowledge that needs to be documented and archived. How did they come to Sweden and what have their experiences here been? What was the scene like in the 1960s in Sweden and how were they welcomed by the Swedish society as an African American man/woman? What has it been like during different Swedish economic and political periods, for example in the 1990s with the arrival of larger communities of peoples of African ancestry (Somalians, Congolese, Gambians etc)? How have their experiences and understandings of segregation in the United States (as they all grew up in the US during that period) informed their understanding of race relations and racism in Sweden? I have also started conducting preparatory research on this project in collaboration and discussion with a key elder.

Both of these new research interests are currently unfunded and conducted in the moments of free time and energy I have on the side my full time work responsibilities as a faculty member. These projects are labours of love one could say- and while the project on Gambian transnational welfare is currently on the backburner (due to time) the project on African Americans has taken precedence. Some of these elders are now passing away and I have become convinced that it is important to document their knowledge of, and contributions to, the Swedish society and write them into Swedish history.

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