Posted on November 18, 2020

Black Lives Matter Is Challenging Sweden’s Myth of a Post-Racial Paradise

Nikita Ramkissoon, Daily Beast, November 15, 2020

It’s been four months since anti-racism protests filled Europe’s boulevards and parks, toppling statues of enslavers and colonizers like Edward Colston and Belgium’s King Leopold II, and prompting larger conversations around anti-Blackness on the continent. But even as the swells of crowds with raised fists have left the streets, the cause of the protests remains. {snip}

In Ireland, that means shifting focus onto the need to dismantle Direct Provision. France has been grappling with not only police brutality towards Black and Muslim people but attitudes toward minorities from France’s former colonies in Africa and ideas on colonialism in general, including questions of returning stolen artifacts to former colonies. And in Sweden— which has traditionally seen itself as a post-racial paradise—the first step is getting the country to admit to its own racist structures, past and present.

Since protests spread across Sweden in early June, ugly truths about its racialized history have been seeping into public spaces. Despite the country being considered one of the least racist in the world, police biases and Afrophobia are rife, and Sweden’s past involvement with the cross-Atlantic slave trade and racist pseudo-science is ignored or erased.

{snip} Nontokozo Tshabalala and Aron Zahran, activists and mobilizers from the BLM protest in Gothenburg, say the first step is to get Swedish society to acknowledge that there is a racism problem in the country, which they say the white population loves to ignore.


Sweden, long considered a socialist utopia and a bastion of human rights by the global left, is not post-racial—nor does it have a compassionate police force. Historically, the country participated in the processes that have come to define racist systems all over the world: Sweden’s Caribbean colony of Saint Barthélemy (now the French overseas territory of St. Barth) was active with slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scandinavian involvement in the slave trade is often overlooked but Sweden was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, a full 14 years after the U.K. The country’s colonization of the Caribbean island is still taught in its schools as a practice in benevolent leadership.

The country was also a cradle for the pseudoscience of race biology, with Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus being the first scientist to divide people into biologically-defined races—definitions that were meant to justify the discrimination of people of color around the world for centuries. Scientific racism played a large role in the definitions cited by South Africa’s former government to set up the system of apartheid, which has since been deemed a crime against humanity. Linnaeus, known in Sweden as the father of taxonomy, is celebrated all over the country but there have been calls to remove his statues, calling him the father of racial division. However, many Swedes see this as an affront to the country’s heritage and protected the statue in Stockholm from possible vandalism earlier this year.

The Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology in Uppsala continued to take a leading role in research dealing with racial eugenics well into the 1930s and facilitated the implementation of forced sterilization laws, which pertained to certain groups of people with “unwanted” genes, such as people of mixed race, the Swedish Romani population, and the indigenous Sámi people. The aim was to prevent “ethnically inferior inhabitants” from having children. This research paved the way for the Nazi party’s 1933 Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases, eradicating those seen as lacking “racial hygiene.” These laws were only completely abolished in the 1970s, despite the practice of sterilization being universally declared criminal and barbaric after the 1946 Nuremberg Trials.


Although few modern Swedes are descendants of enslaved people, over one-quarter of all Swedish citizens have heritage from outside Scandinavia, including approximately 350,000 Afro-Swedes, most of whom arrived in the past 50 years. “If you are a first-generation Swede, with your parents having been born elsewhere, it’s the same as having Finnish or Norwegian parents—but they are seen as citizens, whereas Black Swedes are always, no matter whether we are born here, seen as foreign,” says Zahran. {snip}


The BLM movement in Sweden is not just asking to reform the police, but also for a redistribution of resources, to invest in communities overlooked by white politicians and a society run by and for white people. Eradicating ignorance is the only way to get there. “Advertising and creative industries need to change perceptions about Black people. We need Black faces, Black voices, and Black representation,” says Tshabalala. “And we need to keep BLM on the agenda. We can’t wait for the next person to become a statistic. We don’t want someone to die to have to move the fight forward.”

Zahran says the fact that Sweden has an equality minister who is getting involved with the movement is a positive step forward, but there’s still such a long way to go. While corporations are falling over themselves to be “BLM friendly,” the movement is still busy with the groundwork in education and awareness. “We need to target industry and the consumer culture because Sweden is so consumer-driven. Whiteness in these spaces keeps the status quo,” says Tshabalala. “We also need to get more representation in NGO and human rights spaces, because we can’t have white people heading up foundations aimed at Black empowerment.”