In Swedish society, there is an immense aversion to talking about race. To be honest, even writing the word “race” as many times as I do in this very text might be irksome for some readers. Often times Swedes will shudder at the very mentioning of racism and colour, as if the words themselves could cause harm. The modern Swede has been taught that race (or as it is sometimes translated, ethnicity) does not matter, that colour does not matter, and that we are all the same. As a result, this colour blindness makes it hard to talk about racially motivated discrimination since “there is no race”. In fact, the Swedish law for discrimination has erased the word “race” and replaces it with the much more conceptual term “ethnicity” – which, in a sense, means that you cannot be discriminated against racially in Sweden because there is no race and therefore no racism. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to refer to statistics regarding racism. So even though the intention is benign, that is, to believe that we are all equal, the action becomes counterproductive since it disables so much of the data needed to present the very real and active racism that exists in Sweden. But there is hope. In the last year or so, global protests and movements such as Black Life Matters have drummed up conversations about racism and discrimination like never before, with shockwaves strong enough to reach Sweden. Politics and debates combating racism grow more and more with each passing day and we have seen an influx in the arts and literature, music, theater, and more, that somehow expresses the need to break free of the chains of a racist past.
As with all evolvements, there are bound to be some hiccups on the way. We as humans cannot agree on everything all the time but on the question of race and privilege, both a delicate and volatile subject, matters tend to get especially problematic. Take for instance Sara Kristoffersson, a professor of design history at Konstfack, who published an article in Dagens Nyheter in early February questioning the “turbulence” of an exhibition space at said university called The White Sea (“Vita havet”)1. Kristoffersson makes a point of listing various forms of protest at Nordic art institutions where students and teachers have expressed discontentment with racist ties to their schools and the consequences of those actions. However, The White Sea, according to Kristoffersson, is not to be associated with racism. The name is simply a name, free of connotations and meaning – its origin has to do with its white walls and plentiful light; it is, as Kristoffersson calls it, a name created by coincidences. Even if it were so, the rest of Kristoffersson’s argument is by no means accidental or without impact. The main case is that yes, the current white norm in so-called Western society 2 is of importance but somehow it does not relate to the matter at hand – The White Sea. Why not? Kristoffersson dodges her own bullets in a way by first stating that colours do carry meaning but that it is a waste of time to argue that this particular exhibition room at Konstfack has anything to do with racism or that the colour white has any racial ties. Articles like this one does very little in terms of contribution. It keeps the conversation on a level where white privilege and colour blindness get preferential treatment and everything else gets slapped with an “identity politics” sticker, as if it were a derogatory term, not to mention belittling the fight for justice, equality and equity.
It is refreshing, then, when the student collective called Brown Island replies to Kristoffersson’s article. Brown Island came into being in 2016 and consists of students from various departments at Konstfack. In their previous projects and exhibitions, they have focused on issues such as structural racism and its visual expression, accessibility, (in)visibility and the homogeneity of Scandinavian art colleges.3 The lack of representation and diversity, according to Brown Island, are obvious questions that they have continually raised within their collegial community. In the archives at Konstfack, says Brown Island in the article, there is evidence of students and teachers portraying blackface and using racial slurs, so the need for processing these shared experiences of racism is dire indeed. I will not go into great detail about Kristoffersson’s response to what I consider to be a mature and solid inquiry of Brown Island. The professor seems adamant about contributing as little as possible to any real debate about whiteness and art, and instead chooses to make futile points, like asking herself (and others, I suppose) if calling the colour white racist means we cannot dream of a white Christmas or listen to The Beatles “White album”. The mind boggles.
To state the obvious, the colour white is, in itself, not racist. It is, however, symbolically charged with a myriad of values that are fundamental for the so-called Western society, and to ignore those (or pretend that they have no impact) is naïve beyond comprehension. The colour white is often associated with purity, light, innocence and peace. Simultaneously, white is the colour of nothing, of emptiness. A blank sheet of paper is white, as is a blank canvas. The whole issue with The White Sea is that Brown Islands asks why the white cube is the preferred room for an exhibition, and why Kristoffersson, in her role as a professor of design history, did not bring that factor into the equation. Brown Island argues that the spaces we inhabit affects us, and that The White Sea is not an empty space deprived of meaning but rather deeply rooted in so-called Western modernism. Jeff Werner and Thomas Björk discuss this very topic, amongst others, in Blond and blue-eyed : whiteness, Swedishness, and visual culture (2014), influenced by Sara Ahmed and bell hooks theory of phenomenology and “how spaces can be analyzed according to how they are associated with class, gender, and race, and just how sticky such conceptions are.”4 Werner and Björk asks “Which bodies does design normalize, and which does it alienate?”, a question I think Kristoffersson needs to ask herself.5 The whole point, which I think Kristoffersson has missed, is not that the colour white is racist, but that The White Sea as such has such racially charged meanings that it would be in the spirit of these modern and anti-racist times to modify it somewhat.
When it comes to whiteness in the so-called West, I suspect there are always going to be different opinions and uncomfortable conversations to be had. First and foremost, for many, whiteness as a concept is yet to have any real or concrete definition. In White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness (1993) by Ruth Frankenberg, whiteness is described as sort of privileged racial standpoint that “refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.”6 Whiteness consists of something invisible, unmarked, and yet it is everywhere. Visual art is not excluded from perpetuating whiteness, as in evident in Richard Dyer’s White (2017), a book that studies “the racial imagery of white people” and the representation of whiteness in the visual culture of the so-called West.7 Whiteness is all around us, in the invisible structures that allow certain voices to shout louder than others, in the way privilege gets handed out to a lucky few whilst others are denied it. It is hidden in the dichotomy of so-called Western mentality where we pit one thing against each other in polar opposites: White for light, happiness and purity; black for darkness, gloom and filth, and so on. Say what you want about it, but the truth is that colours contain meaning because we make it so, and whether it is a conscious choice or not we still maintain it. Fitting, then, that the student collective named itself Brown Island, swimming in a white sea. That name carries meaning too.
The debate about Konstfack, racism and whiteness could be a lot more fruitful and productive if it were kept to the issue at hand by the people involved, by recognising that certain aspects and practices of the past are out of date and need revising. We need to move beyond this urge to clings to names and traditions of the past and that claims that those things are more important than the people who deal with them. More importantly, we cannot to let conversations about racism and whiteness get hijacked by people who have no idea what they are talking about or who speak out of ignorance. A person I marked as white once asked me “What, am I not allowed to have an opinion just because I’m white?” and this strange utterance is a perfect example of the white noise that I have learned to tune out. The question unmasks the privilege and ignorance that, as I have mentioned before, does little to contribute to any real conversation about race and therefore I shall not waste my time with it. I hope the debate about Konstfack leads to a better future, that there can be discussions about the impacts of white normativity and colour blindness, and that the collective of Brown Island can make real change in cooperation with the university to which it belongs. One can always hope.
(1) https://www.dn.se/kultur/sara-kristoffersson-nej-vita-havet-pa-konstfack-har-inget-med-rasism-att-gora/ (read on 2021-02-25).
(2) Picking up from fellow critical whiteness researchers have left off, I question the use of naming parts of the world according to where the center is, e.g., in this case Greenwich, London. That is why I write “so-called” Western society. This is not the time nor place to discuss such ontological and epistemological topics, but it does have a correlation to my text. For the time being, I will use the term stated above.
(3) https://www.dn.se/kultur/brown-island-sara-kristoffersson-avfardar-en-komplex-dialog-som-fors-pa-konstfack/ (read on 2021-02-25).
(4) Werner, Jeff & Björk, Tomas, Blond och blåögd: vithet, svenskhet och visuell kultur = Blond and blue-eyed : whiteness, Swedishness, and visual culture, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Göteborg, 2014, p. 183.
(6) Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters. The Social Construction of Whiteness, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 1.
(7) Richard Dyer, White, New York: Routledge, 2017, p. 1.
Hanna Skoglar - FEB 2021
The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.
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