"They demand white submission" racism in Swedish media

June 19, 2020

 

Since George Floyd was brutally killed by police on the 25th of May, solidarity protests have erupted around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In Sweden, major protests were organized in the three largest cities Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö, bringing together thousands of people. The organizers and participants faced harsh critique from different sides. A lot of it was related to the corona crisis that is still spreading fast in Sweden. As a prevention measure, gatherings of more than 50 people are not allowed but it was clear from the beginning that much more participants would show up for the protests. Another oft-repeated argument was that Swedes have no reason to protest against anti-black police violence in the U.S., let alone in their own country.

 

Both in Stockholm and Gothenburg, things escalated. In Stockholm, there were violent clashes between demonstrators and the police, in Gothenburg, a bunch of people smashed windows in the aftermath of the demonstration. None of the major newspapers made a serious attempt to reveal the motivation behind the actual demonstration, or ran a story about anti-blackness in a Swedish context. The focus in Gothenburg lay almost exclusively on the “criminals from the suburbs”, as well as "the hero of the day", a black man who showed amazing civil courage and helped to de-escalate the situation.

 

So far, so typical – I have been to many protests in my life, so I am familiar with the angle that the mainstream discourse usually takes as soon as any sort of disturbance occurs. But one piece I came across infuriated me. It was the editorial of Svenska Dagbladet, a conservative newspaper that I read regularly due to its journalistic qualities (compared to Germany, the media landscape here is quite dire) – and to avoid getting stuck in my own social-media echo chamber. I couldn’t believe that one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers had chosen this as their lead article, and I simply couldn’t let it pass without protest. So here are excerpts of the original article (translated into English) and my attempts to unpack its flawed arguments.

 

No society can truly be free, as long as its non-white citizens are subjected to racism, exclusion, and violence.

 

They demand white submission

The white police officers kneel down in front of a black woman and wash her feet. Carefully, very carefully. A white woman speaks into a megaphone: “We do this to atone for all the crimes white people have committed”. […] The police kneels down. The mayor kneels down. Everyone is supposed to kneel down.

 

Like a red thread, the topic of white people kneeling in front of black people is woven through the entire text. Though it is only a little longer than one page if transferred to a Microsoft Word document, the words “kneel down” and “on their knees” appear ten times; additionally, the author mentions repeatedly how white cops are being forced to wash and kiss black people’s feet. To him, that is both the epitome of the current situation and his personal nightmare – that much is clear after reading the first paragraph alone.

 

What he fails to mention is the origin of that gesture. In the context of the Black-Lives-Matter movement, kneeling is not an act of religious or submissive surrender (he calls it a “strange revivalism”) but a sign of protest against racism and police brutality. In 2016, players of the National Football League in the U.S. started refusing to participate in the public rituals of American patriotism. Instead of standing straight and placing their right hand on their heart during the national anthem, they went down on one knee – a peaceful but extremely powerful gesture. Another layer of meaning was added by the way George Floyd was murdered – it was a white cop who knelt on his neck until he stopped breathing. By going down on one knee, protestors around the world pay tribute to George Floyd and all the other black people who have been killed by the police. They show solidarity with the struggle and mission of the BLM movement in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Oslo, 12,000 black, brown, and white people knelt side by side in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds – that was the time it took to kill George Floyd. It wasn’t an act of submission. It was a gesture to show respect, solidarity, and support, to acknowledge that our racist societies literally erase Black lives, and that white people, if they choose to ignore this, give their silent consent to this violence. To use the words of Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor".

 

 

 

[…] Which means that white people must give unconditional support to the BLM movement – or they are complicit in deadly violence against blacks.

 

Yes, white people should give unconditional support to the BLM movement – no society can truly be free as long as its non-white citizens are subjected to racism, exclusion, and violence. Black U.S. Americans have fought for their freedom for hundreds of years and it is usually white people in positions of power (which is both cause for and result of structural racism) – politicians, judges, cops, business owners – who deny them rights and chances that most white Americans can take for granted. Whether the latter are actively racist or passively antiracist, they have failed to speak up and take a stance against these injustices again and again. It reminds me of post-WWII Germany when everyone was wondering – where are all the Nazis? Suddenly, there was only “normal” people, good citizens who hadn’t known, or hadn’t known better, and chosen to go about their lives while Jews were literally being exterminated.

 

It is also worth taking a moment to think about what “unconditional support” means. To me, it does not imply that I approve of every single thing that happens during the protests. But I do not get to decide what is right and what is wrong. It simply doesn’t matter. I can’t expect the demonstrators to protest the same way I do: walk nicely down the street, chant some slogans, and then go home again, thankful for a peaceful protest. I don’t belong to a race that has faced worldwide exclusion and violence for hundreds of years, so obviously I am not going to smash windows and throw bottles. I don’t hate cops – but I don’t have to worry that my 12-year old son might be shot by one of them at any moment. White people tend to apply their moral standards to the protests, judging them based on their own reality, when in fact they aren’t and won’t ever be able to grasp what it means to be black in a society dominated by white people. Loving or supporting someone unconditionally means to be there, to show up, to respect and embrace the other person, for all their flaws and errors. It means letting go of the expectation for them to be as you want them to be, and instead allowing them to strive for freedom and growth in their very own way.

 

As most white people have chosen to largely ignore questions of racial inequality, they need to be educated indeed.

 

A white person does not have the right to have their own opinion but instead must be “educated”. No discussion is possible, no conversation between equals.

 

A white person does absolutely have the right to their own opinion. Unfortunately, everyone who claims the opposite nowadays is very likely to have misogynist, racist or anti-democratic views.  The way the author phrases this indicates that having an own opinion as a white person automatically means disapproval by people of color, when in fact, white opinions are only criticized when they dismiss or ignore non-white reality. “A white person”, in this case thus means, “I”.

 

As most white people have chosen to largely ignore questions of racial inequality, they need to be educated indeed. If someone still hasn’t understood why saying the N-word or blackfacing are deeply problematic actions, someone should explain it to them. And, coming back to my previous point, since black voices tend to be disregarded and dismissed, it is important that they have white allies who speak up on their behalf. What is more, many people live in their own bubble and it is very likely that they never even speak to someone who is black – so who is supposed to explain racism and challenge their own behavior if not another white person?

 

Now to the accusation that there is no discussion possible. Yes, we live in highly charged times and if you publicly speak out on questions of race and gender, you will most likely face harsh criticism from different sides. That is simply the nature of social media. 4.57 billion people use the internet, so there is never going to be any consensus. However, I wonder if the author has previously engaged with BLM activists in a personal discussion or conversation. Because these, in my experience, tend to be both more complex and more accessible than online interactions. And also more kind. Would it not have been a great opportunity to interview a black activist, explore a different reality, and get insight into black lives in Sweden? Is it not that kind of radical curiosity that distinguishes a good journalist? When the author demands “conversation between equals”, he basically says that anti-racist activists do not see him as an equal but look down on him due to his opinions. Unfortunately, he does exactly the same. I wonder: does he recognize people of color and women (since he wrote a whole book dismissing feminist struggles) as equals? And, as his work indicates that he doesn’t, does it come as a surprise that a “conversation between equals” is impossible?

 

 

Sweden is among the countries worldwide hit hardest by the Corona pandemic and gatherings with more than 50 people are prohibited. And yet, thousands flocked the streets, as in other European cities. Yes, black lives matter, nobody is suggesting otherwise. But did life per se suddenly stop being important – because American police killed a black man?

 

What is life per se? Here, a certain “All-lives-matter” attitude shines through. Yes, black lives matter, but what about us? White lives matter, too! In the U.S., there was a big overlap of white people claiming “All lives matter” – and then participating in mass protests against the pandemic-related restrictions. In Germany, thousands of people gathered during anti-corona demonstrations. It was a curious alliance of right-wing populists, anti-vaccinators, conspiracy theorists, average citizens who criticized the all-too extreme restrictions, and bored people just wanting to have some fun. Why is there no mention of those protests? They deliberately and gleefully ignored social distancing and any other measure to help prevent the spread of COVID19; in contrast, the organizing teams behind many BLM demonstrations in Europe did their best to ensure the safety of the participants. I volunteered at the Gothenburg protest, and I can't possibly count the amount of gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizers we distributed, or how many times we urged people to keep the required distance.

 

However, I want to avoid getting caught up in Whataboutism.  As someone who is quite critical of Sweden’s handling of the pandemic, I do think that it was a very risky decision to organize a mass protest while the corona-related death toll steadily rises. I surely despise the way the author phrases this (nobody suggests that black lives don’t matter? Uhm, you do!). But pointing at other people ignoring the social-distancing rules doesn’t help either because a pandemic is not a tit-for-tat situation.

 

What if the violent riots were indeed part of the protest – though one that was not accepted as such?

 

And then, Gothenburg. Several hundred individuals from the suburbs attacked the police, vandalized shops, and plundered a family’s moving van. The family stood in the staircase and watched helplessly. A protest against police violence that mainly showed that the violence you have to be frightened of comes from the protesters. A group of young girls tried to stop vandals from tearing out cobble stones close to Gustav Adolfs Torg and was physically abused.

 

Now we are getting to the central reason behind the recent debate in Sweden. It is worth mentioning that "suburbs" obviously doesn't refer to the quiet, residential areas at the fringes of town where mostly white people live in single-family homes and picturesque row houses. Rather, the Swedish word "förorter" is a political correct euphemism for "ghetto". After the official demonstration in Gothenburg, a group of young men from those "förorter" smashed windows, threw bottles, tore out plants and cobble stones, and attacked pretty much everyone who dared to stand in their way. Time and again, it was emphasized that this escalation had nothing to do with the actual demonstration. Both police and media drew a clear line between the events (a fact that the author ignores). This was positive in many regards as it didn’t discredit the protest in itself.

 

However, none of the newspapers bothered to ask why there are so many extremely angry young men from the fringes of town who engage in that sort of destruction and vandalism. They were simply dismissed as petty criminals from the suburbs. Nobody dared to take up the uncomfortable question why Swedish cities are amongst the most racially segregated in Europe, or why many young men, despite the progressive and liberal Swedish welfare society, are so enraged. Could it be, I wonder, that the violent riots were indeed part of the protest – though one that was not accepted as such? Why else did these men riot in the aftermath of a Black-Lives-Matter demonstration – and not after a climate march or simply during a weekend night? Perhaps they did have a message, depoliticized yet thoroughly political, wrapped in layers of aggression and destructive frenzy. What if they showed the most ugly face of a city where nearly 30% of the population are foreign-born but 40% vote for xenophobic parties?

 

Again, no one has to approve of these actions; I don't think it is right to beat up bystanders or plunder a private moving van. But to simply dismiss them as riots of criminal youths does not do anything to address the underlying issues, issues that all major Swedish cities struggle with. It is not enough to only shed light on the what. The most urgent question, the one that everyone should engage with, is the why. Not the bigoted why of the 40% - a concerned, kind-hearted why, one that does not view large parts of the population as inferior human beings.

 

During the BLM protest in Malmö, a guy with an immigrant background was interviewed by SVT. What do you want to achieve with this, the reporter asked. “I want to be free” was the answer. It is a direct import of American thought.

 

“I want to be free” is one of the most beautiful reasons to protest, I think. It’s not fair though to ask a random, anonymous “guy with an immigrant background” to spontaneously explain his personal motivation for joining the BLM protest. Neither is it good journalistic practice (though I haven’t seen the clip the author refers to, so that I can’t tell if it was SVT’s responsibility or his’).

 

In the wake of the recent protests, there has been a lively discussion to what extent American ideas can be transferred to a European context. I find the question extremely relevant; in my opinion, American discourses and narratives (and memes) indeed have a disproportional impact on left discourses in Europe, despite huge social, political, and historical differences. In this case, however, it is inappropriate to dismiss the European BLM protests on the grounds that one can’t just import American ideas, or compare the situation of black people in the States to the reality of black people in Europe. It is the easy way out, an excuse to evade critical srcutiny of racism and anti-blackness on our own doorstep.

 

In Sweden, the public opinion sees Swedish police as a highly trustworthy and transparent institution and rejects any accusation of race-based violence or discrimination. And yes – here, the average number of people killed by the police each year is 1 (compared to >1500 in the U.S.). I witnessed during the BLM protest how a group of neonazis tried to infiltrate the demonstration and was immediately confronted and removed by the police, which made me immensly grateful for their presence. But this doesn’t mean that Swedish police are generally immune to racism. Unfortunately, this debate gets pushed aside by the one-sided media coverage and undifferentiated comparisons to the conditions in the U.S. Nuanced discussions are often hampered by a distinct Swedish arrogance that I have noticed time and again, derived from being one of the most progressive states in the world. But we are Sweden, the thinking goes, we don’t have these problems here. Frequently, that attitude is combined with the silencing of critical voices – only the dumbest people (mainly women, immigrants, activists) could possibly complain about their condition instead of being grateful to live in this amazing country. It seems difficult to imagine that even the most critical individuals are indeed very thankful and appreciative for their life in Sweden. But just because a country is doing great in many regards - does that mean that everyone must be complacent?

 

“I want to be free” refers to freedom in a different sense: free from racism, free from exclusion, free from violence.

 

As if being taken on a slave ship to the US in the 17th century was the same thing as receiving right of residency in Sweden 300 years later. As if forced labor on a cotton plantation was the same thing as being allowed to be part of a generous welfare state without having to give anything in return.

 

Interestingly, the author does not compare Sweden to the U.S. in 2020 – but draws comparisons between immigrants today and African slaves 300 years ago. The way he juxtaposes the statements gives the impression that a non-white BLM protestor in Sweden would claim the same heritage as a black U.S. American, and, to take it even further, even compare their situation to the life of African slaves. But no one is doing that. “I want to be free” refers to freedom in a different sense: free from racism, free from exclusion, free from violence. And I’d be interested to know what kind of consideration he expects from refugees and other immigrants. Forced labor on Swedish potato fields perhaps?

 

The thought that white people bear a unique guilt is not only dangerous – it is also historically false. These countries many immigrants come from to Europe have had slaves over a longer period of time, treated black people worse and ended slavery more recently. In fact, white people were taken as slaves to North Africa and the Middle East over hundreds of years, well into the 1800s. If it hadn’t been for the military pressure of countries like the US and Great Britain, these countries would not have stopped. White people have been on both sides of history. If that is not recognized, historiography becomes fraudulent.

 

Honestly, I don’t know what to say to this. So I actually won’t say anything. All the other arguments seem worth a discussion, but this paragraph is so full of ignorance that I won’t even bother.

 

Protesting against racism, against police violence, and for equality is right. Nobody who watched the video of George Floyd`s death will deny that it was horrible. But the protests are no longer about that, nor about equality. As if being white is a birth defect that can never be washed away. It is not equality that is strived for but submission. The most suitable term for this attitude is racism.

 

Again, it is too easy to "externalize" the problem, to acknowledge that racism in America is real whereas racism in Europe does not exist. It is equally problematic to separate George Floyd's death as a disturbing incident but reject the existence of systemic racism that lies beneath it.

 

The author must have a very particular notion of what racism, police violence, and equality actually are. And apparently, he has spoken to lots of BLM demonstrators out in the streets. How could he otherwise be so sure of what the protests are about? It seems strange to me that a person who is entirely unaffected by everything that black people protest against has such strong opinions on their actions and motifs. Would his life deteriorate in any sense if there was more racial equality - not his interpretation of it, but the sort of equality that the BLM movement demands? The only thing I could think of is that his opinions would count less and be challenged more. But I suppose that alone is enough to feel deeply threatened.

 

Being white is not a birth defect but it can indeed never be washed away.The same goes for history and the way that white people have shaped it. Every white person bears a part of that history, and though that is by no means a defect, it is, for sure, a heritage that comes with responsibilities. You can't erase the injustices of the past but you can help to make sure they don't continue into the present and future, you can fight for being on the right side of history this time. The author speaks self-righteously about his support for political protests, however, he fails to acknowledge that white people still hold disproportional amounts of power. It only takes a look at the world's most powerful institutions and richest people. Or at Sweden's political and economic landscape. Racism is not only an inidividual act or attitude, it is embedded in these large-scale structures in which white people get to decide about the lives of everyone else. White people can be object to racial prejudice and even to race-based violence but not to racism - that would neglect the power dynamics these actions are embedded in. If people of color, and black people in particular, demand respect, rights, justice, it feels wrong to many white people - but that is only because they are used to the status quo. A status quo that allows a high-ranking newspaper in one of the most progressive countries in the world to publish this sort of piece, and to get away with it, largely unchallenged.

 

 

 

 

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