Blackface has made yet another appearance in Sweden. At a gay pride festival in Stockholm, there was one woman who painted herself tar black, and as a couple wearing costumes of a naked African man and woman (FYI: the pictures are slightly NSFW). Many people have become upset at these seemingly racist costumes, and some have even pressed charges.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Just last year, Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth created a storm of controversy after photos were released of her cutting a cake depicting a black woman. In the photos, other jubilant partygoers surround Liljeroth as she gleefully cut into the cake’s genital region.
In another incident, a Swedish club hired a white actress to portray famed black singer Josephine Baker because it supposedly could not find a black actress.
So what’s up with the cultural insensitivity in Sweden? Shouldn’t they have learned by now? Perhaps not. One must consider that given its history, Sweden does not have the same experience with issues surrounding race that a place like the United States has. Sweden’s history has not been colored by 200 years of slavery, and the country has not been a prime destination for millions of immigrants throughout the 20th century. Sweden has never been a “melting pot” where many different races have had to coexist together. On the contrary, with 89.3% of the population identifying as Swedish, it is one of the most ethnically and racially homogeneous countries on earth.
Given this, one can assume that these racist acts that have come out of Sweden are based more on ignorance than malice. Still, a lack of experience and knowledge about racial issues does not give one license to act in a way that is racist. Just because you don’t know why something is wrong doesn’t mean you can do the wrong thing anyway. But giving the good people of Sweden the benefit of the doubt and assuming they don’t know why blackface is wrong, I will try to lay out for them why it is:
Blackface is generally known as the act of a non-black person dressing up as a black person with the intent of playing up stereotypes, or otherwise misinterpreting and making light of some aspect of black people, culture, or both. This does not happen exclusively with black culture, but can happen when a person makes fun of any minority group by using stereotypes about that culture to generate comedy. (See: yellowface, brownface, Jewface, etc.) Aside from the fact that blackface is steeped in a history of overt racism and has helped to perpetuate it, it is problematic because of the demeaning message it sends. By relegating black bodies and culture to the realm of comedy and frivolity, blackface invalidates and objectifies those things. It says to black people: “The way you look and the way you act are not valid interpretations of humanity, but are simply there for my entertainment; I laugh at your differences from me.” So when a man and woman in Sweden paint their faces and wear costumes of black people with exaggerated genitalia, they objectify and dehumanize those black bodies, putting them on par with a sports mascot — something to get a laugh, something to be entertained by, but not something to be taken seriously.
I doubt this couple considered all of these implications of their costumes when they bought them. But their ignorance does not change the fact that their costumes were offensive, not only to their fellow countrymen (because yes, black Swedes do exist) but to anyone who values human life and dignity.
But the best way prevent yet another incident like this from happening in Sweden or anywhere else is through education. In the words of Dr. Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.” Ignorance and racism thrive off of one another. But when people become educated about histories and cultures different from their own, they have the power to destroy both.