Racism in the Nordic countries

Despite the fact that the Nordic countries were champions of racial equality in apartheid South Africa, and have always been quick to condemn racist transgressions elsewhere, racial prejudices are still practised among their own populations.

2019.02.11 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The cover of 'Racialization, Racism and Anti-Racism in the Nordic Countries', a recent book edited by Peter Hervik.

There is no general agreement over the definition of racism: some see all kinds of ethnic discrimination as racism, while others reserve the term for discrimination based on phenotype (inherited, group-specific aspects of physical appearance). Nevertheless, the boundary can be fuzzy since ethnic identities and ascriptions are based on kinship and assumed origins, thereby approaching the scientifically obsolete concept of race.

Racism in history

Racial discrimination and prejudice has been common in the Nordic countries, like in the rest of Western Europe, at least since the 18th century. Domestic minorities like Sami and Roma were considered to be of inferior stock and treated accordingly. Dano-Norwegian ships took active part in the transatlantic slave trade, and both Denmark and Sweden had tropical colonies in Africa and the West Indies where Africans were treated ruthlessly. The standard prejudices of the day are also evident in most of the memoirs and travel writing published by missionaries and itinerant travellers throughout most of the 20th century. As late as the 1930s, many tatere, travelling people of partly Roma descent, were sterilised in Sweden and Norway because they were considered to be of irredeemably bad character. There were scarcely any black people in the region, but racist attitudes towards visiting American jazz musicians were evident in the press. Anti-semitism, on the contrary, seems to have been weaker in the Nordic nations than in many other European countries, and both Sweden and Denmark had sizeable Jewish communities before the Second World War – Sweden, where many fled to avoid German occupation, still does.

When the full extent of the horrors of Nazi racist extermination became known in 1945, official attitudes to race and racial differences changed, and racial prejudice became uncommon in public debate and almost vanished overtly from politics. Until the recent rise of right-wing populist politics, contemporary racism in the Nordic countries thus found its expression chiefly in two very different ways: through extremist groups, and in casual everyday situations.

Militant right-wing groups

Militant right-wing groups basing their existence on unabashed racist ideology and antagonistic attitudes towards non-white immigrants have been active and visible in Nordic since the 1980s. Especially in Sweden, where the organisation Vitt ariskt motstånd (VAM, 'White Aryan Resistance') and its successor groups have frequently engaged in violence and spread fear among immigrants, and violent racist attacks have for periods been a major social issue. Annual marches to the tomb of Charles XII, wrongly seen as an early exponent of racist views (in fact, he was an admirer of the Turkish civilization), recruit hundreds of right-wing skinheads and neo-Nazis from all over the region, but the movement is particularly strong in Sweden and Norway. In Norway, Denmark and Sweden, attacks against individual immigrant families and asylum detention centres have occurred. Using symbols similar – sometimes identical – to Nazi symbols, sometimes claiming allegiance to the Norse gods, and furnished with their own brand of music, these groups have had a fairly substantial following among working-class youth. However, this kind of racist activity seems to have abated in the first decade of the 21st century, although it may of course still reappear.

Racism in everyday life

Everyday racism is less easy to identify, define and combat. It occurs when someone is treated differently based on physical appearance; whenever skin colour becomes a marked identity trait depriving the person in question of equal treatment. Its existence has nevertheless been demonstrated in the housing market, in the labour market and in the public sphere, where cases of 'restaurant racism' – black people being denied access to nightclubs and bars – are occasionally disclosed. There have also been many accusations of racist behaviour in the police, e.g. when black youths are repeatedly stopped on the street and asked to identify themselves and explain their whereabouts. The actual extent of this kind of practice is unknown. Although all Nordic countries have legislation against racism, it continues to exist in everyday practices. For example, a newspaper debate in Norway in 2000 seemed to indicate that most Norwegians found the term “Negro” perfectly acceptable as a way of describing any person of African origin, regardless of geographic provenance or other characteristics.

Changing depictions of the ‘other’

A moot point concerns the relationship between discrimination based on skin colour and cultural or ethnic discrimination. Since the late 1980s, the 'other' in Nordic public life has increasingly been 'the Muslim'. This raises the difficult question of whether prejudices against and discrimination of people with a different religion, regardless of their appearance (they can be Bosnian as well as Somali), should be counted as racism, or whether the term should be reserved for people with inherited physical traits marking them off from the majority. The practices associated with racism nevertheless continue to live on through cultural and religious idioms, as has been witnessed increasingly in the 2010s through the ascent of political parties and movements, which express openly hostile views of Islam and, by extension, Muslims.

It remains a fact, nonetheless, that despite the fact that the Nordic countries were champions of racial equality in apartheid South Africa, and have always been quick to condemn racist transgressions elsewhere, racial prejudices are still practised among their own populations.

Further reading:

  • Mathias Gardell, Islamofobi (Stockholm: Leopard, 2010)
  • Sindre Bangstad and Cora Alex Døving, Hva er rasisme? [What is racism?] (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2015)