Colour blind gender studies

2010-10-05 In a large part of the world, not only race but also ‘whiteness’ as an explicit category is an integrated part of gender studies. In Scandinavia, however, we prefer to talk about ethnicity, whereas race is never mentioned, and whiteness only implicitly so.

– All of Sweden is like a sea of whiteness, says Anna Lundberg, one of the two editors behind the most recent issue of Tidskrift för genusvetenskap (Journal of Gender Studies, aka TGV) which deals with ‘Whiteness’.

In their editorial, the editors note that turning critical whiteness analysis into the continuously present part of gender studies that it ought to be has been a slow process.

– Critical whiteness studies are important for our understanding of how the world is structured, and what opportunities different people have. In the journal Mana that put out a special issue on whiteness in 2007, it says that while colonialism created the power structure, the ideology of whiteness is what maintains it. Whiteness is power which needs to be scrutinised and problematised, Lundberg states.

Sociologist at the Umeå University Catrin Lundström, featured in the special issue, elaborates.

– Whiteness studies, or critical whiteness studies, contribute to focusing on the normative which would otherwise pass as invisible. This means that we avoid a disconnection from ethnicity; something that white people don’t seem to have. Critical whiteness studies contribute to making the structures that shape the deviant visible, i.e. that which differs from what is white.

White middle-class women

Whiteness studies are a North American import. They were launched in the early 80s in the U.S. and gained recognition as an academic field during the 90s. The term ‘critical whiteness studies’ implies the study of whiteness as an ideology, as a historical and social construction, taking as their point of departure the privileges and power relations that characterise and maintain the category ‘white’ and those who are defined as white. According to Lundström, studying whiteness is not at all reserved for gender theorists. Given the history of the concept, however, it seems natural that gender studies in particular have approached whiteness studies.

– The history of a critique of hegemonic whiteness and the white middle-class woman having been propagated as universal is now turning whiteness studies into an integral part of gender studies, she claims.

Apart from a translation of a central text within the field of ‘critical whiteness studies’, namely Sarah Ahmed’s A phenomenology of whiteness, the special issue of the TGV is written by Swedish scholars and authors. Katarina Mattsson, one of the most prominent scholars within the field of critical whiteness studies in Sweden, writes in her text that this issue of the TGV in itself is a manifestation of an increased interest in the field. In Denmark, the journal Kvinder, Køn og Forskning (Women, Gender and Research) ran a special issue on whiteness in 2008 (no. 4). In their introduction, the editors note that the number of Danish studies focusing on whiteness is sparse, but apparently the body of work suffices for an entire issue. In Norway, however, a special issue on whiteness still seems to be far away.

Silent and embarrassed

– Only little research exists in a Norwegian context, states Berit Gullikstad of the NTNU Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research when asked about the prevalence of critical whiteness studies in Norway.

– But up until the past five to six years, gender and ethnicity haven’t been studied in Norway, either. They haven’t been a theme.

Along with e.g. sociologist Anne-Jorunn Berg at the Bodø University College, Berit Gullikstad is the editor of the book Likestilte norskheter – om kjønn og etnisitet (Equal Norwegiannesses – on gender and ethnicity) which appeared in the spring of 2010. The book does not mention whiteness explicitly. One of the chapters is about skin colour and, according to Gullikstad, thus becomes ‘a study of how whiteness is produced without that term ever being used’.

– But all in all, we have to improve our ability to talk about colour in Norway. Not just whiteness, but also about the black, Gullikstad points out.

– Skin colour is a silent field. Nor is race a theme within migration research. For instance, it isn’t problematised why the people with the darkest skin colour from Africa are the ones having the hardest time finding jobs and housing. We need to be more vocal about this.

At the time when Anne-Jorunn Berg’s studies focused on technology, she had an attentive audience. When she started talking and writing about race and whiteness, however, her audience vanished.

– It’s not resistance, but discomfort. A silent awkwardness, she says.

– It probably has to do with the Norwegian equality ideology, and how the history of that concept is linked to Holocaust. There’s discomfort involved in verbalising difference. But difference doesn’t disappear just because we don’t talk about it or fail to conduct research.

Strikes a blow for ‘race’

All three Scandinavian countries share a taboo on the use of the word ‘race’.

According to the editors of the special issue on whiteness of Kvinder, Køn og Forskning (Women, Gender and Research), “the term race is rarely used in Denmark”.

“Ethnicity, on the other hand, receives (a lot of) attention, seeing that the concept of race in a Danish context is first and foremost associated with the so-called biological racism which dominated the Western world during the 19th century”.

Should the term ‘race’ be reintroduced, then? Yes, say the Danish editors and Catrin Lundström who writes about white Swedish female migrants in Singapore and the U.S. in the most recent issue of the TGV.

– Needless to say, race is a social construction; there are no biological races. But according to Lundström, using the word is a way to make power relations visible.

– Ethnicity is about cultural and linguistic experiences. But studies document that despite their upbringing, people of a non-white skin colour who were adopted to and grew up in Sweden as Swedish are not considered Swedish through and through. Race is about ideas that are coupled to the body.


To the sociologist Lundström, it was the study of Swedish girls with Latin American background that whetted her appetite for studying whiteness. These Swedish girls were not perceived to be Swedish because they were not white.

– Sweden used to be a world leader within race biology, and from there we’ve gone straight to declaring the nation colour blind, says Lundström.

– At the same time, we witness how people of a different skin colour than white aren’t seen as real Swedes. How are we supposed to understand this without acknowledging that race is significant in Sweden? We operate with a colour blind discourse in a society that has race right at its centre, and where whiteness is intimately connected to our national self image.

While editor of the TGV Anna Lundberg and Anne-Jorunn Berg experience an unconscious and indirect resistance towards critical whiteness studies, Lundström has endured explicit ridicule from senior colleagues.

– There have been instances when I have presented articles or applied for funding, and senior professors have laughed at me for wanting to study whiteness in Asia, for example.

Challenges and changes

Lundström emphasises the importance of the fact that in Sweden, a number of non-white scholars are studying whiteness.

– It would have been a big problem if only white people were studying whites and whiteness.

Moreover, the sociologist considers it to be crucial that studies of race and critical whiteness studies are adapted to the individual national context.

– If one is interested in race studies, being in the U.S. is extremely exciting. But what does it mean in Sweden? What does it mean to Swedishness? Sweden lacks an adequate conceptual apparatus to analyse our own history. We can’t just import from the U.S. We must be able to discuss our own race history in order to understand the current challenges. We can’t predict how the election is going to turn out, but how are we supposed to understand e.g. the racist movements existing in Sweden today?

Catrin Lundström believes that a change is coming despite the ongoing invisibility of whiteness and race within Scandinavian research.

– I believe that what we’ll see in the Nordic countries are more and more PhD students looking into this theme. There’s a generational change taking place. The change isn’t coming from the established professors; it’s coming from below.

By Ida Irene Bergstrøm

Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg