Sweden’s government is pushing a new measure to tackle racism issues in the country — it plans to completely remove the word "race" from all legislative documents.
Shortly after Sweden was recognized as having the worst record in the European Union for employing foreign non-EU citizens, the country’s Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag announced plans to investigate the process of eliminating the word from all of its legislation. According to Swedish media outlet The Local, Ullenhag explained that laws should not be used to promote the idea of race, which he explains is not a biological factor, but instead a social construct.
"We know that there aren’t really different human races. We also know that the fundamental grounds of racism are based on the belief that there are different races, and that belonging to a race makes people behave in a certain way, and that some races are superior to others," he said in an interview with Sveriges Television after announcing the plans.
Ullenhag told The Local he has “wanted to remove the concept of race for a long time.”
The minister's political advisor Sophia Metelius told VICE News that the plans have been discussed by the government for some time.
"Of course it's not to say we don't have racism, because we do," she said, noting discrimination issues towards Muslim, African, and Roma populations specifically. "We believe Swedish legislation should not imply that there are different races."
According to Metelius, the proposal will now be passed to a committee in order to evaluate the best way to move forward with the measure — and as a constitutional change it will eventually have to be approved by two consecutive parliaments. She said it's important to ensure that the legislation is not weakened in the process of removing the word, and the government will also include civil society groups, relevant actors, and NGO's in the discussion.
But not everyone is a fan of the measure, including the country’s Afro-Swedish group Afrosvensarnas Riksförbund (ASR.) The organizations spokesperson, Kitimbwa Sabuni, told The Local that it was an effort to take away the possibility to discuss race. He said "this scientific racism that Ullenhag is focused on, when he says that racism is based on believing in different races, is not true.”
Irene Molina, a professor at Sweden's Uppsala University, told VICE News that this has been an ongoing debate in Sweden where phrasing in legislation has already begun referring to ethnicity instead of race. She called it a "glorification of multiculturalism" among people who don't want to recognize that racism exists in Sweden. Molina said this is compounded by common views that Swedish people are very polite, fair, and open.
"Common people on the street say we don't need that word, we don't have racism, everything is equal," she said. "People are against racism, but they don't recognize we have it in Sweden, there's a huge unconsciousness on what racism is."
Like Ullenhang, many use the idea that racism is merely a social construct, not a biological reality, to support racially neutralizing legislation. Nancy Heitzeg, a sociology professor at St. Catherine University, told VICE News that while it is true that race is a social construction, it’s still important to measure and compare race in order to take account for racism. Similarly, according to the American Sociological Association, ceasing to study racial categories is "ill advised" even if "racial categories do not necessarily reflect biological or genetic categories."
“Pretending we’re race-neutral by changing language, if that’s all that happens, if there are no other efforts to address structural inequality, we’re ultimately allowing structural inequality and racism to persist, just with a new cover story,” she said.
Heitzeg explained that eliminating race from a country’s laws is merely just a cosmetic change. She said it’s a way of hiding institutional racism under the thought that if race is not being discussed, politicians can just pretend racism, as a structural problem, does not exist. “In the language of sociology, we would call that color blind racism,” she said.
The proposal is an attempt to address an issue that has often been a dark cloud over Sweden’s typically positive global rankings. In fact, focusing on race as merely a social construct negates the country’s early dedication to race biology research with discriminatory roots.
Sweden established the first national race biology institute in the world back in 1922. In its infancy, the institute was associated with the larger eugenics movement and led by Herman Lundborg. Research was largely focused on analyzing the genetic makeup of the country’s people, as well as skull size. Lundborg’s beliefs that ethnic Swedes were superior were reportedly the underlying force of the country’s controversial forced sterilization program, during which more than 60,000 people were sterilized between 1935 and 1975.
"Racism exists and is a very huge problem in every day Swedish life," Molina said. "It is everywhere, political life, the labor market, racism is a reality for all people with non-Swedish backgrounds."
More recently, Sweden has come under fire by many for having deeper-seated issues with race than it lets on. A 2012 analysis found reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and Afrophobic hate crimes were on the rise in the country that is almost 90 percent white, despite the decline of homophobic hate crimes and others.
Another problematic issue in Sweden has been occurrences of “black face," including a 2013 incident in which the country’s culture minister took a slice of cake that was designed to look like a naked black women. The male artist, who made the cake as an installation to address female genital mutilation was present, sporting a face slathered in black paint, looking on as the minister took a slice from below the belt.
"Swedish society is developing increasingly racist feelings, it is exactly a result of not recognizing that racism is at the core of the society," Molina said.
While Sweden takes the next step in moving forward with removing race from its laws, it is not the first country in Europe to push this kind of measure. For example, Austria, Finland, and Hungary have all removed race from national legislation, opting to use begun use the word “ethnic affiliation” instead. Similarly, France decided to strike the word from its laws in 2013, in a move that the bill's author and parliament member Francois Asensi said "has helped our country move forward on ideological and educational levels."
"There is a similar trend in Europe in general, the idea being that removing the word race will somehow affect racism in society," Paul Lappalainen, the senior advisor with the Swedish equality ombudsman, told VICE News. "The real attraction behind this kind of measure is that policymakers seem to be doing something without really doing anything."
He said that this type of political measure puts form before substance.
Lappalainen said he has urged the Swedish government to not only focus on attitudes, but on behavior as well. For their part, Metelius said the government is working on allocating money towards schools in order to provide teachers with resources to discuss race in the classroom. She also mentioned Sweden's backing of the Council of Europe's No Hate Speech campaign.
According to Heitzeg, “this idea of sort of washing out racism from the laws is not new.” However, she said part of the impetus of this way of thinking in Western Europe has do to with a greater presence of a variety of ethnic groups and races over the last few decades — particularly in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and France.
While not to say one is handling racism better than the other, she said that unlike the US, where slavery and inequality happened from the get-go in its own borders, most European colonies were far away and out of sight. Until relatively recently, Western Europeans did not have to deal with issues of non-European, non-white people every day.
“Watching from afar, it’s kind of the tragedy of Western European social democracy,” she said. “They were fine with benevolent policies as long as these policies benefited people who looked like them.”
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