Nordicness, Its Imaginations and Tensions With Anti-Blackness



Scandinavian countries are often cited as examples of harmonious societies; it has even become a nationalist argument for many of their white citizens. In this text, Awa Konaté demonstrates how anti-Blackness in the Nordics go much beyond the individualized forms of racism: it is historical and structural.

Historically, there has been very little literature about Black and white relations across the Nordics — a term denoting the broader Scandiniavan region. The little that is available is often personal narratives of African American expats of the 1950s-1960s fleeing after they had fled from the overt state-sanctioned lethal violence that informs Black relationality in the United States. These personal narratives are largely employed to shape the racial imaginary of Nordic countries, always positioned as better and diverging from race relations present in the U.S.

Konate Funambulist (1)
Colonial dockhouse around Nyhavn in Copenhagen, where sugar and other commodities imported from the Danish West Indies were stored.

Thus the Nordic region is imagined colorblind exceptionalism that is inherently tolerant. I base this statement on the notions of value and normative citizenship to which continental African migrants are lesser positioned. The Black diaspora fare “easier” by way of ability to correspond to a particular liberal understanding of value constituted visually and in the lingual captivity that forms current discussions on anti-racism.

Undoing this fabric demands we go beyond discourses on racism as having gained grounds over the recent decade, towards a wider ongoing historical framework of Nordicness, where anti-Blackness is constitutive of the contemporary conditions of peoples of African descent.

It will pose us to inquire what is Nordicness? What are its particularities, historical depths that propagate attachment and sentiments of value so strong, that it establishes an illegality of Black presence so dependent on producing both its death and exclusion?

Nordicsness, Coloniality and Anti-Blackness ///

Nordic colonialisms have a long and complex history. Nation-states and stakeholders across the Nordic region were active participants of the European colonial enterprise. A keypoint of the emergence of Nordic nationstates is the transatlantic beginning of Blackness’s denial to humanity through establishment of global capitalism. Denmark and Sweden practised territorial overseas
colonialism forging occupying territories and trading posts in Asia, America and Africa. The ongoing regulation of African lives to a periphery positionality is situated within the frameworks of European colonial expansion that is intersected and ongoingly intertwined in the Nordic region through legal and political allegiances.


Tangible material heritages, images, texts, things held captive in archives betray these silences in demand of (re)witnessing and intervening the aboundant forgetfulness. Yet, the historical engagements forming a two-century long imperative basis have largely been silenced. Positioned as benevolent, untainted socio-political temporalities.


The unadulterated reframing purposely absolves generations of Nordic eugenicists from Sven Nilsson to Carl von Linné, who were instrumental in cementing both the ideological and intellectual foundations through which colonialism constructs and marks Black people as non-human, essential for the makings of whiteness in which Nordicness comes to position itself. Today the gratuitous violences are granted and enacted through judical and spatialized authorisations such as the Danish Ghetto Law, Sjælsmark, Lindhom and the Swedish “miljonprogramm” — to remind that the welfare state is conditional and fortuitous for non-white lives.


The Paradigms of Nordicness ///

Nordicness is a designation of nationality or citizenship that is tacitly tied to whiteness. It is a particular form and value of whiteness carefully constructed across centuries to identify and racially categorize. Colonial perceptions of white superiority, have largely been employed across the Nordics to construct a purer form of whiteness that forms the identity of the Nordics. Bio-political measures and the rise of nation-state supported institutes for racial Biology founded in the early 20th century to preserve the white Nordic race, positions a foundational framework for which white supremacy becomes preserved and institutionalized.

Bearing this in mind, it is dangerous how often the intimacies of Nordicness, socially and biologically, with such silent ease constructs the need for epistemic rigor of whiteness, that is transferable and positioned as a prerequisite politicization through the Nordic model.


Konate Funambulist (2)
A young black man in the middle of den Røde Plads (Red Square) in Nørrebro, a neighborhood experiencing accelerated gentrification of which parts of it are within the Danish so-called “Ghetto Zone.” / Both photos by Stéphane Valère.

What forms a unique cohesion within this intimacy is a transferability which for Nordics of African descent is to occupy what Saidiya Hartman calls the “position of unthought.” Nordicness and the Nordic model also register Hortense Spillers’ “captive body” as part of a condition “which brings into focus a gathering of social realities as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in literal and figurative emphases that distinctions between them are virtually useless.” (Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book, 1987).


It is employed as a distinct demarcation of belonging, where Black being is perpetually yet unnoticeably situated outside. What does it mean in the current to exist within an externally and internally imagined space, where historical narratives, although erased, are deeply embedded within and inform your presence? Informing not only the relations, but also the languages that do not disrupt abstract violences, therefore denies you critique of an afterlife that is your subjugation?


Growing up in Denmark, I knew for many years that Black death produces and determines from that where we are, not even we are outside the bounds of coloniality’s afterlife. As Wilderson poignantly reminds Black death is constitutive even of our region.


So deviating from my first point of inquiry, I now ask; what possibilities do we come to, and they to us, if we acknowledge or perhaps even accept that our peripherality, one that is not our own, is fundamental to our being across the Nordics? What colonial practices, power dynamics in the contemporary can we negate to establish for ourselves, and to ourselves in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway, other modes of Black relationality that do not emanate from the ontological terrors of Nordic whiteness?


Contemporary Blackness and Condition(s) ///

The cultural consumptions through which Black presence is embraced for its performance, propounds an environment by which a speculative fiction of race is formed, so it cannot address it as an open marker for anything that may or can go in opposition to what whiteness exists as. The implication for anti-Blackness is then that it is deemed rarely a reality in the Nordic region, although its foundational for Nordic Whiteness to exist and function.

Moral and liberal values are continuously reiterated and rearticulated to create hollow perceptions of mutual belonging, of identity and racial discourses. This is particularly central to the current framings of mutual belonging granted to wider and public anti-racism discourses absent of any consideration to the particularities of anti-Blackness, other than what is established and provided by limited cultural paradigms.


Media narratives amplify this violence forming any centring of Black being from a position that will not see its totality, and therefore cannot register its suffering.


I evoke the following names, few of many: Phillip Mbuji Johansen, a young Afro-Dane who was brutally murdered on the Danish island of Bornholm by white supremacists. Safiyo, an Afro-Norwegian Muslim woman in Oslo who was kniffed in broad daylight whilst resting in a public park. Cecilia Chiluba Arvola, an Afro-Finnish woman who was killed by her white partner. Kwaku Yankyera-Annor, a sixteen-year-old Afro-Swedish boy in Lund who was denied ambulance service, waiting hours for care despite his mother’s concerns of urgency only to die the following morning.


To remind that for all of them, their subsequent mode of narrative inclusion operates within a logic of Black disposability. Disposability of both life and breath contingent upon a wider anti-Black climate, which functions to enforce Black lives at violent proximity to where untimely death resides. As of yet, the loved ones of the aforementioned have received no forms of accountability. Instead, they are left bereaved confined to exist within futile borders where colonial omnipresent continues to inform white relationality to Black life.


The visibility yet absence of Black Nordic lives forms part of larger racialized discourse, where our precarities are not worth comprehension nor visibility. The colonial imperative for us is to only occupy a paradoxical positioning. Either to be complicit in rearticulating assimiliationist values that are nationalistic of nature, or to be framed as threatening to the order of civility. Sara Ahmed identifies this as “institutionalized whiteness” (A Phenomenology of Whiteness, 2007), whereby whiteness is not an ontological fact, but rather a performance of various and repeated orientations within public space that determines how “one takes up space.” White familiarity to the language and modes that constitute these discourses are in essence the only guarantee for their public recognition and value.


Testimonies from Black people about anti-Black racism have become compelling narratives, where self-retraumatization functions to give fluid and contemporary understandings of Nordic racism as personal matter, omissive of structural fabrics. A powerful centring of whiteness to educate and reinscribe ideas of individual bigotry — removed from a wider institutional framework through which Black people are seemingly viewed as pathological threats to notions of order and civility.


Such assumes that a willing incorporation and inclusion of Black presence, how limited it may be, renders null and void the historical continuum of anti-Black racism in the present. The stability of Nordicness as a mode of civility is dependent on a binary, that relies on testimonies of anti-Black racism to reimagine and reinscribe its values and itself.


It is not enough that the majority of Black lives being working-class are conditionally and materially compounded by bureaucratic obstacles that are shaped and informed by the conditions of a past, that never is past. It is not enough that Black people across the Nordics constitute some of the most vulnerable migrant and refugee groups to structural and institutional inequities. Are greatly marked by two-three times higher unemployment rates and extensively experience racism in education, housing and health care.


In the context of the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic, these precarities and vulnerabilities experienced by Africans, in particular Somalis, have been tragically heightened through exacerbated infection rates. So what does this mean for us as Africans across the Nordics to inhabit a refusal of these positionings ; to interrupt their habitual and hegemonic conditions; to take hold?

Perhaps, it means visualizing and narrating oneself outside of what seems an impossibility. Forging new catalysts and ruptures of care work that actives all our registrars as Christina Sharpe denotes, to which we as Nordics of African descent situate ourselves within a framework of anti-Blackness, that functions without geographical borders, and instead supports a Black Nordic refusal to compromise with the social and lingual distinctions instituted and ongoingly provided as white paradigms that inhabit upon us. ■