Friday, October 06, 2006

Wacky new Swedish government

The new Swedish government is reported to be wacky.

The youngest Swedish prime minister for more than 80 years, Sweden's first gay minister, first black minister, and the first male minister to sport a pony tail - Sweden's new government contains plenty of novelties.

But it's the new integration minister that might cause the biggest uproar in lily-white Sweden.
The appointment of Liberal Nyamko Sabuni as integration minister is proving to be one of Fredrik Reinfeldt's most controversial choices. Sabuni, who moved to Sweden from Burundi at the age of 12, is the first black person to be appointed a minister in Sweden.

Her suggestion that all girls should undergo compulsory checks for genital mutilation (otherwise known as female circumcision) led to controversy. Sabuni was also attacked by Muslim groups for proposing a ban on headscarves for girls under 15 and the introduction of a specific mention of honour crimes in the criminal code.

Here's something she wrote last year:
Being called 'neger' is offensive
Nyamko Sabuni (Liberal): The word implies a person of lower standing
People who use the word neger should stop as soon as they learn that it is offensive to other people.
People who don't stop for that reason aren't going stop from a lecture on the word's etymology and historical usage. This article is not for them, instead, I am writing for all the people who don't use the word, but who wonder how a word could become so loaded and offensive to so many.
The word neger is from the Spanish "negro" which means black and it came to be used for Africans during the slave trade. Much of the science and literature about blacks at the time was an attempt to create a justification for slavery and colonialism. To justify slavery, it was essential to be able to believe that blacks were less developed than whites, that is why the inferiority of blacks was the central theme in the white discussion of Africans. For example, in a travel diary from 1819, the Swede Olof Bergius wrote:
"Thus the negro stands on the lowest rung of the human ladder, [...] between his highest achievement in reasoning and the level that we, as children, start on our way to the upmost scientific heights spans a chasm, which so far has not been crossed, by anyone without the shine of white color on their skin and on their soul. [...]to try to civilize this subhuman would be to go against nature itself." (Catomeris, The dreadful legacy)
Neger is thus a stereotype, the picture of blacks that the whites have shaped over the centuries, and so now after colonialism it is only right that blacks define themselves through sculpting a counterweight to "neger". The black redefinition is an important and crucial project. That is why blacks are wary, not only of the word neger, but also of any discourses that play on the laziness, stupidity, hypersexuality, or other disparaging features of blacks.

The reason that Swedes are still discussing the worth of this word--unlike people in other countries, who have long moved on--probably depends on the difficulty Swedes have in understanding Sweden's contribution to a history where racism plays a central role. Sweden, like other european countries was an accomplice in the crime against Africa. Both Queen Kristina and Gustav III traded in slaves and Swedish scientists were very active in promoting the scientific basis for colonialism from Carl Von Lines all the way to the 1900s and the institute for the biology of race at Uppsala.
Many wonder why blacks only react when whites use the word neger. That is a result of the fact that in our world, dominated by whites, it is a privelige to be white and a disadvantage to be black. For example, being white gives a person a leg up in the competition for jobs and housing, it makes it easier to get a loan and harder to be foudn guilty of a crime. In other words, white lives are valued more than black ones and that is why Afroicans react negatively when whites refer to us with a word loaded with rasist overtones.

Some people like to claim that they don't mean any harm at all by using the word and they have all the respect in the world for blacks. That is not true, which becomes evident when the they are informed that the word is offensive to blacks. That's when they reply: "I've always used it", "It doesn't mean anything". These people have absolutely no respect or Africans. Blacks have never called themselves neger. A neger is a degraded, stupid, lowly person and to call someone a neger and claiming to not mean anything by it is like spitting in someone's face and claiming to not meaning anything by it.

Whether the word shows up in literature or not is an absurd question. It's clear that if you are writing about the colonial period it's impossible to avoid it. Just as it is unavoidable that the word shows up in literature from that period.
Nyamko Sabuni
8/31/2005

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