Power, violence, bodies and boundaries

Tintin in the Congo, published in colour in 1946, was criticised several times for expressing a racist colonial attitude to the Congolese and the African people in general. In Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States attempts were made to ban the publication – especially to children. Photo: Annika HjerpeThere must exist a genuine interest in the Other and a real intention to learn FROM rather than ABOUT others. Otherwise, only ossified essences and stereotypes are reproduced and we become incapable of heterogeneity and pluralism. 

In public discourse of late, also when the roles of libraries are debated, the topics of racism and anti-racism in Sweden are prevalent. In the context of our current climate, I allude to discussions exemplified by the inclusion or exclusion of Tintin in the Congo in the TioTretton Library in Stockholm and the discussions on antiquated norms and values with the re-release of early Swedish children’s and youth literature, the use of the Swedish ‘N’ word, and Stina Wirsén’s character Lilla Hjärtat (The Little Heart) with its debate aftermath regarding racist stereotypes.

I also take into consideration Makode Linde’s cake performance on World Art Day at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This involved the Swedish Minister of Culture and Leisure, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, cutting a black cake shaped as a gollywog character.

The racism debates 

The discussions have also centred on the REVA ‘right of residence’ project, whose activities and methods – aimed at deporting irregular refugees – were criticised for being racist, and whether Swedish society is able to document equality statistics based on people’s self-identified ethnicity in order to study discrimination. Discussions have also focused on wider developments whereby a political party hostile to foreigners is attracting ever greater support in opinion polls.

There are indeed many more examples, but here I designate all these discussions under the umbrella term ‘the racism debates’. Nobody in Sweden has been able to avoid them. I wish to contribute some perspectives regarding these debates, without going in detail into any single one of them, since these racism debates are more interesting and important in terms of what they say about Swedish society, and thereby on the overall context in which the libraries operate, than as limited phenomena in themselves.

The lack in conversation 

I see clearly, when racism is under discussion, that always – in one way or another – one comes back to the issue of power, violence/symbolic violence, limits and indeed bodies. I also see in racism debates and in everyday life – at work and in private – a great inability to think and speak about racism; to such an extent that one gets stuck in the discussion without repudiating, reshaping or repositioning it. Sometimes it so happens that, for the purpose of this discussion, we wholly lack tools, techniques and language.

The frenzy in the debates is thought, in certain quarters, mostly to involve identifying the issue, determining who is racist, concluding the debate and ascertaining that racism does not exist in society’s structures and its everyday life.

This incapacity, and the denial of racism in everyday life which is a consequence, quite clearly reinforces the hidden position of racism. What is needed, and what is lacking, is a conversation about racism where racism is not relocated to other bodies and places.

For, in these discussions, if I can place myself in the structure or in the context that is being considered, it must soon become so complex and ambiguous that I inevitably see the need for an unfinished constructive dialogue.

New perspectives on the grand narratives 

For many public libraries, as for society as a whole, the racism debates are difficult to relate to. They raise issues concerning the libraries’ responsibilities, the tasks and role in society of the library employees, and the selection of media and decisions that the libraries carry out on a daily basis.

Self-images comprising tolerance, knowledge and equality have been shaken to the foundation. I may be painting a picture in broad strokes of the brush, but it is my opinion that the public libraries responded to those who asked really important and justified questions concerning the work of the public libraries in countering  racism through fleeing to what the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard calls the grand narratives (metanarratives).

The libraries spoke about freedom of expression, information freedom, democracy, neutrality, independence, the fighting of censorship et cetera. Then one got stuck in these general and sweeping narratives that can easily be used to mask the fact that reality is more contradictory than this.

The grand narratives operate to reinforce the existing order and as a supposed legitimation of what is truthful and correct; they also make claims on clarity where such does not really exist. It is therefore essential to break down and put into perspective these grand narratives so that they are not used as a resort for silencing critical, marginalised and important voices.

Let us take the freedom of expression as an example. It is undoubtedly an important right, but is it an obligation to use it to wound and to provoke? Can the freedom of expression, which is intended to allow voices to be heard, also silence voices? Is the freedom to express oneself also a skill that we need to exercise and practice?

Power and knowledge 

Issues of power and knowledge – and how these interconnect – have been really prominent in the current racism debates. I believe, as the philosopher Michel Foucault asserts, that power and knowledge are inseparable. Knowledge does not only deliver power but this power generates the knowledge it requires to be sustained in power and thereby structures the conditions of dominance (dominance relationships).

An established way of understanding, speaking about and relating to the Other has become accepted. A kind of regime of truth is created that determines what knowledge is, who the legitimate subject of this or that knowledge is, and who and what shall be the object of the creation of knowledge of others. Knowledge is formulated and is made true and real.

A good example of this is what the philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls the “worlding of the West as world”, wherein the advantaged Westerners’ own interests are passed on as being those of everyone in east, the whole world’s interests. Spivak describes this as a kind of violence through knowledge production. A violence that results in distortions, stereotypification, incorrect generalisations and a sanctioned lack of knowledge (ignorance).

Reconsider the normal 

It is undoubtedly a choice that is made and a demonstration of power to remain ignorant, not to listen and not to learn. This sanctioned ignorance disguises “the worlding of the world” and is keen to place the responsibility for marginalisation on the marginalised and to pass vulnerability on to the vulnerable.

“Great men create history, but only such history which it is possible for them to create”, says the historian CLR James. The path to change must pass through the critical review of privileges, examination of one’s own conceptions, prejudices and assumptions, through the work of attempting to understand how these arose and became natural and given. Self-evident knowledge and self-evident positions which are deemed to be fully normal must be able to be reconsidered.

A new discourse 

There must exist a genuine interest in the Other and a real intention to learn FROM others rather than ABOUT others. Otherwise, only ossified essences and stereotypes are reproduced and we become incapable of heterogeneity and pluralism.

This is, of course, a constantly ongoing process which can never finally be summarised or concluded – a continuous recoding and interpretation and attempt at translation for the sake of understanding and that is as true (accurate) as possible. However, with an awareness that “In every possible sense the translation is necessary but impossible”, as Spivak says. We shall always fail but we must, nevertheless, always try.

I am put to the test when critical and important questions are asked of me as a public servant by users, clients, citizens, ‘customers’, or whatever I choose now to call them. This test becomes even greater from the circumstance that it is you who own these activities in the public sector, and also through the fact that the democratic chain – at the end of the day – is my principal (authority).

A moral responsibility 

The preamble in the Swedish Instrument of Government gives a clear picture of how the public powers in our society are intended to be exercised. These powers shall emanate from the people. In connection with the racism debates questions are raised, among other things, about racism, problematic stereotypes and how the work of public libraries and children’s culture operates and appears.

To formulate problems is an important act of power, and I see clearly how the original questions at issue, where the initiative has often come from marginalised voices, are then reformulated to concern or come down to the aforementioned grand narratives (metanarratives), without due qualification (nuance) or recognition of complexity. Many of those who asked the critical questions are then described as censorious, virulent and oversensitive.

Those posing the questions are turned into adversaries who are dismissed through being characterised as offensive and overcritical, too ready to alter, prohibit or abolish everything that they themselves do not like. As librarian, public servant and employee of the public sector all this becomes really problematic.

Openness and involving citizens

Is democracy without openness even conceivable? Can intrinsic values such as equality, freedom and justice even be discussed in a relevant way without openness?

I believe that openness in this context implies the following: an opening up of public activities and resources so that citizens and political representatives obtain an insight into and the scope to assert influence or effect change where these are concerned; to always ensure that public services are focused on involving citizens and satisfying their interests; to communicate an optimal basis for decision-making to the decision-makers and the citizens themselves. In relation to the racism debates, we have fallen far short in these respects. We have much to learn.

Head of operations for the Culture, Leisure and Recreation Services Department Huddinge Municipality
The Swedish author and illustrator Stina Wirsén created in 2012 a fictional character, “Lilla Hjärtat”, who became a popular figure in her books for children. A few years later however it was criticised for being a racist stereotype.Swedish author and illustrator Stina Wirsén created in 2012 a fictional character, “Lilla Hjärtat”, who became a popular figure in her books for children. A few years later however it was criticised for being a racist stereotype. Photo: Ulf Stromquist