Those keen to brand Sweden racist on the basis of a tasteless gateau need to get some perspective.
Is Sweden’s international image as a country dedicated to tolerance and egalitarianism a mirage? Is the Scandinavian nation, in reality, a deeply bigoted place where dark-skinned people are routinely discriminated against, and where racism is seen as a bit of a laugh? Following the fiasco known as ‘cakegate’ – involving a ‘blackface’, a cake shaped as an African tribeswoman and a philistine cultural minister – some would have you believe so.
In case you haven’t already seen the shocking images from Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art where the notorious ‘racist cake’ incident happened, here’s a re-cap: The museum was celebrating World Art Day and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Swedish Artists’ National Organisation. A bunch of artists had been asked to create cakes for the event and the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, was invited to open the proceedings by cutting one of them. It was designed by a Swede of African descent who said he wanted to draw attention to the practice of female genital mutilation.
Now, if you’re handed a knife and asked to perform a symbolic clitoridectomy on a cake shaped in the form of an African woman’s torso, the sensible thing to do would be to put the knife down, tell the minstrel-faced artist, whose head is poking out of a hole at the top of the table, that his dessert is disgusting, and walk away. Piece of cake! Instead, Liljeroth whispered into the artist’s ear, ‘your life will be better after this’, cut a big chunk of cake up, and then fed it to the artist. He, in turn, screamed in feigned pain and continued to wail as guest after guest cut into the cake’s abdomen, exposing its red, strawberry-flavoured insides. It was, to put it mildly, a distasteful way of addressing female circumcision.
It didn’t take long for a Twitterstorm to brew. The hashtag ‘tårtgate’ (cakegate) was coined and photos of the gleeful minister went viral. The museum was evacuated following a bomb scare and the National Association of Afro-Swedes demanded Liljeroth’s resignation, calling the whole affair a ‘racist spectacle’.
Liljeroth and the other guests had fallen for a Yoko Ono-ish artistic prank. They became part of the performance, and the image of the laughing minister feeding the minstrel-faced artist with his mock genitals became the lasting artefact from the ‘happening’. The whole affair exposed an astonishing level of cluelessness among members of the Swedish political and cultural establishment. Don’t they know about minstrel shows? Haven’t they heard of the brand of shock art that uses spectacle and manipulation of participants as part of the creative process? Didn’t they think that gorging on symbolic genitals is a really weird way of raising awareness of female circumcision? Didn’t the ‘mutilated’ cake look bloody gross to them?
What the incident did not prove, however, is that Sweden is an endemically racist country where it is OK to jeer at black people. After all, Liljeroth has faced a barrage of criticism at home and Swedes have been embarrassed and shocked by the images that came out of the event. The sight of the caricatured cake surrounded by laughing white people has made jaws drop in Sweden just as much as abroad. Nobody has come out in defence of minstrel shows or celebrated digging into symbolic black people. The artist himself, Makode Linde, has contestedclaims that Liljeroth and the other attendees are racists. His cake was part of a series of works that he has branded ‘Afromantics’ – art pieces that explore questions of identity, race and post-colonialism. In previous works, Linde has projected caricatured imagery on to famous figures like the Statue of Liberty, Jesus, Swedish royals and Betty Boop. He wants to provoke people into questioning and confronting prejudices.
But members of the Afro-Swedish Association were neither amused nor encouraged to engage in arts analysis. A spokesperson, Jallow Momodou, wrote an opinion piece for the Guardianentitled ‘Sweden: the country where racism is just a joke’. Is he kidding? This is a country where a far-right party’s entry into the parliament, after gaining 5.6 per cent of the vote, caused an identity crisis, complete with torch-lit marches, anti-racist protests and a refusal, among other party leaders, to engage with the right-wing party’s representatives.
Of course, Sweden is not free from prejudices or anti-foreign sentiment. Sweden has experienced rapid diversification, with the proportion of citizens born abroad, or with two foreign-born parents, rising from four to 20 per cent in just 50 years. Out of Sweden’s 9.3million-strong population, 1.6million are foreigners. Their integration has not always been smooth. Over the past couple of decades, Sweden has favoured the multicultural approach, which encourages identity politics among minorities and turns assimilation into an undesirable goal. Another feature of multicultural policy is to assign, or to encourage the formation of, community associations which claim to be the official voices of particular minorities.
The National Association of Afro-Swedes is one such group, regularly hitting the headlines in Sweden for taking offence and demanding censorship of everything from art exhibits to children’s books and ice creams – all in the name of protecting Swedish blacks from racism. The group once demanded that the comic, Marika Carlsson, be charged under the Swedish law against ‘incitement towards a population group’ for her show A nigger’s childhood. The Ethiopian-born Carlsson was adopted by Swedish parents at the age of two. Her show explored culture clashes and the experience of being a black Swede. She’s hardly your run-of-the-mill racist. The association has also tried to ban Tintin in the Congo, because it apparently incites hatred towards blacks, and an old Swedish children’s book about a detective, because it contains the word ‘neger’, meaning negro.
When a Swedish ice cream company launched a liquorice version of its old favourite, Nogger, using graffiti-writing as part of the branding, members of the National Association of Afro-Swedes saw it as a racist allusion and called for it to be pulled. It also successfully petitioned for a district called Kvarteret Neger (the Negro Quarter) in the town Karlstad to be renamed Tingvallastaden. This district received its original name in 1865 when Karlstad was rebuilt following a devastating fire. It is hard to imagine that the city planners actively tried to offend people. And if the idea of living in a ‘nigger quarter’ really put Swedes off, then why would planners who wanted to attract residents use the word?
After cakegate, the National Association of Afro-Swedes has gained a lot of attention abroad for its harsh condemnation of both Linde and Liljeroth, and some foreign commentators have revelled in the idea that Sweden doesn’t cut it as a haven of tolerance. A writer for Jezebel declared a ‘moratorium on smug talk about how much better everything is in Sweden’. But, just as there were many layers to Linde’s artsy cake, when it comes to race relations, there is a lot more nuance to Sweden than suggested by the false image of a country stuck in a slavery-era mindset.
As for Liljeroth, her inadequacy as a minister of culture derives not from her alleged racism but from her commitment to clichés and instrumentalism. This was epitomised by her claim that ‘culture primarily provides food and energy for the soul [yes, really] – but also contributes to higher economic growth’. And as for Linde, his symbolically cannibalistic art work actually perpetuates a modern version of the White Man’s Burden: the idea that Westerners have a moral responsibility to enlighten Africans and wean them off primitive behaviour. That’s the real reason why his cake was distasteful.