‘I Hope the Rise of Sweden’s Right Won’t Normalise Aggression Against Black Women’’
Novelist and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström talks to Sian Norris about the rise of Sweden’s far-right, and the experiences of women of colour in the Nordic country
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The news that Sweden had elected a right-wing coalition, with the far-right Sweden Democrats Party winning the second highest number of votes in last month’s election, sent shockwaves across Europe. The Nordic country has long been seen as a bastion of social-democratic values, occupying the place of ‘liberal paradise’ in the European imagination.
But the election result demonstrated that Swedish politics are more complex than the stereotypes allow, an issue explored by author Lola Akinmade Åkerström in her groundbreaking novel In Every Mirror She’s Black.
“Those of us who live in Sweden, especially people of colour, weren’t surprised because systemic racism is fully entrenched and has been normalised here,” Akinmade Åkerström told Byline Times. “Where, even people of colour born and raised in Sweden are still expected to be ‘grateful’ they were allowed to be born and raised in Sweden”.
The novel explores the experiences of three black women: former model turned flight attendant Brittany, marketing executive Kemi, and Somali asylum seeker Muna as they build lives in Stockholm. Each character experiences the micro and macro aggressions of racism and classism in Swedish society, exposing the country’s fault lines around race.
“Sweden is a relatively open and secular society, it also has a very strong global brand and image built on nostalgia versus reflecting its current reality,” explained Akinmade Åkerström. “As much as I love my new home and continue to promote all its great virtues, the level of social inequality, isolation, and exclusion here is insidious”.
Invited into the House, Left in the Corner
The Sweden Democrat Party is historically rooted in neo-Nazi politics – although 43-year-old party leader Jimmie Åkessonits has attempted to clean up its image, purging neo-Nazi members.
Some say, however, the party has not been fully purged of senior members with those views. Its former slogan was “Keep Sweden Swedish” – now evolved into the Trumpian “Make Sweden Great Again”. Åkessonits himself has called Muslim immigration “our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War”.
The right and far-right has attributed its shock electoral success to discomfort in Sweden with the country’s asylum policies. The Sweden Democrats linked a recent rise of gun and gang criminality among second-generation immigrant youth in Swedish cities.
“While Sweden generously opened up its borders to refugees, it is also a very segregated society, where people are metaphorically invited into the house but are left in a corner and not allowed to sit at the dinner table,” said Akinmade Åkerström.
“The issue boils down to integration vs. assimilation. While other countries like the USA focus on integration, Sweden demands assimilation. Integration says ‘as long as you share my basic values and respect my rules, you can come as you are, and I’ll make space for who you are’. Assimilation on the other hand wants you to drop who you are and your identity so you can be exactly like the hosts in order to be accepted. This is an ultimate Catch-22 because you will always remain a foreigner regardless”.
“Assimilation is an impossible ask to demand from anyone,” she added.
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Women of Colour and Lived Experience
One of the three lead characters in In Every Mirror She’s Black is Muna, a young woman seeking asylum in Sweden from Somalia who has experienced a devastating tragedy. She finds a job as a cleaner but experiences discrimination on both an institutional and individual level.
“I spent time as a photographer regularly visiting an asylum centre located deep within the Swedish countryside getting to know newly arrived refugees like Muna, and vowed to help give space to their individual voices,” said Akinmade Åkerström. “I simply spent time with asylees and set up photo shoots for them so they fully see themselves without the labels of being ‘refugees’ as they awaited news about their migration status”.
Muna befriends a fellow person seeking asylum, Ahmed, while living in the asylum centre. He articulates the desperation of living in limbo, saying “I’ll rather go back home and die fighting for something, than die here in paradise doing nothing”.
For Akinmade Åkerström, it was important to express this frustration. She told Byline Times how “this phrase was inspired by similar words a Kurdish guy I met at the asylum centre said to me. It’s about purpose and feeling like your life has meaning because you’re part of a bigger community and are contributing to society”.
In contrast to Muna, Brittany’s character experiences class privilege in Sweden, but this does not protect her from racism. “Sometimes, I find that many women of colour who are in affluent relationships often wear that cape of privilege as an extra layer of protection to insulate them from the realities on the ground,” explained Akinmade Åkerström. “They just experience a different type of isolation at that level”.
She expresses this in the novel via the relationship with language. “A refugee like Muna is expected to be fluent in Swedish before she is even considered for a menial job, while Brittany can coast by not speaking or learning Swedish because she’s now part of the 1% upper class,” she said. “I have come across many women of colour who have vowed to only speak English to avoid being treated with dismissive condescension when they struggle in Swedish”.
The novel has yet to be translated into Swedish. Akinmade Åkerström told Byline Times how publishers want her to scale back Muna’s storyline, something which she argued they “would never say to a white Swedish male fiction author”.
“In essence, I needed to tone down lived experiences and make our issues even more invisible because it makes the privileged few uncomfortable,” she added.
Now, as Sweden braces for its first right-wing government in decades, Akinmade Åkerström hopes that the rise of the right won’t “normalise aggression towards black women”.
“We already face microaggressions across various industries and most significantly within the health industry when we go in for medical appointments and procedures,” she said. “I hope we continue to be protected with the same energy white women are given in society”.