A reflection on Resistance to Developing Understandings of Ethnicity and Racism in Women’s Studies: Developing Theory in Swedish Women’s Studies/ Gender / Feminist Studies (1)

Sara Goodman, Centre for Gender Studies, Lund University, Sweden

Keywords: Ethnicity, Racism and Resistance

Currently, I have a tenured teaching position in Gender Studies at Lund University in Sweden. For the last 10 years I have worked together with other teaching staff to create an undergraduate program in Gender Studies. At many times we have been working at the margins of the university finding spaces in which to expand, attempting to create a space that gives room for feminist thinking, and living with all the contradictions that this involves. This work has given great pleasures, terrible frustrations, challenges, many satisfactions, disappointments and a deep sense of humility. While it has not been easy travelling, it has been a privilege and pleasure to be involved in this process. This narrative focuses on tensions in the complexities of Gender Studies. Looking at other issues it could be told as a story of pleasures, of course (2). One challenge and pleasure has been working with our courses from the beginning to integrate issues of racism, ethnicity, class, sexuality and globalization. Here we have had a good deal of intellectual space since the courses are interdisciplinary Women’s/ Gender/ Feminist studies. Although the Centre is currently a part of the Faculty of Social Sciences, initially the Centre was not under a faculty, which left us at times marginal but also able to define our field of teaching This space allowed us to work with complexities of creating curriculum including these issues and grounding them in a Swedish context (3). Nonetheless, the inclusion of these concepts has not been free of problems and ambivalent reactions/ actions from some gender researchers.

This working piece starts with a short description of an incident that occurred some years ago at the Centre for Gender Studies in Lund. This is one of many everyday events that I have thought about as illustrations of tensions within Women’s/ Gender Studies research and teaching. Having always meant to write down and analyze this type of event, I will take the opportunity to do so now as a way of questioning the status of the concepts of racism, ethnicity, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and ‘hostility to strangers’ within Gender Studies. A group of researchers had a series of meetings in order to plan a research project in Gender Studies. It was a group of colleagues who had worked together on a number of projects and at various points been active in the local Women’s Studies Association that lobbied actively for the development of the Centre. Additionally a researcher doing research within one of the large departments at the university joined us in order to round out the group and to contribute from her field of speciality. Originally, another colleague (an ‘ethnic’ Swede) was going to work in the group as well but could not participate due to a long period of illness. One of the researchers and I have later discussed the problems this group of researchers confronted as an example of processes of re-creating ethnicity and reinforcing boundaries.

Much of the work of the Centre has been done together with colleagues working primarily in other departments. Until rather recently there were very few permanently employed researchers/ teachers and we most often work in teaching and research teams with people from other departments. By coincidence most of the researchers in this smaller group were immigrants (from Latin America, North America (4) and Northern Europe) who had lived the better part of their adult lives in Sweden and done most or all of their university education here. Within in the daily work of Women’s Studies, our immigrant status was not usually an issue – instead we perceived ourselves and felt perceived as being part of the group of people who were active in Women’s Studies in Lund, in Sweden and in to a large degree the Nordic countries (5).

Being a part of this active and exciting intellectual group was a self-evident privilege which partly balanced the resistance from our non- feminist colleagues. This loosely formed network was one of the significant intellectual spaces and reference points for our development. For me it has been and is an important intellectual home. I looked forward to the task of developing a new project and to the intellectual feminist exchange it would involve.

However, rather quickly a division developed within the group. One member - identified more with her particular discipline than with Women’s Studies per se - consistently made comments that were non sequiturs, that is her remarks did not seem to relate to the topic at hand. She referred a number of times to another context in which she knew one member of the group, a context in which this person had less power and authority than the ‘disciplinary’ member. This context was repeatedly referred to and I felt at the time rather confused about the strong emphasis in her voice and the repeated reference to this context and to the fact that she ‘knew’ the researcher.

One the themes that we wanted to include (and did) was theory development in relation to ethnicity and whiteness. As part of the theory moment, we suggested reading together White Women, Race Matters: the Social Construction of Whiteness (Frankenberg, 1993). The atmosphere became increasingly tense and the disciplinary researcher pointed out that these works were irrelevant to her discipline and seemed quite upset that we would suggest them. As we used various examples to show why this and other works should be included and could even be considered relevant to her field, her resistance and frustration increased. Finally she announced that she was totally uninterested in issues and research racism and ethnicity and certainly did not want to have to read any of these books. Her frustration then extended to our research (the three of us did not have common research and used varieties of methods) and the questioning comments about our research seemed to be based not upon what we actually did but rather that we were a group of people who used different methods and raised different questions than did than those characteristic in Sweden for her discipline. Two of the researchers’ work was focused on ethnicity and one of them had just finished a dissertation on ethnicity, racism and gender in Europe. All three of us felt insulted. Suddenly we no longer felt like valued and respected colleagues and sisters in the feminist network trying to change the university. Rather other mechanisms were taking place.

Our ‘disciplinary’ colleague’s discomfort could be in part due to the questioning of cannon and discipline. Indeed many feminists point to the complexity of research and teaching that is not implicitly based upon a hegemonic understanding of who constitutes society and what constitutes knowledge. This has been problematized in discussions of pedagogy by internationally known feminists such as bell hooks (1994) and Gayatri Spivak (1993). For hooks, the interdisciplinary challenge of anti-racist pedagogy can be unsettling: ‘Many teachers are disturbed by the political implications of a multicultural education because they fear losing control in a classroom where there is no one way to approach a subject
only multiple ways and multiple references.” (hooks, 1994: 36). Additionally, the inclusion of ‘others’ voices’ and ‘others’ theories and concepts requires doing the difficult work.

Clearly this wasn’t a pleasant process for any of us. We all slogged on through a series of meetings and completed the planning. The final product turned out well enough but did not receive funding. The process was far from the fun and intellectual exchange we had looked forward to. The disciplinary member at a later time apologized (to an in-born Swedish researcher who wasn’t present at any of the meetings) for something in relation to the process but I never understood what she wanted to apologize for. This apology came indirectly through another person. It was puzzling, discomforting and angering since I respected her work and she is known to be a ‘very nice’.

So what do I view as the source of the tension and the problem. One aspect is that three people knew each other somewhat at least and one person felt themselves as a stranger or a newcomer to this temporary group and did not define herself as being part of the informal network of Women’s Studies researchers. The disciplinary researcher seemed to view us as being more alike and more unitary than we would have described ourselves. Would it be unfair to say that she had been concentrating on the fact that we were different from her or from the intellectual group of which she was a part? In my interpretation, I would argue that the situation was upsetting for her because she felt consciously or unconsciously surrounded by ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’. I was leading the group and she had expected another ‘ethnic’ Swede to be the leader. The experience of being in the minority in relationship to ethnicity was perhaps unsettling and perhaps particularly in relation to intellectual issues. She made discursive moves to disrupt our intellectual ‘power’ and point out our minority status, emphasizing her total lack of interest in questions that were central and vital to us.

Why am I discussing this difficult and frustrating process? It is not to point out how difficult the disciplinary researcher was. Her work is good in my opinion and actually much more international than much of the work in her field. She is both well-liked and well-respected. Was the problem us or our concepts or us and our concepts? It is multi-layer issue and its complexity cannot be reduced to us or our concepts. Pamela Caughie’s (1999) analysis of ‘passing’ and pedagogy is helpful here. Caughie presents many meanings of passing – for example passing on knowledge, passing as white, passing as a knowledgeable person in the academic community. She argues that ‘passing’ is a kind of performance but also that ‘passing’ is incumbent in any identity and particularly in teaching. In this situation at the time and afterwards upon reflection I have interpreted one of the meanings of the ‘I know you’ as being – I know your identity as an immigrant women. I believe that by her emphasis on this identity, the ‘disciplinary’ member of our group was pointing out that we were ‘passing’ by alluding to a subtext that dark immigrant women are discursively positioned as subordinate and not as researchers and intellectuals.

These kinds of processes in the daily workings at the university may shed light on a complex problem in Swedish Gender Studies around understandings of racialization, postcolonality and ethnicity. The tensions discussed above are apparent in many interactions. Firstly there is a difficultly in applying terms and theories of racism in another context than the one in which they were developed, that is they are travelling concepts. Secondly this difficulty is increased by the fact that only recently has Sweden come to view itself as a country with ‘migrant’ problems or problems of ‘integration’. Historical relations of power and ruling over for example Finland as well as the oppressive relationship of the Swedish state to the Sámi people have not been sufficiently theorised within Gender Studies or in broader intellectual and political contexts. This tends to make postcoloniality a concept that is likely to be associated with other places and other relations but not to Swedish state relations (6). Thirdly the discursive construction of national identity around the notion of social welfare state (which is now being dismantled) and ‘folkhem’ (folk home) as being built upon notions of equality and similarity, has given a limited discursive space for the conceptualizing of differences and inequalities that are in part based on gender and ethnicity. The perception of Sweden as a homogenous society is deeply rooted in the representation of Swedish ethnicity and nationality (7). A fourth factor is the contrasting of Swedish ‘equality’ to the ‘cultures of inequalities’ of which immigrants are constructed as bearers. For example, the oppression of women with immigrant backgrounds is referred to as a problem from their ‘home’ countries, so that ethnicity becomes a marker of inequality between women and men, but labour market discrimination of migrant women remains insufficiently problematized.

The issues raised by the events described above, and my location of these in the Swedish national context as well as the context of Swedish Women’s Studies, beg the question of how to teach ethnicity, racism and migration, among other concepts, in translatable, but context-specific ways. This dilemma is shared by many of the other partners in Travelling Concepts. In her position paper, Liana Borghi explores the concept of complexity as one way of approaching teaching practice in Gender Studies, insisting that ‘teaching students to be critical and analytical is one of self-reflexive goals of this pedagogical approach, and the narratives of complexity we had chosen proved to be good honing stones.’ In her position paper Giovanni Covi illustrates the complexity by examining her pedagogical goals and her structural context:

Toni Morrison reminds me that the liberal gesture to ignore race enforces the black body’s invisibility through silence to produce its “shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body” (Morrrison, 1990: 10). My commitment is to deconstruct the discourse of racism by articulating a gendered discourse aimed at addressing racial complexity and multiplicity.

Sabine Grenz raises similar questions from a slightly different angle in her paper for Travelling Concepts. Grenz asks ‘Who actually is travelling? Are the concepts travelling or is it us who move through different locations, periods of times and disciplines, and look at concepts from changing positions, thereby giving or discovering new meanings to/of concepts? While these questions cannot be answered completely, the concepts are travelling in such a way that it is not simple to apply them to the Swedish situation, especially since general political discussions of racism in Sweden have only recently developed in any extensive way. As a result, in Sweden as well as in the other Nordic countries, many critical intellectuals have little or no schooling in thinking reflectively about these issues.

The brief analysis above may give a background to the limited theorizing and research on ethnicity, class and gender in Swedish Gender Studies. There are a number of notable exceptions, and in conclusion I will refer to a few of them. In particular, Wuokko Knocke (8) has for the last 20 years studied forms of segregation in the Swedish labour market in the post war period and given particular attention to women and labour migration in Sweden, focusing on issues of class, gender and ethnicity. Following Knocke are a number of researchers in Gender Studies who have been inspired by her work and by international work on gender, nation and racialisation. Here I would like to also refer to the extensive work of Paulina de los Reyes, Irene Molina and Diana Mulinari. Their anthology, The (Dis)similar Disguises of Power: Gender, Class & Ethnicity in Postcolonial Sweden: a Festskrift to Wuokko Knocke (9), explores the develpment of gender identities in a racified society as well as relating the concept of intersectionality to research on race, class and gender in Sweden (de los Reyes, Molina, Mulinari, 2002). De los Reyes and Mulinari’s most recent book (2005) focuses theoretically on the concept of intersectionality in relation to global systems of power. Another significant researcher in the area is Aleksandra Ålund who has systematically examined relations of gender and ethnicity in Sweden and particularly focused on young people and identity in ‘multicultural’ Sweden (1997). Within Women’s Studies in Sweden, both Ulla Holm and Nina Lykke have worked for the inclusion of intersectional perspectives (10). Many of these researchers working with a strong interest in the field of gender and ethnicity have an immigrant background. It is not just the concepts that travel but also people who bear concepts, as Joan Anim-Addo indicates in relation to literary theory, when she asks ‘whose ideas become global and by what process? Crucially, what happens when concepts persist in travelling with the dark body?’

As part of the Travelling Concepts group, I would like to further explore resistance within Women’s Studies to theoretical and applied work on racism, gender, ethnicity and intersectionality by looking a number of debates and events and secondly I would like to examine more closely the ways in which concepts of racialisation, ethnicity, xenophobia and ‘hostility to strangers’ are developed in the Swedish context. Debates and concepts travel. But some travel with more difficulty than others.

(1) I use the terms Gender Studies, Women’s Studies and Feminist Studies somewhat interchangeably in this text. While I prefer the term Feminist Studies, the centre that I work at is called Gender Studies and was previously called Women’s Studies. The slippage in my useage of these terms is not an attempt to deny the important debates about them within the field, it is rather a concretization of the everyday practice of Gender Studies/ Feminist Studies/ Women’s Studies. For example, ATHENA II is a Women’s Studies Network, my centre is Gender Studies and my preference is Feminist Studies. Additionally in the Nordic context, researchers prefer to use the concept of “kön” to indicate that there are problems in translating the concept of gender into Scandinavian languages. For discussions of this problem see the articles by Nina Lykke (2004) and Karin Widerberg (1998) in t he journal NORA. See Ulla Holm’s position paper for a more in-depth discussion of the use of gender as a concept in Sweden: ‘In Göteborg we use gender studies both strategically and critically as an umbrella concept for an intersectional, dynamic, multi- and interdisciplinary field of research and education in transit. Educationally the field includes: women’s studies, critical studies on men, feminist (cultural) studies, homo/queer studies, postcolonial feminist studies, feminist intersectional studies… The concepts of gender and gender studies can in Sweden be said to instantiate what W.B Gallie (1956: 121) characterizes as essentially contested concepts.’
(2) Before being employed in Gender Studies I worked with gender issues in the areas of technology and society, working life studies and Third World Studies. So in many ways my experience has been one of different forms of interdisciplinary field.
(3) In her position paper, Giovanna Covi discusses another institutional context in which she must find arguments for how she includes race and gender in her teaching of American literature. Covi’s particular concern is with how to ‘translate cultural concepts in order to give ... students empowering toolds to transform their own realities, to fight the different manifestations of sexism and racism in Trento through their understanding of struggles in “America”’.
(4) As noted in several of the papers here, the use of English in Women’s Studies needs to be problematized. For example, in her paper, Veronica Vasterling indicates that the difficulty of ‘having to communicate in the de facto lingua franca of the globalized world’ is not only that it disadvantages non-native English speakers, but that it actively constitutes hegemonic global culture in ways that are ‘in some respects not unlike the power struggle of the sexes’. None of us has an easy or innocent position in relation to language and the discussion of racism in Sweden often brings up the problematic position of English language.
(5) Here situating the concept of race that Giovanna Covi (University of Trento, Italy) brings up in her paper “Races Apart – “Tremate, tremate le steghe son tornate” is an important issue. One aspect of race that she discusses is via Walter Benn Michaels provokes my third observation. He remarks that race ‘is not—like class—a social construction; it is instead—like phlogiston—a mistake’. He discusses the possibility of passing and shows how this is constitutive of racial identity:’ the mere conceptual possibility of passing proclaims the essential invisibility of race no matter how few people can actually pass; passing changes the colour from being the fact of race into being the representation that constitutes race.’ The parallel here is in the mistake of on an essentialist understanding of ethnic, racial or migrant identities. These are always contested and partial. Part of the privilege of teaching at the university is a class