The social identity profile is deeply ingrained in the American psyche – the American being. It is used in everday language. It is how Americans view each other. Since the onset of American history; that is, the initial removal of the indigenous peoples of north America, Americans have been practicing ingroup and outgroup dynamics in the form of artificial and cognitive partitioning. An example of this is the term “black man.” What exactly does it mean? What is its historical significance? And what type of connotation does it illicit? These are questions that will be explored throughout the next four sections. The term will be explored through what cultural anthropologists call “a culture comparative analysis.”
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
In the American context, here is a man that would be viewed as “black” from the perspective of an American. Is this the case for Swedes? Do Swedes use this term? Does it have the same connotation? Or is this term an American creation constructed from 400 years of partitioning and solidifying ingroup and outgroup dynamics? Comparing the United States and Sweden will help make this difference salient because Swedes and Americans view this distinction very differently. How Americans; that is, United States citizens view people out strolling in the street and how Swedes view people out strolling in the street is very different. As an example, is this “black man,” pictured to the right, a father of those children in front of him and is that his wife pictured in the white coat? In other words, is that his family? Or is he by himself? This of course is a very American way of viewing this scene, this moment in time. How would the American view this scene?
It is without a doubt an American perspective of the world to differentiate the “black man” from the American. Do Americans not utilize the terms “all American boy” and “all American girl” with the connotation that the person has blond hair and blue eyes? Is this cognition not a part of the American psyche? Do Americans not get uncomfortable around “black men?” Why are certain neighborhoods perceived to be “ghetto” whereas others are perceived to be safe? Don’t “Black men” use drugs at greater rates than whites and all other groups?
According to an article published in the Equity Factor titled White Workers Still Uncomfortable Around Minorities, Study Finds, “…in workplaces with more minorities, white workers felt more negative emotions.” How can this be if America is post-racial? How can it be possible that United States citizens feel uncomfortable around fellow Americans? This is not to say that Sweden does not experience its share of prejudice. Swedes do experience, just like all other Homo sapiens groups, that “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” In fact, Sweden does experience such cultural interactions. But Sweden does not experience it in the same way. Sweden’s current prejudicial dynamics has to do with immigration and immigration policies. There are some Swedes who believe that Sweden ought to be a nation of its original inhabitants. By this they mean tall with blond hair and blue eyes. Translating for Americans, this means white, male, straight, and perceived Christian. Of course, this line of thinking neglects the very fact that the Sami people are the original peoples of northern scandinavia and that the Vikings were the original inhabitants of the southern parts of scandinavia, and northern and central europe. The Vikings comprised of variation in phenotypical, that is physical, features such as black, brown, and blond hair, brown and blue eyes, and various heights and builds.
To a Swede, this exercise in mental gymnastics may seem confusing. But the point is that these three pictured to the right, two Swedes and an ethnic Swede, are just Swedish in the Swedish context but are “white” or “American” in the United States context. The American system allowed europeans and scandinavians to graduate to the “white” majority throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. At no point in American history would these three be subjugated to the structural oppression; that is, the violence, margnalization, exploitation, cultural appropriation, and powerlessness of another group. For example, these three would not need to worry about police brutality in Stockholm, Sweden or an equivelant American city.
These three would not be racially stereotyped in a negative light, but rather would be viewed as safe and trustworthy, not threatening, or as slackers, ungrateful, and dependent on government resources. Frederick Douglass makes this point clear in his writings from the 19th century and El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) makes this point clear in his speeches from the 1960’s. This point of course is often argued in American rhetoric by way of terms such as reverse racism but is not actually valid when understood through the lens of historical economic policy, political representation, or social dynamics. The rebuttal is just not reasonable no matter how many times it is stated as being factual or real. This does not mean that Sweden is not without fault, nor is it perfect.
Sweden lost more than 1.5 million, or a quarter, of its citizens between 1850 and 1910 because of extreme poverty and a lack of upward mobility. The ethnic Swede pictured above is a decedent and example of this history. But those were Swedes leaving Sweden due to extreme poverty and terrible policies, not structural oppression like that of the indigenous, African, or Asian peoples that suffered during the United States herrrenvolk. Sweden recognized its unequal economic divide and its lack of policy making by those less fortunate. As a response, Sweden changed its ways. It took decades of economic and political reformation, but today Sweden is a multidimensional country with well thought out and sophisticated economic welfare policies. In short, Sweden took responsibility for its history and corrected the direction of the Swedish system with the proper policies.
An argument can be made that Swedes were tolerant of other cultures and languages and immigrants before the great Swedish political reformation. This cultural continuity may be found in those decendants of the Swedes that emigrated from Sweden during the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is because Swedes, in general, view Swedish people not as tall with blond hair and blue eyes, but as a more complex make up of people of many different eye colors, hair colors, and skin colors. Conversely, Americans view Swedes narrowly as tall with blond hair and blue eyes, thus perpetuating the myth; and if ethnic Swedes who live in America practice such a narrow view, an argument can be made that such a view correlates with graduating to “whiteness.”
With this perspective taking, it is easy to see how “black men” are viewed in the different contexts of the United States and Sweden. It is dinstinct. There is history in one and no history in the other. In other words, Sweden’s history is Sweden’s history and that Swedish history affects today’s Swedish culture; whereas, American history is American history and that American history affects today’s American culture. With this difference in historical context, it is a bit easier to understand what is meant by “black man” and how the term exist in one culture whereas it has no meaning and does not exist in another culture. This powerful and pervasive reality affects how Americans interact with other Americans and how Swedes interact with other Swedes. The question now becomes, will Americans first humble themselves by recognizing these differences along with institutional privileges, and then will Americans take a page out of the Swedish book and attempt to change the paradigm of the cultural and institutional hegemony that is the United States?