First Course in Critical Whiteness Studies in the Nordics

"Racism and racial prejudice is impossible to understand without studying the normative white centre that gives rise to it”, says Jeff Werner, professor of art history at Stockholm University.

The first ever basic course in critical whiteness studies in the Nordic countries is being held at Stockholm University this fall. Jeff Werner, professor of art history at the Department of Culture and Aesthetics, is the person behind it. Werner is also the author of the introductory book Kritvit? Kritiska vithetsperspektiv i teori och praktik (White as Chalk? Perspectives of Critical Whiteness in Theory and Practice, 2021). Whiteness studies has been a part of the curriculum at a variety of universities in the Nordics, but this is the first time it will become a course in its own right, with a reading list including scholars like Alison Chang, Mathias Danbolt, Tobias Hübinette, and Therese Svensson. 

Critical whiteness has its roots in both postcolonial and critical race theory. In the 1960s and 70s, theories around racial discrimination were used to trace inequalities in the American judicial system. During the 1990s, these theories became institutionalised in both the United Kingdom and the United States, with important contributions from literary studies, film theory, and art history. Shortly thereafter, the field of critical whiteness was lifted out into its own area of research.  

Werner told Kunstkritikk that his interest in critical whiteness began when he moved to the United States in 2001: “It probably started when I got to the U.S, but at same time that’s not completely true. I had been in contact with these kind of questions before, just never in my own research.” 

The idea of creating a course in the field came to his mind ten years ago, while working on the sixth issue of Gothenburg Museum’s journal Skiascope, titled Blond och blåögd: vithet, svenskhet och visuell kultur (Blonde and Blue-eyed: Whiteness, Swedishness, and Visual Culture, 2014), which examines how Swedishness came to be associated with a certain type of physical appearance.

“There were a lot of administrative obstacles and challenges to creating a course,” Werner said. “So during recent years, I’ve been mainly organising seminars and lectures on the topic. This led me to realise the need for sort of an introduction to critical whiteness, not least in order to discuss what in the international sphere of critical whiteness studies is applicable to Swedish and Nordic conditions, and how.”

Creating a new course in higher education often means certain temporal and institutional challenges, but Werner believes that the pandemic was a catalyst for making it happen: 

During the pandemic, I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands to ponder this and write White as Chalk? And at the same time it was easier bringing new courses through at the university, especially online ones. The central point of departure for the course is first and foremost a comparison between the Nordic countries, which bear both many similarities and differences: Denmark as a prominent colonial nation; Norway having been in union with Sweden; and Finland, which in Sweden and Norway was earlier pointed out as less white than the rest of the Nordic countries. All of this is exiting to compare and look into.

Jeff Werner, Kritvit? Kritiska vithetsperspektiv i teori och praktik [White as Chalk? Perspectives of Critical Whiteness in Theory and Practice], 2021. The cover image is a painting by August Malmström depicting a lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, which, according to Jeff Werner, exemplifies the impact of Scientific Racism on nineteenth century art education.

When asked why he thinks this strong interest in whiteness is happening right now, Werner answered that it feels like “the tides are shifting”: 

For a long time, it’s been an uphill struggle. All of us who work with these types of issues have had a hard time getting a response, but now there is an increasing debate around topics of discrimination based on race – as we say in the academy, or ethnicity as it’s called outside of it [in the Nordic context]. Increasing numbers are realising that racism and racial prejudice is impossible to understand, without also studying the normative white centre that gives rise to it.   

One of the more prominent examples I’ve found of theories of race affecting art, was when I stumbled upon the educational material of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts from the early 20th century, where Scientific Racism where explicitly taught. It means that Swedish artists were educated in seeing racial difference as part of their artistic schooling.

Werner also underlines that it was the idea of whiteness that laid the foundation for the forced relocations of the Sami People. An important starting point for scientific racism in the Nordics during the 19th century was the theory that the original Sami population was dislocated by invading white long-headed people coming from the south during the Scandinavian Iron Age. According to Werner, “it was out of the need to prove this that the obsession with measuring the cephalic indexes of both the dead and the living was born. But this fundamentally archaeological question soon became an argument for the ‘white’ population’s right to colonise Sápmi. We still live in the aftermath of that.”