Coming to grips with historically racist stereotypes and colonial traces in children's literature.

Outside a Stockholm shop. Image by Jackace, via Flickr CC.

On September 25, one of Sweden’s most prestigious national daily newspapers blew up an article on its front page about the cultural director at Stockholm Culture House Berhang Miri (a Swede of Iranian descent) reshelving Hergé’s Tintin books because of their perceived colonial taint, generating heated press and internet debate. Surprisingly, the furore rages on three weeks later, which if you also include the discussion about Stina Wirsén’s film character Lilla Hjärtat marks a very unusual month of the Swedish public sphere discussing historically racist stereotypes and colonial traces in children’s literature.

We asked Nathan Hamelberg, member of The Betweenship group (which probes racist structures from a young, mixed-heritage perspective), to explain the discussion and its wider implications in Swedish society.

What is #tintingate? How did it develop?

To an extent, it’s a part of a larger discussion that’s been ongoing for at least a year, in which racism has been discussed more openly, but where the exceptional thing has been a specific focus on the trivial places where racism has appeared: on candy packaging, as an artist’s cake, and so on.

Then the whole thing exploded when a major newspaper wrote about the artistic head of a youth culture centre moving the Tintin books to an adult section, after which the negative Twitter reactions came almost immediately. Some were opposing it because they claimed it was censorship. Others were saying it was counter-productive, that Tintin wasn’t racist. And of course there was a third, not worth responding to but very vocal group who basically were just provoked by the fact that a Swede of Iranian descent was allowed into the media spotlight at all. On the other side, anti-racists generally were standing up for Behrang, claiming to see the problematic traces in the Tintin books.

What’s interesting is that there appears to have sprung from what could be seen as a rather marginal discussion a much broader shift in who gets to have the privilege of defining what is racist or not. A lot of non-white voices have been permitted to be heard in the biggest media for the first time. That is amazing to me.

What are your thoughts on the arguments presented?

I think there are problematic exaggerations and generalisations on all sides. No-one is really advocating using censorship as a simple solution, which commentators seem to claim is what’s happening. I don’t event want to tell you all the nasty things Behrang’s decision has been compared to. Truth is, with libraries there’s always a decision of what books end up being placed on which shelves, what kind of literature is promoted, and which books ends up in storage.

The whole thing became unnecessarily polarised. For all the lofty expressions about freedom of speech, we have never applied those principles to children’s literature the same way. I wish we could have a more nuanced, ongoing discussion about libraries, selections and children’s texts, because these are important issues.

Some have claimed that the whole thing was a journalistic set-up, blowing up a regular reshelving decision by an inexperienced middle manager in order to generate precisely the debate that occurred.

I think there’s some truth in that. The newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, was somehow goading Miri to make a brash statement and it became so incendiary because of it. Part of the strength of the reaction was a direct result from that article, with people believing that Berhang has a carefree attitude towards censorship.

Do you personally think the Tintin books have problematic colonialist elements to them?

I think there are several layers that are problematic, yes. First of all, there are the early books that are blatantly and openly racist, like “Tintin in the Congo.” As a second layer, there are things that would be considered racist today but that were quite normal in Hergé’s time. This can be apparent to critical-minded adults, but not to the pre-teens who this particular library is made for. Thirdly, there’s the very fundamental problem that even the anti-racism in the books is typical of Hergé’s time and its racial hierarchies. The anti-racist effort in the adventures of Tintin is portrayed as a sort of civilatory white man’s burden — a knightly, gentlemanly missionary activity. At the time before decolonisation this may have appeared normal, even radical to an extent, but today it’s at best infantile and at worst derogatory. It exemplifies the essential problem with white anti-racism in general, certainly the problem with anti-racism in Sweden.

That said, and to complicate matters, I’m also a fan of Tintin.

How would you connect this discussion to a wider debate on the problems of literature with a colonial heritage?

There’s the standard argument, almost playing the devil’s advocate, that it’s necessary to keep these colonial depictions “for an educational purpose”. But necessary for whom? Do we need, in our current time, to have racist imagery stockpiled on us again and again? What kind of message does that send to children? What kind of message does it send to those depicted?

And if these “educational examples” are so important, why does it appear as if the same white people who are advocating for them have learnt nothing from them? I’ve seen, for instance, Prisoners of the Sun being referred to as a shining example of Tintin’s anti-racism. And yet it portrays Andean Quechua people as incredibly superstitious and practicing human sacrifice, with only the fully westernised Quechua boy Zorrino shown in a positive light. The native people not siding with the whites are made out as evil, completely ignoring the horrors of colonial crimes. And of course Tintin is the white man to the rescue… And these people are supposed to have learnt something from being critical to racist literature? Honestly, it’s as if Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were to be considered a fair representative of Hindu culture.

It’s also problematic that we need to continually review and respond to the books that are obviously racist. I’m more interested in the works that are in between, the ones that can be kept, and the question of how we can guarantee that there will actually be a critical discussion around them. I really don’t think it’s so strange to take something like Tintin away from children. We are perfectly ready to make this sort of appraisal when it comes to gender roles, or sexuality, or the negative stereotyping of poor people in very old books, but I think the problem here is that it’s seen as a group concern, something internal to Afro-Swedish people. The wider implications around children’s rights not to have their group depicted as a racist stereotype are missed. And honestly I don’t know which white parents would want their children exposed to racist imagery anyway!

In the Anglo-Saxon and Francophone world the discussion around Tintin’s colonial heritage has been ongoing for a lot longer, with Tintin in the Congo for instance not published in English until the 90s because of concerns about its stereotypical, racist depictions. How is Sweden different here?

Sweden’s national identity is interesting. We’ve got this view of our country as being fundamentally anti-racist at a deep level. This has almost become the big official Swedish ideology. And yet our anti-racism is different from that of the UK, France or the United States because their anti-racism has been framed against a backdrop of an awareness of the crimes of colonialism, and as a response to them. Sweden has a colonial history as well. It participated in the slave trade and was the last of the Western European countries to abolish slavery. Yet people here know almost nothing about it! It’s just a note in history textbooks, and there are almost no efforts to commemorate the victims.

Up until the Second World War, Sweden was a pioneer state when it came to eugenics and scientific racism, and continuing a programme of forced sterilizations way after. I had a discussion with my uncle — Sierra Leonean like my father but living in the Netherlands — and he was shocked to learn that the left-leaning social democratic country he held as an ideal was actually sterilizing citizens as recently as in the seventies. I had to correct him, “Harold, Sweden is actually still sterilizing transsexual people in this very day and age…”

And at the same time: after WW2, which left Sweden untouched, the increased economic prosperity and the large built-up surplus led to an almost 100% reversal of self-image, with Sweden suddenly wanting to appear as a shining beacon of foreign aid and international solidarity. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some good reason for this. For instance, the Swedish state secretly and illegaly supported the ANC (of South Africa) economically when no other western countries did — when there seemed to be little hope for Apartheid ever ending. Sweden helped refugees flee Chile after Pinochet’s coup there. And at times we’ve had the most liberal asylum laws in Europe. Many Vietnam War draft dodgers came here, and Sweden was (perhaps together with Canada) one of the few western countries where criticism of the Vietnam War moved from the fringes of the debate to its mainstream.

But what actually changed on the ground is a different matter. There has remained a systematic silencing of non-white and dissident voices that questioned the official truths. And the official anti-racist line (with its generous foreign aid) contrasted and coexisted with a continual state racism against national minorities, especially the Roma, with forced sterilizations, bans on settlement a common practice. And a strong social segregation along racial lines continued to exist.

Sweden is a country with a strongly enforced sense of homogeneity and a strong central political power. We never had to compromise to share power with regional minorities as Britain or Spain had to, inscribing rights to non-Castillian or non-English groups. Comparatively, Sweden’s national minorities — Jews, Sami people, Roma, and Finns (which is a very large minority indeed) — were very slow to receive their rights. Instead, there’s been a pressure to conform, a passive aggression directed at those who do not comply with the official line of “when in Rome”. Minorities and immigrants are supposed to be grateful for being allowed to stay here — a claim which ignores that Sweden has played a role in sustaining the conflicts that led many to seek refuge here in the first place, selling weapons to both sides in the Iraq-Iran war under the table, for instance.

Do you think Sweden is finally waking up to its colonial heritage then?

I’m not sure. In a sense, this debate is like a childhood disease: while having it earlier would have resulted in milder symptoms, the way it’s happening now is quite difficult. So I don’t think things will change in the short term. Still, the fact that non-white voices are entering the debate is amazing, and necessary. The cultural establishment in Sweden has been lagging behind on this issue in so many ways, even compared to the rest of society. For instance, a senior sports commentator recently was caught on tape calling an African footballer a “darkie”, and the initial reactions were miles ahead of the naive #tintingate discussion. The widest implications of this whole affair must be about the cultural establishment. It needs to be de-segregated! It can no longer be the case that only white voices are allowed to define what is and isn’t racist.

If Sweden is so ignorant about racism, why did this discussion start now?

It’s a series of things. The “war on terror” has fuelled a lot of islamophobia. Post 9/11 there’s been a lot of room for a populist, xenophobic right, as we now see in Sweden, with the Sweden Democrats in parliament and with violence against Roma and against black people. The economic crisis has fuelled this as well. The fact that these movements have become so prominent has led to a lot of mainstream politics agreeing on the presumptions of their world view, a division of us-and-them, a discussion based on racial hierarchies. Anyone who questions these hierarchies is punished, and that is what we’re seeing here.

Do you feel the conversation is likely to continue after #tintingate?

Not necessarily as much in the spotlight. Perhaps in a more low-key way, and mostly in critical circles. After all, to some extent, that this has happened right now is largely a fluke. One thing we’ll see more of is a discussion of these issues among feminists, who have had their own vicious attacks against them and whose more left-wing elements are strongly rooted in anti-racism. In this conversation, much of the most resolute opposition has come from non-white feminists.

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