Does “race” Matter?

Stockholm, Sweden: Majestic. Beautiful. Historic. Changing. Swedes have a wonderful word that expresses diversity: the “mangfald”, or “the “many-ness”.

Immigration is quickly changing this “global city” and forcing many to confront a new mangfald – Sweden’s multicultural, multi-ethnic reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in media – in particular the public broadcaster, SVT, which has a policy for ethnic and cultural diversity that in part states: “Ethnic and cultural diversity is an important part of SVT’s public-service task. Diversity in backgrounds, experience and knowledge on the parts of staff and programme participants is essential to SVT’s being able to fulfil its obligations and to making SVT the most important media company in Sweden.”

There are also “commitments” to programme-relative activities. Including:

  • To avoid generalizations regarding ethnic, religious and cultural groups and to have people appear as individuals and not primarily as representatives of their various respective ethnic groups
  • To depict people from different backgrounds in everyday situations
  • To seek sources and experts with various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

If you are from the U.S., the UK or Canada, you may have noticed that there is no mention of the word “race” in the above policy and commitments. How does a media organization accomplish these goals when the culture of the country (and laws) does not recognize the notion of “race.”?

Our Swedish acquaintances are quick to point out a statistical truth: from a purely scientific perspective, “race” is irrelevant. All humans have more in common in our DNA than differences. Ethnicity, therefore, is what matters. They explain to their Canadian visitor that for many Swedes, the concept of “race” bears sinister overtones, and bring back memories of the Nazi’s destructive definitions of race before and during the Second World War. Most Swedes, then, avoid both the word and the concept of “race.”
But what of those Swedes who belong to a different “race”? We do not know. Perhaps it’s entirely coincidence that, just a few hours after the conversation above, we got an unequivocal answer when we posed the question to the first person of colour we saw on the street – a black man who identified himself as Swedish. Does race matter in Sweden, we ask. To which he promptly replied: “I think race is very important in Sweden. It may not be important to white Swedes but it is very important to those who are not white because it affects the way you are treated.”

Yes, these are challenging times for Swedes. The greater challenge for the media here will be to grasp the opportunities inherent in diversity or “mangfald” and to create innovative television and radio programs about the New and Emerging Sweden.

2 comments on “Does “race” Matter?

  1. Interesting perspective from “across the pond”. Every difference matters if you do not see yourself as part of the whole. THe issue for me is not whether we perceive differences, but of our level of tolerance and acceptance of the differences we perceive. So, I see race, but it’s just an observing. It does not “color” (lol) what I say or do. It is challenging for the Swedes – and will become more so as others who DO think that race matters enter their society. Acknowledging the existence of these different perceptions, discussing them and accepting them will be important first steps.

    Does race matter? Yes, says the gentleman you interviewed – but, is it the treatment he receives or his perception of the treatment he receives? The truth is somewhere in between. It matters if you think it does

    1. A very thoughtful response. There is the old adage
      “it’s about mind over matter; if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter.” However, I wonder if a person is being mistreated (or worse) because of his/her race or gender or any other difference, it would be that easy for it not to “matter.”

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