Ask the average Swede what the Santa Lucia celebration is about in terms of its historical/religious significance; chances are they won’t be able to give you straight forward answer because the details escape their memory. Like the below video mentions, when it comes to this Swedish tradition, “the why is less important than the how”.
This morning (13 December 2016), thousands of children (and adults)–including my own three year old son–celebrated Santa Lucia by singing songs and eating pepparkakor (i.e. ginger bread cookies) and lussekatter (i.e. saffron buns) afterwards. Unfortunately, however, this year (around the 4th of December) saw an ugly controversy emerge when a Swedish department store called Åhléns posted an advertisement on its Facebook page that featured a Swedish child of African descent wearing the usual costume worn by children on Santa Lucia (a white robe and a crown of candles). The picture received a storm of racist comments (and love by anti-racists) to the point where Åhléns removed the picture in consideration of the child and his family. Apparently, some within the Swedish society saw the picture of a black child featured in a Santa Lucia costume (which, by the way, is one of three costumes MANY preschoolers in Sweden wore this morning, including a Santa suit and one of a ginger bread person) as a threat to their “tradition”.
There have been many commentaries, opinion pieces, tweets, and Facebook posts that condemned and called out the hypocrisy of this phenomenon. The point of this post is not to repeat what has already been said, but to address the epistemic violence that African-Swedish children face regularly, as well as the fear this instills on those of us who are their parents.
*The above tweet by Martin Fredriksson suggests that a news site Aftonbladet fixes the title of their article to say “Racists caused a racial hate storm” instead of “Lucia child causes a racial hate storm.
1. The gendered, postcolonial discourse that defines who is a child and who isn’t
Before I go on, I would like to point out how much the child who was pictured in the advertisement looks like my own son; I can easily imagine that the child’s parents are of Eritrean and/or Ethiopian descent. Another thing I should point out, for those who do not already know, our (i.e. parents from the Horn of Africa and beyond) children are beautiful, sometimes rather than handsome; the boy in the advertisement was no exception. Only after reading more into the controversy did I come to realize that the child in the advert was a boy; I initially thought he was a girl, not just because he is beautiful but also because his Santa Lucia outfit (or is it just the crown of candles?) is more commonly presented in the media as being an outfit worn by girls, even though it is very common for boys to wear the exact same white robe. Either way, in my eyes, there was nothing at all that suggested there was something wrong with the picture. But the eyes of the racists, who were too quick to depict this picture in ugly ways, couldn’t see what I saw.
In this particular incident, three things were strikingly apparent:
a. That those who were offended by the picture disapproved of the color of the child’s skin, which simultaneously represents–in their eyes–a foreigner, ‘the Other’, even though the chances that he was born in Sweden is high;
b. That both the skin color and the ambiguity of his gender (i.e. he didn’t represent a stereotypical Swedish blonde, long-haired, woman) sparked the racist comments; and
c. The racists who left such hateful comments didn’t recognize or want to acknowledge that the person in the picture was an innocent child; and to articulate anything about him in an indecent way, in a manner that doesn’t befit a child, would be to effectively dehumanizing him.
“To mock and dehumanize a child all for their skin colour is both a symptom and a cause of the European superiority dogma. It is shocking, for a society that prides itself on civilization. …What happened to children being innocent, sweet and vulnerable creatures that deserve all of our love and protection? Even if people hated the idea of a dark-skinned saint, why mock and racially abuse such a beautiful little soul?” Edinah Masanga
It is exactly at these intersections (i.e. race/ethnicity, gender, age… you can also add religion to the mix) that Swedish society experiences some of its most ugliest moments, and it is not without reason that many parents of children of African descent live in constant fear that their children will experience discrimination, if not worse. Which brings me to my next point…
2. The anxiety experienced by parents of children of African descent is well founded
Afrofobi (i.e. a term in Swedish used to depict a phobia of people of African descent) is on the rise in Sweden, so much so that the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent mentions in an official statement, among other things, how Afrophobic hate crimes have increased by 24 % since 2008. Tragically, children of African descent are not immune to this. Most notably, last year, a week before Halloween, a child (15-years old) named Ahmed Hassan of Somali descent was murdered in cold blood at his school; the perpetrator purposely chose his victim because of his skin color. Those who recognize Sweden as country of ethnic tolerance, of being a country that has welcomed thousands of refugees, might think this was an isolated incident, but for parents of African descent, this is a fear that we live with everyday.
It is difficult to fully describe the daily anxieties of parents of African descent experience, but imagine how any parent feels when their child is in potential danger… now times that to the tenth power. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book “Between the World and Me”, talks about an encounter he has when a white woman pushed his 5-year old son (who is Black). To quote him directly (page 94):
“Many things now happened at once. There as the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body.”**
Don’t get me wrong–Sweden is one of the best countries in the world for children. But the dual existance of invisibility and hypervisibility that people of color (including racialized children) live in exists here just like it does in many (if not all) W.E.I.R.D (i.e. Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) countries.
3. The phenomena of racial tension around the holidays is happening elsewhere in the West
Even if Santa Claus isn’t real, there are plenty of people who will argue that he is white. This year, the Mall of America hired its first ever black “official Santa Claus”. In response to this, there were plenty of racist trolling on the web; some even called for a boycott of the mall. Western media representations of Christian holidays normalizes whiteness to the extent that most people have no idea that the original, real-life St. Nicholas himself was of Middle Eastern descent.
If you’re pissed off about a non-white Santa Claus then I’ve got some very bad news for you about Jesus.
— det. amy santiago (@_ethelbeavers) December 3, 2016
This Black Santa incident is NOTHING compared to the decades of racial stereotyping and humiliation that takes place every year in the Netherlands and Belgium. To keep a long story short, check out this honest video by Christophe Haubursin, explaining the racist caricature known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete in English), which is remnant of the Netherlands’ colonial past.
To conclude, the Santa Lucia controversy and all of the other instances I’ve mentioned in this piece are characteristic of epistemic violence. The struggle against epistemic violence requires the decolonization of our minds, starting with the decolonizing of the way we celebrate “traditions”.
*The featured image, “#VIÄRLUCIA” is a picture by Steffi Aluoch (website: https://artbyaluoch.wordpress.com/ …direct link to image: https://artbyaluoch.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/vi-ar-lucia/)
**If you haven’t already read “Between the World and Me”, just do it; it is one of the best books I’ve ever read.