– Part of the racist problem

A Rice-picking Chinese girl? A Wine swilling Aboriginal man? They are just the tip of the iceberg.

In Copenhagen airport there is a shirtless, bearded Indigenous Australian man. His face is painted and he appears generally unrefined, except for the glass of red wine held beneath his lips. The historical context of two hundred years of colonialism is neatly sidestepped. Here he is, the poster boy for both an Australian restaurant in the city and of the prickly debate surrounding cultural difference and multiculturalism in the Western world.

According to Dr Aje Carlbom a social anthropologist from Malmo University, ‘multiculturalism – as a policy for the administration of immigration is under attack all over in contemporary Europe’. He also points out that multiculturalism contributes to the racist problem because it is an ideology that is ‘just as focused on ethnic/cultural differences as racist ideologies’. This comment captures the zeitgeist of the current situation in many so-called multicultural countries, a spirit that has been not exclusively but more ferociously leapt upon by right wing parties and their supporters.

In February the British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech regarding Islam and British values, he denounced ‘state multiculturalism’ as a failed policy because it had encouraged British people to live segregated lives. The Tea Party movement in the United States is setting out to restore American values not least by promoting what it considers to be the failure of multiculturalism. In April the extreme right True Finn Party became the third largest party in Finland, elected on a platform of anti-European and anti-immigration. In July in Oslo a self-described nationalist killed over seventy of his own countrymen seemingly out of a reaction against multiculturalism and Islam. The exploitation of ethnic stereotypes in advertising is only the barest tip of the iceberg but it does provide a lens through which to view the current debate.

Of course using ethnic stereotypes in advertising is not new, in every country we are faced with fresh examples and other multicultural countries such as Sweden and New Zealand are no exception. In August an Energy company released an advertisement showing the ideal New Zealander colloquially known as a Kiwi, with a series of faces, none of which were Asian. The ensuing debate suggested that Asians should lighten up and that to protest was ‘un-Kiwi’. A similar situation appeared in Sweden last month with the Finnish food corporation Fazer announcing its intention to repackage a line of popular chocolate bars sold here.  Currently the ‘Kina’ as in China, chocolate rice puff snack features the caricature of an Asian girl with distinctly slanted eyes, bright yellow skin and a wide grin. On her head is a conical rice picking or farmer’s hat. The Fazer decision came in the wake of public pressure after Helsingborg Daily journalist Patrick Lindberg highlighted the racist aspect of the bar’s packaging. Many commentators online and in the media considered this decision as an attack on freedom of speech.

Lindberg originally argued that, ‘to joke and laugh at Asians seems to be the only racism which can pass by unremarked’ and suggested that ignoring the Kina chocolate bar allow for reality rendering other forms of racism permissible. He was criticised on national television by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, known for the 2007 controversy over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, who suggested that Lindberg was overreacting and that erasing prejudicial opinions on ethnic and national differences is impossible. When a television station surveyed a thousand Swedes about whether they thought the picture was offensive, only 3 percent said that they did, how many of these Swedes were of an Asian background is unclear.

Dr Carlbom says that in other European countries this is debated by activists, scholars and policymakers from left to right, but in Sweden the critique mainly comes from various nationalist groups. Thus, in this country critique of the multiculturalist ideology is classified as racist or, as it is labelled today, Islamophobic. According to Dr Carlbom  multiculturalism is part of the racist problem because it is an ideology that is just as focused on ethnic/cultural differences as racist ideologies. The Kina chocolate bar issue is an example of the anxiety people experience in Sweden when it comes to differences.


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