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The Racial Politics of Nordic Noir

Exploring the appeal of the Nordic countries to contemporary British audiences, Ben Pitcher, author of Consuming Race (Routledge, 2014), considers the racial politics of Nordic culture.

From cafes and coffee shops to design and leisure, there’s clearly something of a fashion for Nordic culture in contemporary Britain. And from Michael Booth’s travelogue to Channel 4’s three-part documentary series Scandimania, there are no shortage of attempts to explain the origins of this fascination.

Channel 4's Scandimania attempts to explains Britain's obsession with Scandianvian culture.

In Channel 4′s Scandimania, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (left) attempts to explain Britain’s obsession with Scandinavian culture. Image: Channel 4.

As these commentaries recognize, our desire for Nordic culture is a multi-dimensional one. It is not just about products or a particular ‘look’, for it involves a wider orientation to ideas about Nordic culture: it’s about how Nordic peoples live their lives, it’s about an ethos of care and sustainability, it’s about the politics of social liberalism, social democracy and the welfare state.

This rich entanglement of politics, material culture, aesthetics and ethics will be evident to any viewer of Nordic TV. When we sit down to watch The Killing (Forbrydelsen), we enjoy the confident gender politics of the Copenhagen Police Department and the warp and weft of Sara Lund’s famous jumper just as much as we do the search for the murderer of Nanna Birk Larsen.

When we watch series one of The Bridge (Bron/Broen) we are just as interested in Mette and Martin Rohde’s kitchen furniture (‘I wonder where they got those chairs from?’) as we are in the identity of the ‘truth terrorist’. In spite of the bleakness of its subject matter, the idea of Nordic culture signified by Nordic noir is an aspirational one.

While in Nordic contexts the genre is so often read as chronicling the decline and corruption of social democracy, it still looks pretty rosy from this side of the North Sea. Whatever the reality of life in the Nordic counties (in truth, often very different), we operate with a fantasy that conceives of Nordic culture as the unique and special product of a particular kind of place, shaped by its own climate, geography, and history.

In my new book Consuming Race, I consider how a taste for Nordic culture is shaped in part by the lived experience of cultural difference in contemporary Britain. I explore how respect for difference – the desire not to caricature or misrepresent other cultures – had led to a turn away from the cosmopolitan and an investment in what are considered to be ‘ethnically appropriate’ forms of culture.

The Bridge

Nordic shows like The Bridge (above) provide a rich resource of white people in search of themselves, but also reinforce ideas about white distinction. Image: ZDF.

This is a phenomenon that implicates everybody: British people who make a claim on a Ghanaean heritage are encouraged to get in touch with Ghanaean music, art, and fashion, while those with a connection to Argentina or Brazil may legitimately embrace Latin American foods, festivals and literature. People with relatives in Iran can derive personal meaning and significance from an engagement with Persian style or the films of Abbas Kiarostami.

But this fashion for ‘ethnically appropriate’ culture poses a problem for white people in twenty-first-century Britain, because the idea of a ‘white’ culture is indelibly marked by the racism of the far right. While most white people are (rightly) suspicious of making such investments, the logic of ethnic appropriateness nevertheless requires that they develop a way of engaging with notions of cultural ‘roots’ or ‘origins’, of saying who they are and where they’re from in the context of our multicultural society.

Nordic culture plays an important role in providing some answers to these questions. Bolstered by a longstanding association between whiteness and the north, Nordic culture stands as a symbolic point of origin, giving white people a set of coordinates to define who they are and what’s important to them. It provides a fantasy of whiteness that is simultaneously distinctive and progressive. It provides a repertoire of moral orientations and stylistic positions that, in a variety of different contexts, delineate some aspirational ways of living, thinking, and being.

Consuming Race

Consuming Race, by Ben Pitcher. Published by Routledge.

Is it so wrong to be excited about a model of strong welfare states, committed environmentalism, modernist design and progressive gender politics? On the face of it, certainly not. But when we recognize that our Nordic fantasies of social responsibility and substance-over-style modesty can implicitly depend on their distinction from racial others – whether in the ostentatious aesthetics of ‘bling’ or ecological caricatures of a rapidly industrializing global South – we might think in more critical terms about precisely what motivates this fascination.

Nordic TV may indeed provide a rich identity resource for white people in search of themselves, but it can also reinforce ideas about white cultural distinction and autonomy that have their parallel in racist typologies of separate development. When the logic of ethnic appropriateness strengthens the apparent differences that set us apart from one another, it is worth reminding ourselves that, as with so many ‘returns’, there is nothing natural or inevitable about these narratives of cultural origin.

As attractive as Nordic culture’s figuration of clean lines and functionality might seem, in truth we’re a lot more messy and mixed up.

Dr Ben Pitcher is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Westminster, London. He has written extensively on race and racism, and in the area of cultural studies. His latest book, Consuming Race, is published in April 2014.

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