Race, bordering and disobedient knowledge, episode 6, transcription: Disobedient knowledge in antiracist activism

Length of recording: 34 minutes

Participants: Minna Seikkula and Suvi Keskinen

Transcription notes:

MS: Minna Seikkula, Interviewer

SK: Suvi Keskinen, Respondent


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MS: Hello all the listeners. My name is Minna Seikkula, and today, we are at the Swedish School podcast studio with professor Suvi Keskinen. And soon, we are going to talk about a new book by her. But before that, warmly welcome, Suvi. Would you like to introduce yourself?

SK: Yes, thank you, Minna. Very glad to be here today talking about the research and the new book. So I’m Suvi Keskinen, I’m professor of ethnic relations at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki. And I also lead the project Intersectional Border Struggles and Disobedient Knowledge in Activism that is responsible [music starts] for this podcast, or producing this podcast.

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MS: Yes, and you’ve recently come out with a new book: Mobilising the Racialised 'Others' – Postethnic Activism, Neoliberalisation and Racial Politics. Whoa, that’s, like, many big words, and I think we will unpack it soon. But so, the book that has just come out is by Routledge, and maybe we could start by, you could just briefly tell everyone what the book is essentially about.

SK: Yes, that’s actually a good idea, because most people don’t know what post-ethnic activism is about, and that’s also the reason why… Well, first, the subtitle was the main title, and then, I kind of realized that, oh, in order to reach out for people, it needs to have a main title that is a bit more, like, descriptive of what it’s about.

MS: So the main title is Mobilising the Racialised 'Others'.

SK: Yes. So that main title is there to kind of explain what it’s about, and that’s basically what the book is about: about the kind of activism where the racialized position as non-white or other in the Nordic countries is the one that people gather around and mobilize and create different kinds of activities in media spaces or urban spaces or in feminist groups, for example, so forth. So what they think is uniting them is that they are racialized as non-white or others, instead of, for example, the kind of ethnic group membership as Kurdish youth or Somali youth, which might be (something people) [02:49] identify with, but the kind of activism that I’ve been interested in is crossing this kind of ethnic divisions and – to some extent – racial divisions and religious divisions as well. And that has been my interest perhaps (in it): how do we cross this kind of differences and divisions, and what kind of grounds for political action does that then create.

MS: Before I let you go more into that, maybe just a minor note… Or maybe it’s not minor, just the listeners aren’t able to see and hear that also (here) Mobilising the Racialised 'Others', others is inverted commas. But yeah, sounds very exciting. So what are the grounds for this kind of organizing across the different categorizations based by ethnicity? What are the activists doing that you write about in the book?

SK: Well, in some sense, some other researchers have called this antiracist activism, but why I’ve actually wanted to distinguish from that kind of research and instead talk about post-ethnic activism is because, well, the field of antiracism is very broad, and it can include all kinds of different activism – also the kind of movements where white people are in majority and directing the activities, and I kinda wanted to especially then focus on what happens when (you… like, on) [04:28] this kind of self-organizing by the racialized minorities or those racialized as others in the Nordic region.

And instead of kind of thinking that, oh, they’re all the same, and it’s kind of a one post-ethnic identity, for example, that Fatima El-Tayeb – a researcher who I have been very much… whose work I have been very much inspired by – she discusses post-ethnic identity. But I thought already when starting this research that it’s not about one kind of activity or one kind of activism or even identity, I think, it’s about different kinds of mobilizations, different kinds of activism, and I’ve instead, actually, in the book then analysed what is the common around which then people mobilized.

And based on this analysis, I then have distinguished between, like, five main forms of this kind of activism. First of all, the antiracist feminism and queer of colour activism, which is the largest, one could say, form of activism in all the three Nordic countries that I’ve studied – Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. And then, the second form of post-ethnic activism is built around urban activism in the marginalized and racialized residential areas, especially in Sweden and, to some extent, in Denmark, not so much in Finland, but there’s quite a broad movement in Sweden and, to some extent, in Denmark as well. And then, the third form of this kind of activism is built around the black or the African diaspora experience, which is also widespread in all the three countries. And then, there’s this kind of Muslim activism. This is the fourth. The kind of Muslim activism that takes up questions of anti-Muslim racism or islamophobia, (whichever is what it’s) [06:40] called. And then, the fifth, the main form that I’ve identified is built around or the common is understood as being people of colour or persons of colour. And that often takes the form of this kind of social media activism, but also all kinds of events, and it’s a category that people identify with – perhaps especially in Finland, I would say, compared to the two other countries where I’ve done research.

But then, there are also more, like, marginal or marginalized ways of understanding the common: for example, thinking about the common as more this kind of in-betweenness or being creole or this kind of between different kinds of categories. And that is… Well, and also mixedness, the idea of being mixed. For example, in Finland, we have Mixed Finns, an Instagram account where young people post all kinds of discussions about racism and antiracism (--) [07:52] own stories but also popularizing knowledge about racism and antiracism. So these are not so common, but they do exist and are a bit different ways of understanding the common, as I see it.

MS: Sounds wonderful. I was thinking, like, for someone who’s listening and is not so aware of maybe these forms of activism or action. You mentioned Instagram accounts and kind of providing knowledge on different themes, but is there something else? What are the activists actually doing? Would you have some concrete examples maybe, like, through the five different examples you had? What kind of things they do?

SK: [laughs]. Yes, they do a lot of things, and that has been maybe one of the difficulties with the research – that it’s so widespread, and there are lot of things happening and always new things coming up. But I would say that, I mean, part of this activism is quite much inspired and also takes shape through social media, Instagram and Facebook groups and different kinds of events that are organized or at least informed about through social media. But this is often not… Well, sometimes it's the only form of activism, but often this is combined with different kinds of meetings and… Well, at least before the COVID19 times, it was a lot about organizing face-to-face meetings and events and all kinds of coffee sessions and whatever, seminars, to discuss matters, and so forth. But also, of course, demonstrations and publishing different kinds of texts – not only on social media, but also like other kinds of texts.

But there’s also a broad, like, art scene, one could say, or cultural scene that is connected to partly the antiracist feminist and queer of colour activism, but also the urban activism has a very strong cultural part, for example, organizing these kind of spoken word poetry competitions. In Sweden for five years, there’s one organization that has been doing that. For a while, it was also a bit laid down, but now it’s continuing with these activities called Förenade Förorter, the United Suburbs, and it’s really quite a massive kind of activity that people have been doing in different marginalized residential areas in Sweden and doing this yearly for five years with very little economic resources and, like, a lot of voluntary work, and so forth. So quite impressive activities that people are doing.

MS: Yes, and at times, this also translates as demands towards the broader society, if I understand correctly?

SK: Yes, of course. I mean, some of the groups are more, in that sense, one could say, like, traditional social justice movements, that they provide a list of demands to the government or for local municipalities. For example, in the marginalized suburbs, to increase the situation of people living there and, for example, in Sweden, to prevent the (-) [12:00] violence and this kind of, like, groups who have a very clear political agenda in that sense, like, demands to different authorities and other people with power in the society to change things.

MS: So obviously, these activists are doing something very important and timely in the Nordic societies. What does it then mean to do research about it? How would you describe the impact of your research or how you vision it?

SK: Yes, it’s always difficult to know what kind of effects research has. I think, well, for me, I mean, this was a project that took for five years, and actually, even publishing it has… It has taken some time, and in that sense, some of the activities that I have studied have been laid down, and people have moved on to do new things, so I think that one of the important tasks with research is still to document what has been going on and to have a look at this kind of broader picture in this sense.

Looking at the different kinds of activism together is quite rare, I think. I mean, other researchers have quite often studied, like, one of these forms of activism – antiracist, feminism, or urban movements – but as far as I know, [laughs] nobody else has taken this kind of huge task to put it all together. And I think that’s a valid perspective, because you can see both similarities between the groups but also the differences and also see it, like, this kind of multitude in that sense, a broader and varied movement if one wants to call it a movement.

I don’t know if everybody wants to see it in that way, but anyway, you can see that there are a lot of different form, but there’s still like a common mission, I would say, or like a common analysis of the Nordic countries about its racial hierarchies, its class hierarchies to some extent and gender hierarchies. And the way that racism is characteristic for the Nordic countries is, like, an analysis that all of these groups share in a bit different ways. Some start more from the individual experiences and group experiences, others from a maybe somewhat more theoretical analysis, but I think what they share is still (pretty… Oh, I hope) [15:03] I have been able to capture that in the book and also both for the people involved but also for other people outside who possibly don’t know so much about these kinds of groups to see how the different forms relate to each other, what kind of aims and goals and analyses they have. And also what kind of visions and dreams, because the last chapter is about stories and images and imaginaries in that sense: what kind of societies and what would we want to achieve with this kind of activism.

So I think documenting is one reason, the other is putting it all together and for people to see perhaps connections that are not so easy to see in the midst of the everyday activism. And also I would say not all of these groups know so much about the other groups in the other countries. I think that’s at least what it allows for also those who are involved in activism, to maybe see themselves in a bigger picture that they might agree with or they might disagree with [laughs], you never know how people think about it. But that has been my aim.

And of course, as a researcher, my aim has also then been to kind of make a scientific analysis of this, which might be a bit different kind of aim than the aim that I wanted it to be accessible and readable for also those who participate in activism. But both parts are there at least intentionally, so let’s see what people think about the outcome.

MS: The book came out very recently, but have you had the chance to have conversations with those people involved in the various kind of activism that the book now very nicely gathers together, between the same covers?

SK: Yes, well, I have sent out information to people who participated in the book and the interviews. Some of them have had the time to read it, or at least parts of it, and have responded, but most people, obviously, haven’t really gone through it, but they have said that they’re, like, glad to hear about it and that it’s out now and that the research is important, and so forth. So, like, more detailed discussions we haven’t had, but hopefully, after the summer, I think there could be some events to actually discuss it. And of course, individual people may always come back and provide some thoughts, like, in that sense.

MS: So those discussions are maybe yet to come. So you mentioned it’s the past five years you’ve been doing this research. I was just wondering, would you like to say something about what kind of moment it has been to look into these maybe various forms of activism? Is this something new, or is this more like a continuation of a longer-time development, or how would you characterize it, like, time-wise, your work?

SK: Yeah, I think the last ten years, in the Nordic countries especially, have been, like, a time when this kind of activism has really flourished. And actually, in Finland, we can say that when I wrote this research plan and was planning to do the research, I thought: oh, let’s see what we can do [laughs] with the research in Finland, because there was very little of this kind of activism ten years ago in Finland. But, well, what has happened during this time is that it has really… Really, a lot of groups and a lot of media sites and different kinds of activism have emerged during this time. So it has been, like, really… a good opportunity, of course, to follow that and see the way it has developed in Finland. In Sweden, maybe there is a bit longer history, but even there, it seems that especially the last ten years have been really a very active time. And Denmark, obviously, is a somewhat difficult context for this kind of activism because of the very harsh political climate there, but even there, there’s been more and more discussions about racism and antiracism in the public sphere as well, not only, like, closed activist circles, but also in the public sphere.

But I can also say that, during the period… I started doing 2015 in practice this research, so yeah, actually, seven years to this date, but there has also been a difference in the terms that the beginning period, especially – let’s say – in Sweden, there was quite a lot of understanding and interest towards antiracism and these kinds of activist groups in the public sphere. Whereas the political climate even in Sweden has become more harsh during the last few years and especially since the last elections, 2018. So many of the people I talked to, actually, have now later on said that it was a good time when you interviewed us: things were still… We felt that there was some response to what we were doing in the public sphere. And it has been a bit more tricky in recent years. So this kind of hostility towards migrants and racialized minorities has been increasing throughout Europe in a certain sense, and that also affects the way the activist groups are… especially, like, how they are reacted to, or what kind of response they receive in the public sphere.

But of course, I think they have also had a big impact and, in Finland, for example, brought these questions of whiteness and structural racism and everyday experiences of everyday racism to the media and public sphere in a way that we didn’t have earlier. I think we can very much, like, giver the credit to the activists and the media actors within this field.

MS: So they’ve done a great work. And I guess, for our listeners, it’s also… might be interesting to take into account that you keep referring, or I hear that you keep referring back to this history of maybe ten years. Because maybe for some, thinking of these themes, like antiracist activism, black or African diaspora and POC activism, what might come to mind is the Black Lives Matter movement couple of years ago. But this is something, like, broader and older than that, would you say?

SK: Yes, I would say that this is – in some sense – a background to Black Lives Matter in the sense that there was a lot of work done before that, but of course, Black Lives Matter was (then) [23:09] maybe a kind of moment, a specific moment in the Nordic countries especially that brought these questions very upfront in mainstream media as well. But I think that this is the kind of… The activism that I’ve studies has a longer history, and it’s more broad. Some people were active in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and other activities who also participate in these other groups, but then there were also very new people, young people who just felt that Black Lives Matter was something they wanted to organize around. So I think that’s a bit different kind of… or at least includes a bit different kinds of groups, but there’s a lot of, like, background work that many people have done for years before Black Lives Matter in the Nordic countries especially that I’m talking about now.

MS: We’ve been talking about Suvi Keskinen’s recent book, Mobilising the Racialised 'Others' by Routledge. And while Suvi has been doing this research on post-ethnic activism, we’ve also worked in the same research project that has been partly organized around this notion of disobedient knowledge. Would you like to start by briefly explaining your idea, Suvi: what do you think is disobedient knowledge?

SK: Yes, well, I thought, actually, I would say first that the book is open access on the internet, so if you just Google the name, you can find it, and you can read the book there, so just for those who are maybe interested in digging deeper into this, you can have a look at it on the internet.

But yes, disobedient knowledge, I think, in this context, we can think that the knowledge that the activists that I’ve participated in my research, for example, so they create disobedient knowledge in the sense that they delink, as the term is, but meaning that they detach themselves or, like, take a different kind of approach or go against the grain, compared to this kind of mainstream knowledge about the Nordic societies being this kind of humanitarian superpowers and gender-equal and so equal in many other ways as well.

So they kind of start from their own lived experiences and the analyses that have been created by racialized minority communities and also the theoretical traditions that are not following these kinds of mainstream theories or knowledges. And they kind of – in that sense – produce disobedient knowledge, kind of knowledge that is starting from another kind of experience and creating… in this sense, one could say, creating alternative knowledge, but of course, there’s also the perspective of creating alternative futures or practices or societies, or so forth. Partly, it’s about knowledge, but that knowledge does something; the idea with activism obviously is that it’s about doing something and trying to create social change.

So I would think that disobedient knowledge is very much connected to, well, actions, not necessarily disobedient actions in the sense that they would be against the law or this kind of perspective, but they are going against the grain and building on the knowledge that people who are racialized as non-white or others in our societies have, but the idea of disobedient knowledge, as we’ve discussed in the research project, is that disobedient knowledge can also arise from different kinds of coalitional politics and, like, for example, antiracist activism. One could think that there are possibilities also for white people who participate in antiracist activism to think about the knowledge that they have to question it and to learn new things. And in that sense, there’s also space for other kinds of disobedient knowledge, not just the ones that arise from the experiences of the racialized others or those racialized as non-white.

MS: Maybe just really to kind of unpack it to our listeners: when you talk about disobedient knowledge, you mention going against the grain and kind of maybe challenging some hegemonic narratives, or something. But where is the grain? Where do we observe that?

SK: [laughs]. I think all around, unfortunately!

MS: So it would be from schoolbooks to newspapers and things like that?

SK: Yes, obviously. I mean, partly schoolbooks and media narratives or discourses, but it’s also in the universities, in the teachings at the university which is obviously not, like, monolithic in the sense that we do teach different things, but of course, researchers and activists who have thought about this in more detail and analysed it have, like, pointed out that a lot of the knowledge production in Western universities comes from white European or Western dead men, so to say. But there is this kind of canon what is thought of as knowledge, and it’s built around certain kind of social and historical background and certain kinds of processes. And it reflects certain parts of the world and, in that sense, certain kinds of experiences and views on the world, but then, all kinds of other perspectives are either marginalized or bypassed or not at least included in this knowledge canon. So that would require a lot of more work to actually have this kind of pluriversality, or the idea of different kinds of knowledges, how you can actually grasp a broader and more in-depth understanding of the world.

MS: I think our time is soon… or we are soon running out of time. But maybe we could, still, if you would like to comment maybe if there’s some lessons from the work you’ve now done or your future plans? Would you like to comment one of the two or both, as you prefer?

SK: Yes, well, perhaps we could say that we have this other book in process, which is edited by the two of us, and our colleague, Aminkeng Atabong Alemanji, and that book will focus especially on disobedient knowledge and racism and border struggles. So we have invited scholars from different European countries to think about these questions about what is disobedient knowledge and how does that take shape in activism, and what kinds of disobedient actions are also needed and created across Europe and its borders.

So we are working with that edited volume currently. Those who are interested in these topics can then get more information and more thoughts, hopefully, about these questions when reading about that book or listening to a podcast about that book.

MS: Yes, up and coming from Manchester University Press. Thank you for the conversation, professor Suvi Keskinen. Thanks for letting us know about your new book, Mobilising the Racialised 'Others' by Routledge. And just a quick reminder also for our listeners, as Suvi previously brought up, the book is open access online, so you can look it up. I warmly recommend. Thank you.

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SK: Yes, thank you very much for the interesting conversation.

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