(Check out Part I: #ChinkHumor and Sweden’s Race Problem)
“[A] strong tradition of “gook humor” [is] alive and well to this day, where comedy is based around ridiculing and degrading East Asian bodies, supports the notion that somehow the Asian body is less than human.”
— Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, Illustrater and Comic Artist
I had the pleasure of finding Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s beautiful and powerful illustrations online after reading an article she coauthored with a fellow Korean adoptee and scholar Tobias Hübinette. The article was a response to a yellowface sketch by an all-male comedy troupe called ”Killinggänget”. They were first broadcast on Swedish television in 1992 and remained one of Sweden’s most popular comedy groups, and have achieved something akin to”cult” status. In 1995 they ran “NileCity 105.6”, a 6-episode series about a low budget radio station. Over the last decade, it has gained a huge audience and continues to gain popularity.
Lisa walked me through the sketch and share her analysis of anti-Asian racism—in the context of Sweden’s ultranationalist movement, the government’s hopes to erase any mention of race from the law—because they don’t see color, blah, blah, blah—and the nation’s status as the number one country exporting Korean children through the adoption industry.
I read your and Tobias Hübinette’s response to the running yellowface sketch on NileCity 106,5. Can you describe the sketch?
The sketch in question is called My Singing Korean Adoptive Pears (Mina sjungande ko-l-eanska adoptiv-pä-l-on in Swedish). In the Swedish name, the L’s have been replaced with R’s—because the idea that Koreans pronounce R as L. The protagonist is a white Swede whose adoptive parents are Koreans who also happen to be “pears”—mom and dad, informally. The parents (who are white men in yellowface) have buckteeth, squint their eyes, can’t pronounce the letter R, and exaggerate deference. In this particular episode, the parents are asked to sing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” live on air, and they perform it in heavily accented English, squinting their eyes and mispronouncing the lyrics. The sketch is actually a recurring one, and is rerun every year on May 29th, which is the date the sketch was originally on. This year Swedish television tweeted ”Happy May 29th” and put up a link to the sketch, and one of the comedians from Killinggänget—the comedy troupe—shared the video on his Facebook page. It was rerun on a primetime family show.
What has the response been to your and Tobias’ article in Expressen, both from Whites and the Asian community?
When our article was translated to English on Kultwatch, a internet platform on Swedish culture, and we got a lot of support from Asians and other people of color abroad, who immediately got our points and the racism of the sketch, even if the sketch itself was difficult to make sense of for non-Swedes.
I haven’t heard any reactions from non-adopted Asians in Sweden, but other transracial adoptees have been really supportive. The reactions from the white majority, however, has been very predictable: defensive and negative. We’ve been called hypersensitive, humorless, racists (!), boring people who can’t take a joke, self-hating, ridiculous and the list goes on. We’ve received hate mail, and Tobias got a visit from a Nazi group that vandalized his door with racist images and left a bag of pears on the door handle.
While the reaction from the right wing extremists was predictable, what was really disturbing was that known so-called anti-racists dismissed and even mocked our article on social media, saying that it was ridiculous of us to be offended by the sketch. It says a lot about how normalized and accepted anti-Asian racism is.
So, your art is wonderful and subversive, and offers some pretty profound commentary on what anti-Asian sentiment looks like in Sweden. Who is your audience? Do you have a community of anti-racist artists of color in Sweden?
Thank you! I think my audience is mostly other people of color, transracial adoptees and left, anti-racist activists. Being self taught, I’m not really a part of the mainstream Swedish art scene, but I’m involved with several groups of adoptee artists who work collaboratively—and we’re planning a joint exhibition next year. I identify mostly as an illustrator and comic book artist, and at least in that world, which is excruciatingly white, I’m one of the few artists of color creating work about my experiences as a woman of color and transracial adoptee.
While I’m not terribly knowledgeable about transnational adoption, I understand that part of your analysis includes the fact that Sweden is like the number one country adopting children from Korea. What is your take on this?
Sweden has long been a major demand country on the international adoption market, and is the largest adopting nation per capita on earth. About 10,000 of Sweden’s adoptees are from Korea, making it by far the most popular supply country. The demand for Asian children cannot be separated from Swedish perceptions of the Asian body as something that can be commodified. Sweden’s strong tradition of “gook humor” or “chink humor” is alive and well to this day, and that brand of comedy ridicules and degrades East Asian bodies—as if they are less than human.
There are also more practical reasons for the popularity of Korean children. Studying Swedish adoption statistics over the past 40 years reveals the boom and bust nature of the industry: sending countries flourish for a few years, then suddenly disappear as the corruption and child theft that riddle the industry come to light. Yet Korea, unlike any other sending country, has remained stable, still supplying children for Swedish families to this day. The powerful Swedish adoption lobby has worked closely with their Korean counterparts over the decades, ensuring that the trade—and human—flows continue.
Race in Sweden has been in the news a lot in recent years. How do you think anti-Asian racism in the media and in microagressions relate to racism against other people of color in Sweden? (e.g. anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Black portrayals, i.e. Tintin, blackface)
I think that racism in general is very much alive and kicking here in Sweden, but I think that the counter reactions differ depending on which group is under attack. There are known organizations and spokespeople for the Muslim, Jewish, Sami, Roma and Afro-Swedish communities, but none for the Asian community. Racism against Asians isn’t really recognized as being racist at all, and even in the anti-racist movements it seems to remain invisible. We constantly see racist caricatures, jokes and stereotypes of Asians on television, in advertising, in stand up comedy, in entertainment shows and so on, and it’s very much part of the popular culture here in Sweden. To criticize it is to criticize something so deeply ingrained in Swedish culture that it’s loved by all.
What connection do you see between Sweden’s long history of genocide (cultural and literal) of the Sami, Finns, and eugenics and racism in Sweden today?
There is a combination of mass ignorance and denial regarding Sweden’s murky history of genocide, colonialism and race biology and eugenics, which has been effectively whitewashed by national myths of anti-racism and exceptionalism. People really do believe that Sweden is somehow exempt from European colonial history and Nazism. Sweden was the world leader in eugenics, housing the world’s first governmental institute of racial biology (established in Uppsala in 1922). Racial biology taught the general population to differentiate between the superior Aryan race and undesirable others, communication to the public at large through literature, films and cartoons directly.
Sweden loves to project itself as a progressive nation that has really evolved past things like sexism and racism. What is it like, fighting racism in a context like that?
Well, I think Sweden’s attempts to sweep its history of race biology under the rug has created a kind of collective forgetting. Instead, an extreme colorblindness ideology emerged—and the government has even been trying to codify that ideology into law. There has never been an inquiry, a discussion, or a reflection: the same scholars and politicians who so enthusiastically embraced eugenics and the idea of Swedish racial purity effectively became “colorblind” anti-racists overnight.
The national amnesia regarding eugenics and Sweden’s colonial past, combined with this total cognitive dissonance where people really believe Sweden is “post-race”, creates a culture of denial. It’s impossible to seriously address racism. You can’t even report a race hate crime with the police—the closest thing to it is discrimination on grounds of ethnicity or skin color.
What’s interesting though, is that when our article got translated to English and shared internationally, a lot of people expressed a deep disappointment. It shows how strong Sweden’s identity of being anti-racist and post-race has become an exported nationalist image.
When I emailed you these questions, I sent you links to videos of yellowface representations from the U.S. (SNL and a lawyer’s commercial), and the BuzzFeed video “If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say.” Does it surprise you that anti-Asian racism exists in the U.S. and that many media representations have not changed since the 1800s?
To be honest, no, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been consuming American culture since the 80s, and it’s been painful to see how racist depictions against Asians remain static in both its presence and its representations. The BuzzFeed video could easily have been made by a Swedish Asian! I recognized every single line in the video from the everyday racism that I experience here and in other European countries,.
Do non-white Swedes feel solidarity with each other? Like is there an active multiracial anti-racism movement in Sweden?
I feel that Swedes of color are joining forces more and more often, especially young people. We see different communities creating resistance and speaking up against discrimination, racism, and white privilege. As an adoptee, however, the issue is even more complicated: a lot of adoptees have trouble showing solidarity with both PoCs and other adoptees, since so many of us identify more with white Swedes.
Internalized racism, the fear of losing White friends and family makes it difficult for adoptees to talk about their own experiences or even acknowledge their experiences of racism. A lot of adoptees talk about how even talking to other adoptees meant admitting ”otherness”. In Sweden the colorblindness narrative is very strong, and transracial adoptees in particular are taught not to see themselves as being different.
To see more of Lisa’s work, visit https://woolrim.wordpress.com/.
(Check out Part I: #ChinkHumor and Sweden’s Race Problem)