Black Bile and Phlegm
by DÉSIRÉE WARIARO
People have been walking out of Kenya since forever. The desire to thrive informed both the first hominids and my Dad’s decision to leave his homeland. I don’t know how many Swedes you’ve met, but chances are they aren’t all of the blonde and blue-eyed variety. I’m a Swede, although my blue-black curls and nougat brown skin are not indicative of it. I don’t know the doting, wide-eyed Sweden my Dad can recall. I’m from a place that is unnerved by immigration; where the harsh climate runs tandem to the closed Nordic heart. I haven’t always felt this maliciously towards where I’m from, but that was before I learnt of The Secret – a rewriting of history so mind-boggling it eclipses any sci-fi plot. When I learnt what I now know, my identity was thrown out the window; I’d believed in the myth.
You’re about to read something important so don’t stop even if you are accustomed to turning up fool’s gold in the daily sifting through the information highway. Let's quench your appetite with something tasty right away:
Sweden invented racism.
Yes. I swear on my cryogenically frozen remains, this is the truth withheld about the famously egalitarian beacon of the Northern hemisphere.
In 1735, the Swedish natural scientist Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae in which he accounted for a hierarchical classification system that ranked humans based on appearance. Conflating the then popular proto-medical theory of the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) with our varied melanin counts, Linnaeus ranked the human species from best to worst:
1) White – phlegm; strong and optimistic
2) Native American – blood; Linnaeus liked huntsmen
3) Asian – yellow bile; depressive and rigid
4) African – black bile; dull and lazy
5) Young women*
Don’t you just love a weird-white-guy list? Imagine Linnaeus — the lauded scientist du jour– pontificating on his chamber pot, connecting the dots between the contents in his hanky and that curious description of the people his assistant had encountered on his trip to the New Country. We recognise Linnaeus’ taxonomy in its contemporary iterations: misogyny,transphobia, classism, homophobia, ableism and white supremacy, so I will use this sentence to posthumously crown Linnaeus His Royal Highness the King of All Bigoted Assholes - in the name of Morrison’s sixty-million or more, my Father, and the billions upon billions of people that have ever suffered on account of a list.
With such an undignified past behind it one would think Sweden would stay clear of further indictment.
In 2013, just as the dregs of winter were beginning to disappear, Stockholm came under siege of a militarist effort to hunt down all people the state deemed personae non gratae. New epithets for racial profiling were concocted; politicians used criminal language that planted grenades in people whose minds, despite being accustomed to war, tiredly surrendered. I began to see Stockholm for what it was – the eye of a corpse, a brain-dead sensibility that thought little of picking at the frayed edges of perniciously open wounds.
Coming to terms with white supremacy was a horror story in itself, particularly when fascists clambered their way to seats in the government in 2010. I remember rushing to the bathroom to see myself on the day the gap closed between what I saw on the news and what I’d only read about in books. The hydraulics of my face was disconcerting – my mouth trembled ominously as a fat mono-tear clung to the end of my chin, while a deep crevice had appeared on my forehead between my straining eyebrows. The gold band around my neck felt hot and tight, I wondered if it was strong enough to asphyxiate me. As satanically immortal as ever, the fascist hydra had arisen. Answering to the howls of the jobless in a flummoxed land, it came to live with us once more. Of course, it had never truly left, as it was born here long ago in that eponymous list.
My loss of innocence left me reeling. It wasn’t like I’d been living in an ivory tower full of fluffy bunnies and harmonious racial hybridity, but I had wilfully ignored exploring the implications of my black identity in favour of the lofty -isms of my white friends (“Meat-free Mondays!”). School hadn’t been of much help; we heard nothing of the litany of racism that snakes through Swedish history. Our dubious neutrality in the second World War seemed to me like an admission of ambivalence, a getting-the-cake-and-eating-it-too strategy that reaps all the rewards without any effort.
Africans born in colonial times are oracular**, they see water where there’s rock, homes in areas earmarked as ghettos, and music in sounds others deem guttural. They cast spells over recession-fuelled horror stories turning the scary headlines into fairy-tales. When I complained to my Dad about another failed job interview, he took it as a sign that things could only get better. A tremendous capacity for change coupled with the sort of perseverance that ensured he’d never give up on his dreams is as much a part of my Dad as his tribal ancestry.
What adjectives will define me the most? Will I meet my detractors head on, challenging them to a fight until death, or will I hide out in the bushes, succumbing to the violent assaults and belittling shame of my mind? Hatred may pour out of an old biology textbook, or slip haphazardly out of our mouths, but we get to decide how it gets under our skin.
All eyes were on Dad and I as we walked toward our table. An older couple glared at us throughout the meal as if superimposed arrows hung suspended over our bodies. Dad regarded me hesitantly.
“Does your skin colour make you sad?”
I considered my options – to tell the quixotic truth and risk lapsing into an impromptu anxiety attack or deflect my answer.
“Can we talk about this later?” I said.
The other guests did not seem hostile anymore. My Dad’s question, replete with concern and love, made all the micro aggressive eyeballing in the world recede to the back of my mind.
A scorching mantra I’d adapted from a James Baldwin clip quickened my walk home after dinner:
“You’re the nigger baby, it isn’t me, I’m not the problem.”
I thought of that shrivelled pink couple going inside their red-carpeted Gustavian bastion chitchatting about how interesting it was to see high-class niggers eat. I lay awake feeling helpless yet strangely satiated in my projection of their quotidian heartlessness. Tonight the city was resplendent in its hell-feathered gown.
On a bus in Stockholm I am the unrecognizable apparition in an urban landscape full of Nordic clichés. Heads turn when a honey-white girl with ash blonde hair steps on the bus. I inspect her jutting elbows and colt-like legs ensconced in the same black, over-sized utilitarian dress I’m in. People are dull and predictable. Nobody as much as flinches when I excuse myself to get off the bus, the sole discernible sound is the hush of silence, like I’m some sort of inconvenience. Wading through the melee I feel like a bull trapped in a maggot’s body, I know the blonde isn’t prettier, smarter or more hard working than I, yet I feel like her every breath is sucking up more of my serotonin.
It pains me to admit that I’ve internalised the Linnaean list, just like my paternal grandmother who died refusing to believe my Dad had tested higher in college than his white classmates. I wanted to erect a make-shift pulpit for myself on the bus, telling the other commuters how my DNA spanned the cradle of mankind to the gothic marshes of Northernmost Scandinavia, giving me the sense to dig deep into their souls – into the psychopathic heart of Swedishness. We are parts of each other, I’d proclaim, intertwining faiths, politics and cultures. Maybe we’ll always be like feuding conjoined twins, but we are stuck together.****
The entropic anxiety within anyone who has ever felt Othered is surely the worst evil there is, capable of causing enough anguish to whittle one’s will down to scraps, until the powers that be give you a declarative slap that’s so hard you take a razor to your arteries, or set fire to your old pre-school. Sweden, as we know it, is dying. We had the world fooled until our gleaming mask of fiscal superiority was punctured and everyone saw what we couldn’t contain anymore: our deepest secret flashing across TV screens in the shape of a car’s smoking carcass. Even if our politicians could handle the Scylla of historical inequality and the Charybdis of contemporary discontent the damage is irrevocable; the limp body politic, infused with arcane Linnaean beliefs, must be buried.
Early one morning I will tiptoe out of my decrepit one-room rental to join the others. As we wait for it to begin, we will compare notes, high-fiving each other in anticipation. As sunrise bursts over Stockholm the first screams of agony will begin, dogs will start barking in unison and bakers will step outside, waving their phones up to the indifferent sky. The revolution will have begun.
*Surprise, surprise, as always the black woman is the mule of the world. Amusingly, Linneaus said of his life’s work that “God Created — Linnaus arranged”, his penchant for cataloging acts as a double of a strain in the Swedish sensibility that loves nothing more than to keep, and put, things in order. There is no information on Linnaeus racial taxonomy on his alma mater Uppsala University’s official website (unless it is tucked away in some some nook I haven’t seen): http://www.linnaeus.uu.se/online/animal/1_2.html
** Not a reference to the magical negro
just a blink and you miss it hat tip but a description of the kind of wisdom contained in a person who has lived to tell the tale of being consistently Othered for well over half a century.
*** James Baldwin waxing poetic:
**** I am since self-diagnosed with Acute Onset Earth Mother Complex from which I am slowly recovering.
Désirée Wariaro is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Stockholm. You can find her twitter here.