Art,Transnational Whiteness and Racism

There’s a cake that’s creating quite a stir around the world and around the Internet. The controversial cake was prepared to mark the 75th anniversary of the National Organization of Swedish artists, attended by culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. The cake was designed by artist, Makunde Linde, an Afro-Swede, known in Sweden for provocative work that aims to challenge racial stereotypes. Whether or not his art does, in fact, challenge racial stereotypes – or simply reproduce them – is the subject of some debate.

It’s the picture of the event – the cutting of the cake and the culture minister (pictured) feeding the cake to the artist (that’s him, in blackface, posing as the head) is really what created the big stir. At the centerpiece of this piece of performance art is the degradation and mutilation of (if symbolically) of a black woman’s body, for the entertainment and enjoyment of a group of white people.  And, this as readers here well know, has a long history in Western culture.

After people reacted to the picture and called it racist (which seems self-evident), the events followed a rather predictable course: 1) the Swedish culture minister apologized 2) the artist gave interviews and explained that his “intention” was not to create racism (and sexism) but rather to expose it, 3) lots of people came out defending the artist and 4) lots of other people, including the National Afro-Swedish Association called for the Culture Minister’s resignation.

Perhaps most predictably of all, a blogger at The New York Times framed the issue in the quintessentially American frame of “free speech.” At the same time, the piece completely ignores any connection to racism in the U.S. by comparing the racist-Swedish-cake incident to another European incident where there was debate about use of the n-word (and variations on the word) in French.  The New York Times’ account is a terrific example of the ‘white racial frame’ – of looking at something through a white interpretive lens that comes out of the perspective of white elites and resonates broadly with people beyond the elite stratum.

I think that the cake and the cake-cutting and the controversy surrounding it are about something slightly different that I haven’t seen elsewhere. he fact that it’s performance art, “that must be allowed to provoke,” is being treated as an end-point to the discussion about what’s so disturbing in this image.

But there’s more to this.

In my view, what’s happening here is that this picture exposes transnational whiteness and implicates these individual people in this interaction that’s imbued with racism.

Let me explain.

Les Back uses the term ‘translocal whiteness,’ to refer to the way neo-Nazis and others are organizing and connecting online, across national boundaries (Les Back, “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D.T. Goldberg and J. Solomos (eds.) A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002): 365-377). This is an idea that I expanded on in the Cyber Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) book. (Here, I’m using the term ‘transnational’ as a synonym for ‘translocal’ because I think it makes more sense intuitively.)Part of what’s happening in this photo is that we recognize whiteness as decidedly noticeable, and it’s recognizable across national boundaries.

Even though whiteness studies has been around almost 20 years now, most white people are still shocked when they’re noticed because of their race. The aim of most studies of whiteness  has been to make visible and to problematize whiteness which has largely remained invisible, unremarked and ‘normal’. Yet, whiteness studies remains incredibly insular and almost excessively focused on whites in the U.S. (on this point, see the work of Alastair Bonnett, particularly, “White studies revisited.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2008, 31(1), 185-196). The Swedish cake incident calls attention to the need for a more transnational framework for whiteness studies.

We’re also disturbed by in this image is the way that these individual people in the image are implicated in racism by delighting in the cake-cutting ritual. This is part of why people are calling on the culture minister to resign, because she participated fully – in looking like a racist. And, in fact, there’s no other way to be in that position. To not “be racist,” she would have had to disrupt the entire event (which many have pointed out would have been a good idea).

And, yet ‘whiteness’ is not just about white people – it’s about white practices.  Raka Shome explains this a little further when she writes:

” [w]hiteness…is not a phenomenon that is enacted only where white bodies exist. Whiteness is not just about bodies and skin color, but rather more about the discursive practices that, because of colonialism and neocolonialism, privilege and sustain the global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews (‘Whiteness and the politics of location’, in T. Nakayama and J. Martin (Eds), Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity, 1999, pp. 107–128, Thousand Oaks: Sage).”

So, part of what we recognize and what disturbs us is whiteness and the colonialism, neocolonialism, privilege and global dominance of white imperial subjects and Eurocentric worldviews that are so perfectly summed up in the act of the white culture minister devouring the cake and then “feeding” it to her “subject.”

Further, whiteness is tied to the twin legacies of European colonial power and American delusions of “manifest destiny.” These legacies are rooted in racist acts of physical or verbal violence.  In the photograph, the white people in the crowd, smiling, laughing, cameras raised, taking pictures as the cake and symbolic woman are cut, evoke the lynch mob. This picture is the essence of colonialism and neocolonialism, and of a privileged Eurocentric view, and that is part of what is repulsive in this image. Such representations circulate very widely through social media, yet often with little or no critique or analysis, only reproducing (in every sense) the image and its unintended consequences.

For its part, a spokesperson for the museum where the cake appeared had this to say:

“Moderna Museet understands and respects that people find the pictures and video clips from World Art Day upsetting, especially when they are shown out of context. The intention of KRO and Makode Linde was to draw attention to and discuss today’s racism, not to reinforce it.”

I actually don’t object to the performance art aspect of this piece, I just don’t think it went far enough in exposing the racism it wanted to subvert. The racism that the pictures and video clips of the event were not “upsetting” because they were “shown out of context.”  It’s the context and the racism embedded in it that is disturbing. That the artist, the museum and the culture minister failed to understand that speaks to the complicated ways that art, transnational whiteness and racism are intertwined.



  1. cordoba blue

    I have to be honest. That cake was in HORRIBLE taste. A black body as a cake? then the cake has to be cut to be eaten correct? Please. The truth? I would not be able to stand in that room during this “ceremony” or whatever.
    I can’t watch cruelty and I can’t even watch “simulation” of cruelty. I would either start screaming at the participants or just leave the room and get sick. Sorry, but this is disgusting to me.

  2. Was the artist’s point that racism is ubiquitous and everyone participates in it? Cause if so: ‘A’ for effort and creativity; ‘F’ for execution and forethought.

    I’m no art connoisseur, but I feel like a lot of these types of performance arts and ‘comedic’ displays fail to land precisely because they either “don’t go far enough” or “reproduce the image and its unintended consequences.” Sometimes both.

    That said, it seems sort of painfully obvious to me that a real comment on racism would’ve made white-skin the subject of the art, ie a vanilla cake with vanilla, strawberry, lemon (for the hair) and blueberry (eyes) frosting. I’ve found that sometimes, the best way to expose white racial framing is to ask, “What if it were you?”

    Of course, while our imaginary strawberry cream cheesecake cake sound deliciously amazing, as art, it would have its drawbacks. There’s the potential to perpetuate white sense of victimization re Anders Behring Breivik or a recent Facebook status, “I wish at least one national news station would cover a crime with a white, Christian, heterosexual victim.”

    Which, I suppose, further illuminates the depth and flexibility, the cognitive dissonance of racism and white racial framing. Whites globally literally get to have their cake and eat it, too. Along with my cake and good swig of my milk!

    But again, it seems painfully obvious to me that your best bet for being constructively provocative in such a case is to use white-skin as the subject. That’s just me, all cake aside.

    • Joe

      Great points, Blaque swan. If only whites could do that…. Envisioning cutting up a white female or white male cake — that would almost certainly have been unthinkable to this culture minister and most other whites, and especially such actions set in a “fun” laughing mode… even for the sake of “daring” performance art.

      Thanks Jessie too for raising these transnational issues…. It does seem like white racism in operation is very similar globally now, maybe even more so that in the past because of cyberspace…

  3. parvenu

    I read an earlier report about this event at the Art museum in Sweden which featured the same cake cutting picture as shown in the discussion above. The earlier report also included a form of an apology from the Museum over the incident, which stated that the event was staged to draw attention to the “the continuing horrors of vaginal mutilation of African women”. THe communique also pointed out that this is the reason why the Cultural Minister was directed to start cutting the cake in the pelvic area of the form as a symbolic re-enactment of the very act of vaginal mutilation routinely performed on the bodies of black African females. The Minister’s final act of delivering the extracted morsel into the mouth of a symbolic African man was the culmination of this sadly misdirected performance art.

    If the purpose of this event at the Arts Museum was to draw attention and create sympathetic support for the fight against the practice of performing vaginal mutilation upon African women, then it strikes me that all such events must be structured upon the degree of solemnity and deep respect that such painful human anguish-filled torture deserves. It is obvious that any worthy goal such as this requires that every event scheduled for this cause must be designed and performed in a manner guaranteed to generate the maximum amount of compassionate empathy possible among every member and invited guest. Therefore the comedic boisterous atmosphere that was so clearly present upon the faces of all of the members and invited guests in the photograph of the Swedish cake cutting ceremony is sufficient evidence that the event was clearly designed to entertain the white audience with inescapable crude racialist imagery; the audacious display of which is slyly protected by a rather transparent veneer of “sincere well intentioned” support for a most benevolent cause.

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