Outrage over Swedish ‘negro’ neighbourhood

An association working for Africans' rights has reacted with fury to a decision by a state agency to preserve the name of a neighbourhood called Negern ('the negro') in the western Swedish town of Karlstad.

“I’m extremely upset. The N-word is racist and this just confirms the nature of Sweden today,” said Kitimbwa Sabuni of the National Afro-Swedish Association (Afrosvenskarnas riksförbund).

The neighbourhood’s name came under scrutiny when the National Land Survey of Sweden (Lantmäteriet) was asked by the Karlstad town council to reevaluate the designation. A private citizen had complained that “many people regard the name as objectionable, insulting, or just plain rude”.

But the agency’s ‘Place Name Division’ countered that the name was part of Sweden’s cultural heritage and should instead be seen as “exotic and evocative”.

“Accepted place name practices dictate that place names should not be changed without strong reasons, and the Place Name Division cannot see that there are such reasons in the case of the neighbourhood name Negern,” Lantmäteriet writes.

Only in recent times has the word developed offensive connotations, says Lantmäteriet, which fears that changing the name Negern would open the floodgates for anybody to lobby for changes to names that they consider unsuitable.

The name Negern was chosen in 1866 as part of a project to rebrand central parts of the town. According to Lantmäteriet, the word was common in 19th century Swedish literature and can thus in that context can be viewed as “harmless”.

But Kitimbwa Sabuni was quick to reject this logic.

“How can the date be relevant? This is 2009, not 1866. And besides, Swedes’ attitude towards Africans was overwhelmingly racist at that time,” he said.

“This is extremely serious and has to go right to the top. I will be lodging an official complaint,” Sabuni added.

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