Q&A with Erika K. Jackson, author of “Scandinavians in Chicago”

Erika K. Jackson is an associate professor of history at Colorado Mesa University. She recently answered some questions about her book, Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

I have a complicated identity as an adopted child raised in a family with a strong Swedish-American heritage. I would always get asked if I was Swedish, and when I told people that I was at least Scandinavian according to my adoption records, there was always a sense of intrigue and recognition of racial privilege. In my early twenties, I worked at the Swedish American Museum and Center as a museum intern and felt even closer to my (adopted) ancestors, which led me to investigate the origins of ethnic privilege I recognized when speaking with people from a contemporary perspective about my ethnic roots. When first reviewing the secondary literature in researching my book, I was struck by the notion that many scholars focused on the privileges Americans granted Scandinavians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it was almost as if there was a hesitation among some writers to be forthright in their assertions. Based on my lived experience, as well as primary source research, I knew I had stumbled upon a new direction of focus, especially as whiteness studies was becoming more prominent during the mid-2000s.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

I had the immense opportunity to work with some of the individuals who had the greatest impact on my book, including Lisa Fine and Dag Blanck. Lisa was my graduate advisor at Michigan State who modeled excellence as a scholar and seasoned educator in women and gender studies and labor history. Dag saw potential in my work early on and has become an important mentor, most recently inviting me this past November to participate in a seminar on the future direction of Swedish-American studies at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. and George Washington University. In my research, my greatest influences in regard to the history of race and ethnicity are Matthew Frye Jacobson, Thomas Guglielmo, and Russell Kazal, while Gail Bederman, Ruth Frankenberg, and Joanne Meyerowitz’s works helped me to integrate whiteness and gender into my study. From a more pointed perspective on Scandinavian American history, the scholarship produced by Catrin Lundström, Jørn Brøndal, Dag Blanck and Philip J. Anderson, Arne Lunde, and Joy Lintelman inspired me to rethink the direction of the field.

Q: How did you conduct research for your book?

 Research for my book took me across the country and the Atlantic Ocean and was the most fulfilling part of the process. Early in the process, I traveled to Växjö, Sweden, as part of a scholar exchange and did some initial research at the Swedish Emigrant Institute. After that, I began the bulk of my work in Chicago at the Newberry Library, Kenilworth Historical Society, the Chicago History Museum and the Swedish-American Archives of Greater Chicago at North Park University before receiving the Dagmar and Nils William Olsson fellowship at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College. In the early stages of my research, I knew I wanted to provide more of a balance between the voices of women and men in locating the origins of white privilege with Scandinavians in Chicago, but ultimately the sources I found guided the direction of the project. Over the years, I became more interested in the influence of newspapers on both Americans and Scandinavians, which took me to Pacific Lutheran University’s Archives and Special Collections and back to the Newberry to focus more closely on the foreign language and english language presses in Chicago and the Midwest. Research is still what I love to do the most and find great joy in discovering long-forgotten sources.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

There were two major discoveries that come to mind – those types of sources that historians gasp out loud when found in a quiet archive. The first was the image that begins the introduction to my book taken from a Chicago Daily Tribune article published on January 19, 1908 that asked, “Will the World’s Most Beautiful Woman Be Found in Sweden or Norway?” The article said everything that I wanted my book to convey, that Nordic whiteness was a concept created by Scandinavians and parlayed in American newspapers and popular culture. It was assumed that, of course, the most beautiful woman in the world would be located out of these two countries, regardless of the fact that the article discussed an international beauty contest. The second major discovery is featured in chapter two, “Vikings and Dumb Blondes,” which I believe is one of the first “dumb blonde” jokes published in the popular American satirical magazine, Puck, in 1909. The origin of the joke focused on the lack of intelligence among Scandinavian domestics, where a fortune teller tells a patron that there will be “a wreck in your home” caused by a blonde woman. The audience’s initial response is to sexualize the insinuation, that a blonde woman would cause marital disharmony, but instead, the patron indicates that the so-called wreck had already occurred when the “new Swedish maid” let the dumb-waiter fall, breaking all the dishes.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

Ultimately, I hope to dispel the myth of the hierarchy of race constructed by “race scientists” like William Ripley, Joseph Deniker, and Madison Grant, which continues to drive race consciousness in America to this day. As I argue in the conclusion to my book, Nordic whiteness is the ultimate position of unquestioned racial hegemony to this day. This is one of many reasons why, I believe, that people are utterly fascinated by my adopted ethnic background. One of the first questions I am always asked is, “if you’re Swedish, why do you have brown hair?” These myths of race extend beyond perceptions of Nordic whiteness to apply to any racial or ethnic distinction we have created as a society over our history to negotiate identity.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

 I hope for my readers to come away with a better understanding of the ways in which race was socially constructed over our nation’s history. It may be a bit utopian, though my ultimate goal is for readers to have an appreciation of their own racial and ethnic background – adopted or not – and learn to embrace it if they have not already. Finally, I invite my readers to always use a critical eye when consuming newspapers and other media outlets.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

The topic of my next book is taking a completely different direction in historical focus to investigate the experience of girlhood in the 1990s and the influence of white privilege on the third wave. Because research is joyful to me, I like to immerse myself in the popular culture of the 1990s to help shape the direction of my study. I listen to quite a bit of feminist rock by Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Hole; watch movies and television shows focused on the perspective of “girls” like My So-Called Life and Felicity; and read Sassy and zines from that period. I live in Colorado, so in my spare time I try to get outdoors and into the mountains as much as possible.

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