Black feminism in the Nordics – an interview with Jasmine Kelekay

In its March special issue, the magazine ASTRA discussed Black Feminism in the Nordics remarkably featuring the work of Black writers, scholars and artists. In a conversation with RASTER.FI’s Leonardo Custódio, guest editor Jasmine Kelekay (University of California, Santa Barbara) reflects about her trajectory in academia and the experience of putting together ASTRA’s historic publication.

RASTER.FI: Stuart Hall once said: “Instead of asking what are people‘s roots, we ought to think about what are their routes, the different points by which they have come to be now.” With this idea of routes in mind, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your trajectory into sociology?

Jasmine Kelekay: In my case, I think my roots are very much part of what has defined my routes. I grew up in east Helsinki in a working-class and mixed-race family. My mother is Finland-Swedish and grew up in the countryside in a working-class family. My father is Ethiopian, from a working-class family in a small town in the Oromia region. He came to Finland as a refugee in 1990. My stepfather, with whom my mother has shared her life since I was 7 years old, came to Finland as a political refugee from Turkish Kurdistan. I think growing up in east Helsinki and with my particular family constellation sparked my sociological imagination very early on. But I think my experiences of racism, both interpersonal and structural, is what ultimately led me to want to understand the social world and how to change it. After graduating from aikuislukio after some turbulent teenage years, I was determined to use higher education as a way to ‘get out’ and leave Finland.

After googling my way through how to apply to colleges and universities in the U.S. and the U.K., I spent a year working in fast food restaurants to raise money for entrance exams and application fees. I left Finland at the age of 19 when I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to attend Connecticut College, a small liberal arts college in the U.S.. It was at university in the U.S. that I for the first time had access to educational resources to help me understand racism and, by extension, my experiences growing up in Finland.

Wanting to make the most of the opportunity, I hungrily attended any courses that dealt with race and racism and became actively engaged in anti-racist activism on campus. It was through my professors – the first teachers of colour I had ever had – that I learned of the PhD and the fact that one can actually do research as a career! Obsessed with proving that I “belonged” at the university and had earned the right to be there – a classing symptom of impostor syndrome – I graduated with three majors in Sociology, Philosophy, and Psychology. I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in Sociology because I thought it would give me the best tools to examine the complexities of the relationship between racism and criminalization – an interest I today realize was sparked by both my educational and personal experiences.

It was, however, only when I began my PhD studies in Sociology and Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara that I realized I needed to “return home” – at least intellectually. Having spent the majority of the past decade studying racism, the criminal justice system, and the Black freedom struggle in the U.S., I wanted to find a way to use my training to contribute to both scholarship and activist struggles in the Nordics. That is how I wound up pursuing a PhD project on the policing of Blackness in Sweden. So returning to Finland and Sweden has been an experience of coming full circle, both personally and intellectually.

RASTER.FI: When you announced the publication of the issue of ASTRA, which you guest edited, you described it as historic. Why is it so?

Jasmine Kelekay: Firstly, it is the first time in ASTRA’s history that they have had a guest editor for a special issue, so that in and of itself made the issue historic for ASTRA. But I also think it is historic because it is the first special issue focusing on the topic of Black feminism in the Nordics.

It is certainly not the first time that Black writers, artists, and activists are published, but we rarely get to take over platforms such as these, and rarely get to control content, form, and aesthetics. So the fact that I was given free range – and was actually supported by the regular editorial staff in doing so – also felt quite special. This also allowed for a special issue where all the voices featured are of Black people in and from the Nordics, and even all the artwork featured was made by Black artists. To be able to do that, and unapologetically so, has felt quite historic.

Perhaps precisely because of this, the issue has also had unprecedented reach. It broke Astra’s records for both online and paper copy sales, and the events we organized around the release of the issue generated thousands of viewers. I see this as a testament to not only the timeliness of the special issue, but also to the relevance of Black audiences who want to see content produced by and for them.

RASTER.FI: What triggered the decision to make this special issue on Black Feminism in the Nordics?

Jasmine Kelekay: ASTRA announced the intention of making this special issue after some backlash on how they had handled the Black Lives Matter movement. The issue prior to this one had the theme of Migration, but when the 2020 wave of the BLM movement hit, the editorial board felt they wanted to provide space for authors who wanted to engage with BLM. They did so by announcing that they welcomed contributions around BLM for the migration issue.

This understandably generated a great deal of criticism from people who saw this move as yet another instance of diminishing anti-Blackness and reducing Black people to a subcategory of migrants. Elliot Lundegård, the editor-in-chief, decided to take this criticism to heart by amending the CFP of the migration issue and dedicating the entire subsequent issue to Black feminism instead. The editorial board decided that they, as an all-white board, did not have the competency or legitimacy to produce such an issue, which is why they ultimately decided to recruit a guest editor.

RASTER.FI: What motivated you to decide to be the guest editor?

Jasmine Kelekay: This was my first time taking on an editorial role of this scale, so it certainly was not a given for me. To be honest, I was also quite sceptical and wondered if this was an attempt to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement for social clout and financial gains – something we have unfortunately seen a lot in the past year. So it was actually the fact that Astra – under the leadership of the editor-in-chief – decided to publicly engage with their previous blunder and pursued this special issue as a step to rectify it which pacified my apprehensions.

Of course, a large part of the motivation for me was the promise of an opportunity to showcase some of the incredible Black activists, writers, and artists with whom I have had the privilege of crossing paths. I also felt that I could put both my academic and personal experiences to use in curating an issue that would honour the Black feminist tradition while centring the local context and the broad array of experiences of Black women and nonbinary people in the Nordics.

RASTER.FI: Research is never “only work” for us, Black and Brown people, who study societal issues that have affected us directly over history. It’s also a journey of self-discovery, pain, healing and mutual empowerment. It’s deeply personal, emotional and collective/political in addition to epistemological. With these multiple dimensions in mind, can you tell us how it was to put this special issue together?

Jasmine Kelekay: I think your question already kind of nailed it. It was indeed a deeply personal, emotional and collective/political project for me. It was also an interesting experience in that Astra, as a steadfastly feminist journal, allowed for a way of working that differed from the usual experience with academic publishing. This was a chance for me to put both my personal experience and my academic training to use in a way that I usually do not have the space to do within academia. So the fact that I was given free range to make this special issue whatever I wanted it to be meant a lot; it provided for a freedom from having to justify myself and my choices at each step – something Black and Brown people much too often have to deal with in the academy.

I was free to include a range of contributions that not only deal with different perspectives and issues related to Black feminism, but I also had the freedom to solicit and include works that took different forms, as well as works written in different languages. On a collective level, I wanted the range of contributors and contributions to reflect the different experiences and perspectives that Black communities in the Nordics encompass as much as possible, and I think this forum allowed for that in a way that current strictly academic journals would not have allowed. On a personal level, I also wanted the issue to reflect the possibilities of Black feminism in the Nordics – as a tradition of thought, politic, and praxis. We still have a long way to go for Black feminism and other critical Black, African, and African diasporic traditions of thought to have a legitimate place in Nordic academic discourses, but my hope was for this to be a small step in that direction.

RASTER.FI: You describe this special issue as “for us by us”. Can you tell about the process of mobilizing Black and Brown authors to contribute to the issue? How was the work with them throughout the editorial process?

Jasmine Kelekay: It was definitely deliberate to not only include but centre non-academics in this special issue. For one, ASTRA is a feminist journal that does not generally subscribe to the same culture as strictly academic journals, but I also believe that if we want our production of knowledge to be anti-racist, we cannot adhere to the exclusionary practices of academia. Requiring authors to have PhDs and university affiliations serves to centre privilege and social capital rather than merit. Furthermore, the origins of Black feminist thought and so many other critical Black scholarly traditions originated outside of the academy, in the community, and in the context of struggle. So as much as we as scholar-activists may think about how our scholarship can serve communities and movements with whom we align ourselves, we must also think critically about how to use our positions and our research to bring marginalized perspectives and forms of knowing into the academic conversation, to speak truth to power.

RASTER.FI: In the past 15 years, there has been an increasing number of Black and Brown students in Nordic social sciences. In what ways do you think this special issue relates to these changes? How do you think this special issue can contribute to their experiences in a university system that remains tightly grounded on whiteness?  

Jasmine Kelekay: One of the things that strikes me in the Nordics is that the majority of critical discourse being produced about and by Black and Brown communities is outside of the academy. As you say, the academy remains tightly grounded on whiteness and this is reflected in both the demographics of students and faculty but also in the scholarship that is produced. While the demographics are slowly starting to shift, I am afraid that the structural conditions and therefore the cultural premise of the academy is not shifting with it. This not only makes the academy an unwelcome place for Black and Brown people but also serves to marginalize the experiences, perspectives, and expertise of Black and Brown people. Of course, the university is also still an enormously classed environment, which adds another layer to the disproportionate exclusion of Black and Brown people, especially impacting those born here in the Nordics.

This is why I think we see much more vibrant engagement in the culture and arts sector, and to some extent also in civil society. Although these fields are also structured by the same white supremacist, patriarchal, and classed logics as the academy, there are more avenues available for carving out Black and Brown spaces of belonging and exchange, as well as more democratic avenues for participation.

This is precisely why it was important to me that this special issue include Black writers from both inside and outside the academy, and writers who produce and convey critical perspectives through not only scholarly writing, but also through personal essays, poetry, or visual arts. My hope is that this issue can contribute to Black students feeling seen. That is something I never had growing up, and it is why I could not imagine myself pursuing an education or even a professional career in the Nordics. I hope the special issue can help some readers feel less alone or help give them the critical language they might be lacking to describe their experiences. Ultimately, my highest hope is that this issue can, in however small a way, make Black readers feel empowered and remind them that there is space for us here.