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Nordic Whiteness and Migration to the USA: A Historical Exploration of Identity

By Jana Sverdljuk, Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger, Erika K. Jackson and Peter Kivisto.

Routledge, 2020. ISBN 9780367277185

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The publication Nordic Whiteness and Migration to the USA: A Historical Exploration of Identity is an engaging study of whiteness and identity among white migrants in the USA. It explores the complex and contradictory ways in which the cultural, scientific and political myth of whiteness has influenced identities, self-perceptions and the process of integration of Nordic immigrants into multicultural and racially segregated American society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Relevant theme, in times of #blacklivesmatter

The concept of whiteness represents a set of privileges in American society which, among others, included citizenship and land-owning rights. Nordic immigrants to the United States encountered racial hierarchies where Anglo Americans were on top. Nordic immigrants and their offspring and other North European immigrant groups were privileged citizens in the society of the United States. Groups whose whiteness was questioned in the US racial hierarchy, including African-Americans and the indigenous population - American Indians - were marginalized and racialized.

The theme is most relevant in these times, especially following the killing of George Floyd in South Minneapolis in May and the ongoing protests and debates on racism, both in Norway and internationally. According to historian Betty Bergland, “the killing and the protests expose for everyone the problems of racism and racial hierarchies in the U.S., including Minnesota, where so many Nordics settled and legacies of systemic racism remain.”

Left cultural marks

South Minneapolis is composed of neighborhoods settled by Scandinavian immigrants, including many Norwegians, who also left cultural marks in the form of Lutheran churches and Nordic institutions. Today, other immigrant groups may reside in these neighborhoods, along with the immigrants’ progeny and a significant presence of American Indians. These neighborhoods thus represent one of many locations for understanding the entangled encounters between immigrants from Nordic countries and the racial hierarchies in the U.S.

In presenting central insights from interdisciplinary studies, the book shows that Nordic immigrants - Danes, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians and Sámi - contributed to and challenged American racism and white identity. A diverse group of immigrants, they could proclaim themselves ‘hyper-white’ and ‘better citizens than anybody else’, including Anglo-Saxons, thus taking for granted the racial bias of American citizenship and ownership rights.

On the other hand, the whiteness of Nordic immigrants could be challenged by other identities, including various intersections of whiteness with ethnicity, regional belonging, gender, sexuality, and political views. Consequently, these challenges could turn white Nordic immigrants into marginalised figures.


Betty A. Bergland holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota. She is an Emerita Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, and her research centres on migration, foregrounding gendered and ethnic patterns. She co-edited Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities and Identities with Lori Ann Lahlum (2011) and has published articles on migration, several on the Bethany Indian Mission in Wisconsin.

Jørn Brøndal is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He took his PhD degree at the University of Copenhagen in 1999. Brøndal works with political, ethnic and racial history. His publications include Ethnic Leadership and Midwestern Politics: Scandinavian Americans and the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890–1914 (2004) and Det sorte USA: Fra Uafhængighedserklæringen til Barack Obama (Black America: From the Declaration of Independence to Barack Obama (2016).

Hans-Petter Grav earned his PhD in history from Washington State University in 2018. He is a social historian with a research interest in the nineteenthand twentieth-century US West, (im)migration, race and ethnicity – the Scandinavian-American ethnicity in particular. He published the paper “When the Beast Saved the Day and Yellow Jack Got Lost: The Story of General Butler and the Yellow Fever Epidemic That Never Took Place” in the Spring 2012 issue of Southern Historian. He lives in Trondheim, Norway.

Aleksi Huhta is a postdoctoral researcher in North American Studies at the University of Helsinki. He gained his PhD in 2018 at the University of Turku’s Department of European and World History. His dissertation examined the Finnish-American labour movement’s approaches to race in the early twentieth-century United States. His postdoctoral project (2019–2022) focuses on the politics of empire and anti-imperialism among Finnish Americans during the twentieth century. His general research interests include migration, ethnicity and global imperial history.

Erika K. Jackson earned her PhD in 2010 from Michigan State University in history. She is an Associate Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University. Jackson is the author of the book Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019) and specialises in the history of race, immigration and ethnicity, and women’s and gender studies. Her next monograph examines the experience of adolescent girls who came into adulthood during the "third wave" of the womens right movement. 

Ellen Marie Jensen earned her PhD in Literature and Cultural studies from UiT (the University of Tromsø) - the Arctic University of Norway in 2019 with the interdisciplinary dissertation Diasporic Indigeneity and Storytelling Across Media: A Case Study of Narratives of Early Twentieth Century Sámi Immigrant Women. She is specialising in narrative methods in Indigenous, gender and migration studies, Jensen is currently a guest researcher at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research at UiT-the Arctic University of Norway, where she is developing a project on violence against Indigenous women from a transatlantic perspective.

Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger is the Director of the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. He earned his PhD from the University of Oslo in 2008 in migration and ethnic studies. His research focuses on migration, ethnicity, and transnational history, and he has published several articles on Norwegian immigration, ethnicity, and identity formation in the US. Joranger is Editor of Norwegian-American Essays and is currently working on a project on the creation of Norwegian American identites.

Peter Kivisto is the Richard A. Swanson Professor of Social Thought at Augustana College. He is currently the Co-Director of the Research Laboratory on Transnationalism and Migration Processes at St. Petersburg State University. The author of more than 30 books and over 150 articles, his research focuses on theory, religion and immigration, with a particular focus on social integration and civil society. His most recent books include The Trump Phenomenon (2017), National Identity in an Age of Migration (2017), and Religion and Immigration: Migrant Faiths in North America and Western Europe (2014).

Odd Sverre Lovoll is a naturalised citizen of the United States. He received his education both in Norway and the United States, earning a PhD in US History with specialisation in immigration in 1973. He served 30 years on the faculty of St. Olaf College, retiring from the King Olav V Chair in Scandinavian- American Studies in late 2000. From 1996–2005, he served as Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Oslo, and from 1980–2001 as NAHA’s publications editor. His most recent book on the Norwegian American immigrant experience, a memoir, carries the title Two Homelands: A Historian Considers His Life and Work.

Anders Bo Rasmussen earned his PhD in journalism studies from the University of Southern Denmark in 2011 and is Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for American Studies. His research examines transnational relations between the United States and Europe from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. Rasmussen has published articles and books on immigration history, slavery and capitalism, cultural diplomacy and Americanization. His current book project For God and Country: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire, examines transatlantic diplomacy and Scandinavian immigrant enclaves in the years bracketing the Civil War.

Jana Sverdljuk is curator of the migration archives at the National Library of Norway. She earned her PhD from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2015 with an examination of gendered representations of migrants among the Norwegian welfare state’s professionals. She has published articles in several anthologies, such as: Complying with Colonialism: Gender, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region (ed. S. Keskinen at al., Ashgate 2009) and The Limits of Gendered Citizenship: Contexts and Complexities (ed. E. H. Oleksy et al., Routledge 2010). Sverdljuk has been involved in Nordic feminist research projects and has worked at the Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo. Her fields of interest include migration, cultural studies and postcolonial feminist theory.