Are we finally ready to talk about racism in Norway?
I’m asking because racism was a hot topic this week after the popular, author, songwriter, journalist and TV-host Haddy N’jie exposed one of the ugliest trolls I have come across in Norway. There is racism here, but usually not as blunt as in this case.
A man posted a comment to Haddy’s facebook page in early October, but she only discovered it this week and decided to show it together with this comment:
This is the first time I get a comment like this on my facebook page, which confirms what I have always said: Most people are not trolls (my translation).
The racist comment referred to her as a half monkey that slept her way to her residence permit, and urged her to go back to Africa, where she came from. This is a classic lamebrain. It wouldn’t be acceptable to say something like this even if she had been a refugee, but she isn’t. Haddy N’jie’s father is from Gambia, her mother is from Norway, and she has lived in Norway all her life.
I have written about racism before and the fact that most Norwegians don’t want to admit it is present here. We frequently refer to diversity as a colourful community, and we don’t mind “them” being colourful as long as they are colourful somewhere else. I had some hopes that we were going to get a proper debate this time, not one that just barely scratched the surface, but after making it to the cover of the biggest newspaper in the country, the story quickly disappeared.
The comments addressed to the Gambian-Norwegian woman isn’t something decent people would say, and you hardly ever hear words like that publicly, but when we do hear it we should speak out because most of it isn’t illegal. In this case she may not be able to do much about the racist characteristics, but stating that someone has obtained a citizenship illegally sounds very defamatory.
This was shockingly blunt for Norway because although there is racism here, it is usually not in the open. We have a growing institutional racism, which is harder to expose and confront. This isn’t just about institution like the police and hospitals, but to institutionalize racism means to establish rules or norms that many people in society accept and use. This is a major problem in some countries, but it’s growing in Norway too. It really doesn’t make much sense because we stayed out of the slave trade and I think Hitler was quite astonished when Norway didn’t share his vision in 1940. So why now?
Every time someone says they have encountered racism in Norway we often dismiss it as something else, and it’s often hard to prove that something was racially motivated. After all, we are trained not to cause problems, even when we see someone being wronged. My wife is African-American and we experience things constantly that avoid most people’s radar, including my family’s. We have problems renting a house and it’s not because we can’t pay the rent. I have made many oral contracts with landlords, but when I show up with my wife to sign the contract, we get a lot of strange reasons for why we can’t live there after all. The last time this happened we didn’t get the house because the owner had supposedly forgotten that he had promised a family member the house. Most of the time we are just left to wonder what really happened, and many seem to blame us for our difficulties. There must be something we are doing to make people act this way.
There could be other reasons why employees in stores feel it is necessary to follow my wife and ask her suspicious questions, or why the police seem to take a special interest. I remember one time we had been to a restaurant downtown. I left first because I had to get the car, which was parked some distance away. When I came back I noticed a police car slowly driving around the block. It turned out it had circled the block many times and slowed down when it passed my wife.
When we lived in Stavanger a few years ago my wife met Isioma Daniel, a journalist from Nigeria who worked in the local newspaper. She started her career as a fashion journalist in Nigeria and wrote about the Miss World contest in 2002. As a result of a comment she added to her article a fatwa was issued against her and she had to leave the country. She wrote her story in the Guardian in 2003. She’s written about her experiences in Norway as well, which includes Norwegian men following her on the street and some of them ask her how much she charges for a night. She can’t even leave her house after 19 without getting salacious comments from strangers.
This article is written in Norwegian, but you can see a photo of the three young victims. They were on their way to Cheer-leading practice when an older lady verbally abused them on the bus, and told them to go back to where they came from. The old lady also poked them with an umbrella, but no one said or did anything to stop this.
A lot of the institutionalized racism is hidden, but it still exists. It could have escaped me as well if I had not had an African-American wife, which allows me to see and experience things that most Norwegians don’t. It would be wrong to accuse most Norwegians of being racists, but few are willing to intervene.
There are many areas in the Norwegian society where institutionalized racism could become a problem, if it isn’t already. I have documented in previous posts that racism is a big problem in the workplace, which the two biggest unions in the country confirmed after a study concluded this three years ago. There could also be a difference in treatment when banks consider who they are willing to lend money to. I know about several cases where employees at schools have advised minority students against going to college. There seems to be an effort in killing dreams and opportunities, and this could easily hurt ourselves as well. We could lose the best candidates for a job if we are set on expecting less from minorities from Arab countries, South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.
I believe we already have institutionalized racism, and if we don’t handle this it can become a troll that grows bigger and uglier. Then we can get a health care system that distinguishes between Norwegians and “the others.” We could get a court system that gives harsher sentences to minorities, and different immigrant groups could do the same to each other. This has partly to do with an unwillingness to share, which is a human weakness. It is a known phenomenon that having a common background, such as escaping religious or racial persecution in the country of origin, doesn’t necessarily turn people into allies.
The first wave of immigrants to the USA came from England and France, the second wave from Ireland and Scandinavia and the third consisted of people from Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. These people discriminated against the people that came later, which had to do with protecting what they had, and I suspect that none of them felt like sharing with former slaves. I think we are going to see something similar today too because Norwegians haven’t thought this through. It’s all well and good to express a desire to help the Syrians, but are we willing to do that when we realize there is a price to pay? I wouldn’t be surprised if immigrants that came to Norway in the 1980’s were unwilling to help today.
This wouldn’t be surprising because we have created a society that allows it. I even think that people who do this against entire groups might get respect as well. I have written some posts in recent months where I criticize the mass immigration we are witnessing today, but I don’t support the people that want to give the immigrants worse services than we are getting. That’s why I think it would be better to spend our money in the region, to help countries like Jordan and Lebanon, and to solve the conflict in Syria. I also think it would be a good idea to continue a moderate immigration so that we didn’t jeopardize our own existence.
The opposition in Parliament has pushed for Norway to accept an unlimited number of immigrants, and they may have contributed to racism, because there is always going to be more when there is a battle for resources. This is not just related to racism, but disability too for example. People act like there is something wrong with you if you worry about what this is going to do to your family’s future, but this could have financial consequences long term. There are some signs that our government is aware of the danger, but it remains to be seen how successful they are, because they are fighting some pretty strong forces.
Trolls are often described as dangerous and stupid in the Norwegian fairy tales. There is no conflict between these two and we still have a lot of trolls in Norway. The guy who wrote the facebook message to Haddy N’jie is unfortunately far from the only one. That is why the debate and the acknowledging of our own mistakes and weaknesses has to be profound.