Black in Norway
In the wake of the Norway massacre, we should focus our attention on the role racist ideologies have played there.
Last Modified: 31 Aug 2011 08:53
Dr Felice Blake is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Ingerid S. Straume, vice president of Attac Norge (an independent organisation that seeks to reveal the relationship between global capital and local experiences), argued in a July 29, 2011 column of the newspaper Class Struggle that Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik “did not attack Muslims; he attacked politics. He had a self-proclaimed intention to frighten away young people from participating in political life”.
Breivik is the accused perpetrator of the July 22, 2011 massacre in Oslo, Norway that left eight people dead after a bombing outside government offices, and 69 dead after a shooting rampage at the Labour Party’s summer youth camp on Utøya, an island in the Oslo fjord. At least nine of the shooting victims were people of colour. Straume might deny the connection to race and Islamophobia, but Breivik himself acknowledged the connection between Western politics and race.
In his 1,500-page “manifesto” he writes: “Don’t let multiculturalists define what racism is or isn’t. Keeping an African against his [sic] will in your basement as a slave is racism. Loving your extended family/your ethnic group and fighting for ethnic and/or indigenous rights does not make you a racist; quite the opposite in fact. It makes you a civil rights activist.”
The underlying presumption of Breivik’s thoughts is that White European interests, investments, and identity are what “politics” should protect and serve in a zero-sum game pitted against peoples of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. As it reflects a resurgent racialised European notion of nationalist politics, his perspective – about what racism is or isn’t – remains unchallenged. Instead, many commentators attempt to change the subject away from race and towards youth, immigration, and the economy, as if those issues can be understood without consciousness of their racialised dimensions.
One month after the massacre in Norway, attention now turns to that country’s political parties’ preparation for municipal elections this fall. For all parties, immigration remains a central issue. In a typical “authoritarian populist” inversion of logic, the extreme right wing portrays itself not as the advocates of hate but as the victims of repression, as the race whose rights are under siege.
|Of the 69 people killed in the July 22 rampage on Utoya island, at least nine of the victims were people of colour [EPA]|
And the extreme right wing gets away with it. Thus the possible repression of “free speech”, a sacred idea within democratic societies, is now a focal concern in Norway’s press. Nikolai Astrup, deputy Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party (“Høyre”), states in the Morning Press (July 29, 2011) that “freedom of speech cannot and should not be restricted. Extremist attitudes must be confronted and overcome on an open terrain. This is best accomplished in free, unrestricted and public debate.”
Although post-July 22 Norwegian political rhetoric tries to temper or even replace extremist xenophobic and anti-Islamist positions with the abstract concepts of openness, tolerance and democracy, illuminating race and racism’s role in contemporary Norwegian society remains vital to the debates about Norway specifically and to the West generally. The Office of the Norwegian Prime Minister has already established a “July 22 Commission” bestowed with the responsibility, for example, to “reveal plans about/of future attacks” and to “protect against and reduce the consequences of an attack”.
Rejecting the false divide between race and politics allows us to see Norway more clearly within global racial processes, and to recognise the transformative contribution of Norwegian citizens and residents who have redefined their society as diverse and “multicultural”. Rather than shying away from an analysis of race and racism, explicit attention to the ways that racist ideologies have functioned in Norwegian society before and after July 22 can help us to contribute positively to determining what Norway could be after the country’s attack.
An African-American in Norway
The first time I went to Oslo, Norway was during the summer of 1994. There was a running joke among Norwegians that they first brought their foreign lovers to their country during the summer months of (relatively) warm weather and long days because that plan ensured that their romantic partners would fall in love with Norway as well. I was impressed with Oslo and later married a Norwegian. It was a pleasure to see cops without guns, to discuss politics and religion over beer, and to learn that the longest prison sentence was just over twenty years (and rarely handed out). I taught English at some of Norway’s largest companies, I lectured in intercultural communication at the Norwegian School of Management, and I completed graduate studies at the University of Oslo.
As an African-American woman in Scandinavia, I was, however, a bit of an anomaly in Oslo. Although Norway had been receiving non-Western immigrants since the 1970s, the country has struggled both then and now to alter its steadfast perception of itself as homogeneous and consensual. Once I was a legal resident of Norway, no longer a romantic summer sojourner, developing a critical reading of racism abroad became a project of intellectual growth, activism, and survival. In 1997 I briefly worked with Oslo’s Antirasistisk Senter (Antiracist Centre) to translate a document, “Mangfold og likeverd” (“Diversity and Equality”), about racial discrimination in Norway for a United Nations panel.
Seeking recognition for racial and ethnic minorities in the country, the authors of that report addressed issues related to gender (DNA testing was sometimes applied as a requirement to prove the basis for Somalian immigrant women’s applications for familial reunification), sexuality (Norwegian women were alerted by the Red Cross to avoid sexual relations with African men for fear of HIV contamination), and the development of transnational, Nordic neo-Nazi cadres. The report was read with interest, but the demand for recognition ultimately denied.
While living in Oslo I sometimes referred to myself as Helga Crane, recognising the similarities between my experiences in Scandinavia and the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. In the novel Helga Crane, a woman of African-American and Danish parentage, leaves Harlem, New York in the 1920s for Copenhagen, Denmark. Initially she believes that she belongs to herself alone, and not to a race. Quickly she discovers that the Danes view her as an exotic, foreign other, but not as one of them, not as someone who counts.
On January 26, 2001, the day after my daughter was born in Oslo, a group of neo-Nazi teenagers fatally stabbed a 15-year-old boy of Ghanaian and Norwegian parentage in Holmlia, a suburb of Oslo. The racially-motivated murder of Benjamin Hermansen mobilised tens of thousands of Norwegians to march against racism and to mourn Hermansen. The prime minister at that time, Jens Stoltenberg, and Prince Haakon of Norway joined the rallies appealing to a country united against hate and calling for a national, public campaign against racism. The 2001 rally after Hermansen’s murder was considered the largest demonstration in Norway since World War II.
In a country with fewer than 5m inhabitants, hundreds of thousands of people gathered together again during the July 25 rallies in mourning and in solidarity to demonstrate a commitment to unity, democracy, antiracism, and love after the Oslo attacks on July 22, 2011. Aksel Hagen, a politician in the Norwegian Socialist Left Party, stated that the attack was against “multicultural Norway” (Aftenposten/The Norwegian Post, August 19, 2011).
Again, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Eskil Pedersen (leader of the Labour Party’s Youth League), the Norwegian royal family, survivors of the July 22 massacre, Norwegian artists, Norwegian citizens, and other speakers expressed their commitment to the ideals recognised as foundational to Western democracy. Norwegians continually re-articulated the Prime Minister’s description of Norway as a country refusing to be “broken by fear” and poised “to challenge evil with love”. They expressed a commitment to increase cross-cultural understanding and to examine attitudes about national identity. Tolerance, equality, inclusion, solidarity, and democracy represent the key words pronounced by a nation in mourning and in hope.
In the most recent National Memorial Ceremony in Oslo on August 21, 2011, and in the ongoing media coverage of Norway since the July 22 attacks, a dedication to democracy and against racism might insinuate that the two terms are mutually exclusive. Norwegian citizens and residents of Norway have marched together recognising that Scandinavians and the populations of former European colonies are no longer strangers, but actors together on a shared stage.
During the July 25 rally, Prime Minister Stoltenberg recognised that he stood “face to face with the people’s will”, and that with free speech and democracy “we set a course for Norway after July 22, 2011”. Similarly, King Harald of Norway declared in his August 21, 2011 speech during the country’s Memorial Ceremony that “the tragedy has reminded us of the fundamentals that bind us together in our multicultural and diverse society. May we be mindful of this acknowledgment – and may we take care of each other.”
Nevertheless, sustained attention to how typecast that stage is remains an aside from mainstream discussions. In an age more often characterised by bottomless greed, possessive individualism, and resolute cynicism, I still choose to take those protestors, speakers, and the place I once called home at face value and to task. The lingering question after the Norwegian marches and memorials and the work that we are all implicated in is how to define and commit to the ongoing pursuit of democratic ideals.
I am not a cynic; I am hopeful. The kind of transformations required to combat racism and build democracy in Norway are not separate from the necessary changes desired in the rest of the world. But I do believe that there are two main obstacles to the transformational work that lies ahead of Oslo, Norway and the rest of the world.
Analysing Norway’s role in ‘global racism’
The first is our ability to understand what I call “global racism”. As Charles Mills states in The Racial Contract (1997), understanding global racism obliges all of us to acknowledge “the realities of European domination and the gradual consolidation of global white supremacy”. Our collective histories of conquest and imperialism, chattel slavery, Native land removal, colonisation, de jure discrimination and segregation, and apartheid (to name a few) established economic, political, legal, social, and cultural structures to divide societies racially and to grant privileges to those defined as “White”.
Even for nations like Norway that did not directly participate as, for example, colonisers, the international enterprise that global racism involves enabled other nations to benefit from established economic, political, and ideological ruts based upon racial exploitation. Norway’s entry into oil wealth began in the early 1970s with multi-billion dollar investments from the world’s largest oil companies including BP, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell, Conoco, Phillips Petroleum, and TotalFinaElf. The development of Norway’s oil industry encouraged immigration and depended upon immigrant labour. Pakistani immigrants, for example, were crucial to building Norway’s new and prosperous infrastructure, but have not shed the stigma of foreign-ness and racial otherness.
According to Statistics Norway, the country has also been one of the world’s largest exporters of munitions, (third in Europe after France and Germany), increasing its exports of weapons to the US and decreasing its supply to non-NATO countries since 2002. Ideologically, Norway has also participated in the cultivation of ideas about racial and cultural superiority that stem from the genocide, enslavement, and exploitation of non-White peoples. Ida Børrensen, the director of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, wrote in a July 31, 2011 opinion piece for The Norwegian Post(Aftenposten) that she “often hears that the Polish and other Europeans who come [to Norway] to work are fine, but those with very different cultures from ours should be restricted”.
She confirmed that the majority of such inquiries come from Norwegians who use the type of rhetoric and arguments “that can be found in the so-called terrorist’s July 22 “manifesto”. Børrensen outlines Norway’s strict rules for immigration from non-European Economic Area (EEA) countries (an applicant in need of “protection”, employment that requires higher education or special competence, or marriage to or offspring of a Norwegian or a Norwegian resident), and states that asylum seekers represent only 3-8 per cent of immigrants to Norway. If these applicants were to be forbidden entry to Norway, Norwegians would have to “withdraw from several international conventions with which the country is affiliated”.
She concludes by stating that in actuality there is “vast agreement across Norwegian parties and among the Norwegian population about current immigration laws”. Børrensen’s article acknowledges the significance of Norway’s Western European relations and presumes broad Norwegian consensus regarding the maintenance of strict immigration laws and practices. Given Norway’s relatively minor population of non-EEA immigrants, such attitudes actually reflect a racist and xenophobic attitude.
The perception of Norway as an idyllic land of fjords, peace, consensus, and racial homogeneity may have never existed, but it is nevertheless inseparable from a White supremacist mythology. Norwegian author Cornelius Jakhelln describes his own battle to come to terms with contemporary Norwegian masculine identity forced to let go of his ancestors’ Norway due to the counter-discourse of multiculturalism and the growing opposition from immigrant communities in Paris and in Oslo. Although his July 29, 2011 Morgenbladet (The Morning Paper) article ” Ære og demokratiet” (“Honour and Democracy”) intends to depict the makings of a “ticking bomb”, (or a Norwegian male on the verge of mental collapse and violence), Jakhelln actually describes the presumption of White racial superiority. “Keep other people out of your own problem,” he writes, rendering the affective psychology behind masculine racial violence personal and individual. The supposed individualistic psychological explanation of a “loner” is actually a profile of White supremacy.
Rather than revealing the struggles of some Norwegian young men, his discussion conceals the social and racial construction of contemporary White masculine identity. In an attempt to shed light on that mindset, he ends up reifying the mythology of Norway’s racial singularity: “What once was a homogenous population has become diverse in composition. The development is irreversible. Our parents’ Norway is gone forever.” The ugly histories of racial terror and injustice are collective, not individual. They have endured for centuries and have a definitive impact on the structures and forms of racism at local and global levels into the present.
The second obstacle to antiracist social transformation is powerfully connected to the first: our ability to learn from those who have been its objects and most diligent opponents. Philosophy professor Charles Mills describes White supremacy as “the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today”. Similarly, Norwegian sociologist Henrik Lunde of Norway’s Antiracist Centre asserts that “racism and inequality cannot be dismissed because they influence society in a way that affect everyone”.
Race and politics are inseparable
White racial privilege, however, is usually taken for granted and not even seen as political, despite the fact that it is responsible for defining a system of domination over nonwhite people both historically and currently. Contributors toMedia in Motion: Cultural Complexity and Migration in the Nordic Region (2011), for example, describe how “few Norwegians know personally people of ethnic minority backgrounds”.
Coupled with Norwegian self-images of homogeneity, personal and mediated distances from immigrant communities and populations of colour in Norway enable blindness about the histories that have propelled peoples from Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia (apart from Poland, the largest non-Western immigrant populations in Norway) to find residence in Scandinavia. Moreover, the refusal to acknowledge White racial privilege disregards the realities of “integration” as a two-way process that re-shapes the meanings of community, social relations, and democracy.
The denial and minimisation of the obvious fact of global White domination results in White resistance to anything more than the formal extension of the terms of inclusion into the White racial polity, and therefore facilitates the sense that European civilisation is being threatened from outside. Because White privilege and advantage are not questioned, discussions of immigration, assimilation, and/or integration in Norway shy away from posing any fundamental change or challenge to the arrangements resultant from de jure racial privilege and the processes of global racism.
The mental horizon of global white supremacist thought must therefore eclipse nonwhites and nonwhite spaces conceptually and historically irrelevant to European development and civilisation. Antiracist movements, from abolitionist movements against slavery, civil rights movements, anti-apartheid movements, decolonisation movements, the Black Power Movement, and the intellectual and literary movements that accompanied these political and social transformations showed us that challenging the political bases for justice required a dramatic alteration of hearts, minds, and attitudes.
Racism, they understood, was an economic, social, cultural, and ideological system for making and understanding society, determining social relations, protecting who was perceived as deserving, and who was superior. The denial of our collective histories and fates means the refusal to learn, the absurdity of dialogue or debate, and the impossibility of transformation.
At the one-month mark of the massacre in Oslo, Norway, our attention has now turned to other phenomena (Libyan opposition struggles, riots in London, social unrest in Syria, human tragedy in Somalia, ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, global economic crises, new elections, celebrity weddings). But we must still assess the lessons learned from the loss of lives, life chances, and livelihoods. What are we working towards, against, or even for – and why is it so hard for us to name it?
Since my first trip to Oslo in 1994, I have wondered about the ways that contradictory feelings of fascination and dread, curiosity and rejection, openness and exclusion could persist without the common racial ground of these sentiments being interrogated. Norwegian discussions about immigration, assimilation, and integration have produced three powerful responses: contradiction, chaos, and crisis.
Prior to July 22, 2011, immigration and integration were central topics to Norwegian politics and to political debates throughout Western Europe. The conversation in Norway most often leaned towards how to integrate immigrants into the polity or how to restrict what was perceived as the insupportable economic and cultural burden that immigrants and continued immigration represented. As W E B Du Bois baldly stated about African-Americans in the racially segregated southern United States in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), immigrants one hundred years later in Norway and in other countries of Western Europe were also being asked “how does it feel to be a problem?”
After the July 22, 2011 massacre the immigrant population has not been any less in focus. Anticipating scheduled Norwegian elections during the fall of 2011, some politicians from The Progressive Party (“Fremskrittspartiet”), known for their explicit anti-immigration positions, have decided to shift their anti-immigrant rhetoric from a focus on cultural differences in order to prioritise the seemingly neutral economic impact argument against further immigration.
While the party’s mayoral candidate for Oslo, Carl I. Hagen, stood by his observation that “almost all terrorists are Muslims”, another party member argued that their “language use has to be different and more objective”. InAftenposten (The Evening Post) on July 28, 2011, mayor Knut Hanselmann of Askøy stated that “the Progressive Party is the party that wants the least possible immigration to Norway and we will continue to demand that”.
Nonetheless, he claimed that a focus “on things like a municipality’s limited capacity to process immigrants, integration, child welfare, and related issues” provide the bases for a more objective discussion about why immigration to Norway must be restricted. Presumptions about immigrants as burdens, undeserving, and inferior lie thinly veiled behind supposedly neutral economic debates. Whether politicians see immigrants in need of integration or exclusion, the immigrant is seen as a problem to be solved. What remains absent from the discussion are the logic of global racism and our ability to think critically about the production, maintenance of White racial privilege, and how a commitment to an antiracist form of democracy must address both.
The 32-year-old Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, accused author and perpetrator of the violence committed in Oslo on July 22, imagined himself as being betrayed by the Norwegian liberal state. Despite his alleged experience as a graffiti “tagger” and involvement in the urban hip hop scene, his focus was on waking up the masses by “making sure the current system implodes”. According to his manifesto, this implosion requires violently opposing multiculturalism and participating in a campaign to restore so-called indigenous European control of Western Europe. Breivik claims:
|“It is counterproductive, even lethal to waste another five decades on meaningless dialogue while we are continuously losing our demographical advantage … It is expected that native Europeans shall humbly watch and applaud their own annihilation and extinction. The fact that we are persecuted and harassed in our own countries does not violate our human rights because we are white Christians and therefore evil by default.”|
Breivik’s analyses, conclusions, and actions were heinous. His disidentification with the liberal state and its focus on gender equality, integration and racial diversity, however, give us reason for increased critical investigation. Racism, sexism, and anxiety about the threatened privileges of racialised heteropatriarchy (the supremacy of White male heterosexual superiority) represent longstanding ideals about European nationalist identity and illustrated concerns about political, social, and cultural transformations. The Norwegian Labour Party’s stance on integration and (hopefully) antiracism could betray the White racial contract.
As we have seen, however, the state’s rhetorical commitment to racial diversity and equality without an interrogation of the structures of inclusion and the realities of global racism only produce contradictions. Breivik’s perspectives and actions have happily, though inadvertently, presented Norway with the challenge to articulate an explicit antiracist stance and with the opportunity to be a global leader in confronting the histories, legacies, and structures of racial inequality.
Back in 1994, some Norwegians confided to me that Norway’s “Black people” were Pakistanis, not African descendants like me. Communities of colour in contemporary Norway, however, use the term flerkulturell(“multicultural”), a word often criticised in the US for masking interracial conflict.
Given the emphasis on homogeneity in Scandinavia, “multiculturalism” can be seen as bringing into view interracial, inter-ethnic, and cross-cultural alliances that are attentive to the lives, experiences, and challenges of a diverse and vibrant population. Utrop, (Outcry), described as Norway’s “first and only multicultural, web-portal, newspaper, and web TV channel” dedicated to racial, ethnic and cultural diversity is also a clearinghouse for media throughout the country on issues that affect their target populations.
Linking to an August 28, 2011 article from Bergenstidende (The Bergen Times), Utrop separates the facts from fiction within Norwegian immigration debates. Four out of ten Norwegians still perceive “immigration as a threat to the country’s distinctive character”, and over half of all those polled were of the opinion that in times of adversity “employment should first be secured for Norwegians”. Despite the slow increase in Muslim populations in Europe generally and in Norway specifically, not everyone in Norway anticipates a tempering of Norwegian immigration debates.
So how do we encourage Norwegians to become conscious of their unrecognised racial order and systems of privilege? How can white Norweigians build up the courage and awareness to become heroic “race traitors”, disloyal to their own economic, social, and ideological investment in Whiteness?
Current approaches that deny racism’s existence and its affects on people of colour and on Whites is certainly not the answer. The third response after contradiction and chaos that we saw in Norway was crisis. In this instance, crisis must be understood within the practices of antiracist struggles and perspectives elaborated by peoples of colour and White race traitors across the globe.
These historical and contemporary actors understand crisis as painful, difficult, and even uncertain. Our collective histories of unnatural disasters (slavery, colonisation, apartheid, et cetera) are not invisible or acceptable. As we stand at the crossroads of crisis, confronted with two different paths to venture upon, what better place to look for direction than those young people and cultural activists who have always stood at the forefront of racially-imposed battle lines? Along with my own child, born in Norway of Norwegian and African-American parents, I too am making a commitment to listen to them.
Black to Norway
“Mela”, Norway’s first multicultural performing arts festival, confronted the crisis that the July 22 massacres unleashed based on the knowledge that the organisers and participants have long developed and shared. A week after the violence in Oslo and Utøya, festival chairperson Khalid Salimi stated in an interview with the newspaperKlassekampen (The Class Struggle) that “Mela was established to strengthen cultural diversity – it isn’t a festival for the sake of the festival itself”.
Fortifying cultural diversity and international solidarities were priorities of Norwegians of colour long before the July attacks. Participants at Mela this year included dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (famous for his poem “Inglan is A Bitch”), who shared multiple poems like “The New Crossfire” and “The Great Insurrection” from his activist experiences in England that he felt connected directly with the Oslo crowd. “We understand how people are feeling today in Norway as a consequence of the atrocity which has taken place here,” he stated, “it just reminds us that we have to be alert and vigilant against racism and against fascism”.
During the festival, Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi also responded to the massacre, connecting the violence against racial, gender, sexual, and religious minorities in Oslo to the oppression that occurs in other parts of the world. In a conversation with Fakhra Salimi, a Pakistani immigrant to Norway who leads a national resource centre for immigrant women, Saadawi argued that “we have to fight together”. She emphasised that “there must be solidarity, global solidarity between us to fight against this type of crime”.
Apart from international figures, Mela also featured Norwegian artists of colour, such as the popular hip-hop group Karpe Diem (comprised by Chirag Patel and Magdi Ytreeide Abdelmaguid) and the Norwegian/African art collective Queendom (consisting of Hannah Wozene Kvam, Asta Busingye Lydersen, and Monika Ifejilika). Hanna Wozene Kvam spoke about music’s ability to reflect Norway’s shifting national identity and to heal a people in mourning. “I can understand that after situations like [the July 22 attacks] people take refuge in traditional Norwegian values. But I hope that in light of this we can also see that modern Norway is comprised of expressions from the whole world, with multiple flags, and with the entire world’s music … This isn’t simply music, but music with meaning.”
Kvam also situates Queendom’s and other artists’ cultural contributions during Mela within a global context: “We have seen music’s significance in important political circumstances – just think about the revolutions in Tunisia and in Egypt. Many performers, poets, and artists stood up for what they believed in.”
These cultural and political activists see themselves as part of a global dialogue about race, equality, and democracy. Why not establish an international think-tank on the legacies of colonial rule, an international think-tank on the legacies and ongoing impact of White racial ideology, and an independent, international committee assessing the role of the IMF with regard to the above two? Youth energies across the globe have already pointed us in these directions.
Why not establish an international, independent committee for reparations due to slavery, a Scandinavian Nobel committee and prize dedicated to the eradication of racial inequality resultant for colonial rule, and an international centre for the study of race and racism at the Norwegian Universities of Oslo and Bergen? The interest and longing, as we know, are already there.
Why not develop an international fellowship for the advanced study of contemporary racism and provide economic and institutional support of cultural productions committed to antiracism? Artistic groups like Queendom are already providing creative, heartfelt, and provocative analyses of the realities faced by those who are in some way self-identified as Norwegian. Members of Queendom are also active in Nordic Black Theatre and Afrikan History Week, organisations that provide creative, intellectual, and community-based outlets for multiracial collaboration and alliances. Utrop (Outrcry) and the Antiracist Centre continue to report on and work against racism and inequality. Taking Norwegians to task means participating in the ongoing discussions of what Norway and the world will be after July 22.
The presence of these immigrant populations in Europe attest to the longer, interrelated histories of slavery, imperialism, colonisation, and globalisation. In fact, knowledge and memories of those experiences have produced epistemologies, moral psychologies, resistance strategies, and alternative imaginaries for many of us. In short, our recognition of these collective experiences demand that we question how we know, struggle to know better, and commit to doing better. The ones we have lost, who have become our ancestors expect nothing less.
Dr Felice Blake is an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She specialises in twentieth-century African-American literature, Afro-Latin American literatures, African-American studies, racial communities in the post-civil rights era, and critical analyses of gender and sexuality. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Afua Hirsch The Observer, Saturday 25 May 2013
There is no better antidote to the dust and frustration of living in sub-Saharan Africa than a good dose of Nordic Noir. When I lived in the UK, I consumed almost exclusively African literature and film, but these days – in Ghana and ever seeking contrast – I have spent many a sweaty evening gazing admiringly at Sarah Lund’s woolly jumpers and Saga Noren’s leather trousers, negotiating the apparently prolific spate of serial killings in the Danish and Swedish darkness.
So it was with some excitement that I ventured to Oslo this month. I was born inNorway, but have accumulated little insight since leaving in childhood other than predictable rumours of deep fjords, high taxes, cross-country skiing and blonde eyebrows. Despite my ignorance, I have carried my Norwegian roots around with me – and found them as impractical to package as an open sandwich and as confusing to interpret as a set of Ikea instructions.
There is the endless intrigue at passport control (“You were born where?”), which has made me quite defiant about the perceived impossibility of being a black person from Stavanger (pronounced “Stav-anj-uh” if you are an American immigration officer), and the annoyance of another mispronounced name to add to my list.
So after a lifetime of lugging my open sandwich around, I was curious to see whether I could eat one. Or whether the tendency to devour smoked fish on bread would, like other Scandi stereotypes, be exploded in the crisp Nordic air.
Mainly I wanted to know what it’s like to be a black Scandinavian. My mother reports being just about the only black person in Norway when we used to live there. She loved it. “I was treated like royalty,” she tells me, and lavished with fresh prawn open sandwiches (no, really). She became a hand model, and although she has lovely hands, there was clearly a bit of a wow factor for Norwegians about seeing a black hand. And I, as a baby, had queues of teenage girls wanting to be my passepiker (a bit like a dog walker for infants) – not necessarily a testament to my outstanding qualities as an infant I’m afraid, but more a matter of novelty.
The opportunity to update my notions of diversity in Norway came courtesy of the Oslo Freedom Forum – an impressive human-rights meeting, a bit like the Davos of freedom fighters. Since there is little the Scandis love as much as human rights, generously heaping some of that bountiful tax revenue on eradicating brutality around the world, it seemed like an appropriate place to compare fact with Norway’s liberal fantasy.
Things have definitely changed in Scandinavia. I should have known something was afoot when I bumped into Neneh Cherry in the loos at Gatwick on my way there. Of course, there are loads of black people in Oslo now. I spoke to a few, who confirmed that being an immigrant in Norway is on the whole an experience of openness, tolerance and fairness – the recent, infamous bout ofmurderous right-wing extremism has simply prompted more naval gazing about the desire to be open, tolerant and fair. The only staring I noticed was at my made-in-Ghana braids.
Liberal and increasingly diverse though it seems, I still detected hints that multiculturalism has not taken complete hold. Despite healthy waves of immigration, a Swedish friend in Oslo was recalling the Swedes’ struggles with racial vocabulary. They have rebranded black people recently, apparently – changing the term from neger, which obviously has unfortunate connotations – to the more politically correct svart, meaning “with an immigrant background”. But black Swedes are svart even if they were born in Sweden. Not sure we would stand for that in London.