A commentary in a Swedish newspaper sparked widespread public discussion about “everyday racism” in Norway this past autumn. But discrimination, in one of the world’s most egalitarian countries, has a long history and new immigrants have been speaking up about their own experiences.
The racism debate took off after Swedish columnist Ehsan Fadakar accused Norwegians, in a provocative piece published in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in November, of being both selfish and voting in a racist government. He described the Progress Party (Frp), which won government power for the first time in the September election, as “the mass-murderer’s favourite gang,” referring to convicted terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s earlier membership in Frp until he quit in frustration over politics he considered far too moderate.
Fadakar nonetheless claimed that Frp, which began mostly as a tax revolt party but later faced image problems over its anti-immigration rhetoric, used “Breivik-style rhetoric” that in Sweden would only come from the far-right party Sweden Democrats. His comments came not long after an incident during the popular Scandinavian talk show Skavlan, when the host Fredrik Skavlan was interviewing former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg. A fellow guest on the program, Swedish comedian Özz Nûjens, accused Norway’s new government of wanting to “mass deport the Roma out of Norway.” “If that isn’t racism, then what is?” he asked.
Things got worse when NRK cut an ensuing exchange between Nûjens and Stoltenberg, setting off claims of censorship. Karin Olsson, culture editor for Swedish newspaper Expressen, suggested that Norwegians have distanced themselves so much from Brevik’s motives that it’s become hard for them to talk about any other racism than the extreme and violent kind. She wrote that in Norway there is a “more intentional, more populist racism, that can even seep into the government.”
Many in Sweden share her view. In a recent survey conducted in Sweden by Aftenposten, 44 percent of those asked believe that Norwegians are more negative towards immigration than Swedes. “Norwegians are happy and open people, but the election result speaks for itself,” said one.
A simple tweet from a medical student of Somali original, living in Norway, then sparked a huge debate about “everyday racism” in the country. Warsan Ismail tweeted that when she was five, their neighbours set a pair of dogs after her mother. Under the hashtag #norskrasisme, she and many others tweeted similar anecdotes.
Lubna Jaffery, a former Norwegian politician of Pakistani descent, tweeted how a woman once called her and her three-year-old daughter “disgusting” as they were getting off a bus. The Socialist Left Party (SV) politician Marcela Molina, who is Argentinian-born, told newspaper Aftenposten how she once rang up about a flat to rent, and gave her name. The landlord then said “we don’t rent out to the likes of you,” before hanging up.
Her experience is backed up by by the Norwegian Centre Against Racism (Anti-rasistisk Senter). They posted two identical fictional ads on the Norwegian website finn.no, requesting a flat to rent. But in one ad, the couple had Norwegian-sounding names and in the other they had Middle-Eastern sounding names. The “Norwegian” ad got 200 responses, while the other one only got 115, Aftenposten reported.
‘Fear of foreigners’
The Equality and Anti-discrimination ombud (Likestillings-og-diskrimineringsombudet) has also come across ads that explicitly exclude “foreigners” or state that the tenant must be of Norwegian ethnicity. They say there is also a new trend to demand language fluency, written and oral, from tenants. This can be a way of hiding discrimination behind a “legitimate” excuse, particularly if the landlord decides to interpret fluency as speaking Norwegian without a foreign accent.
The discrimination isn’t only racist, but may lie in a latent “fear of foreigners” that still exists despite studies showing that Norwegians have become more tolerant and less skeptical towards people different from themselves. One young British woman who called a prospective employer to inquire about a job listing she’d seen was told to “call back when you’ve learned Norwegian!” An American woman who got into a taxi was chided over her accented Norwegian, with the Norwegian driver complaining “oh no, another utlending (foreigner) in my car today!”
And it wasn’t too many decades ago that Norwegians themselves from the northern part of the country faced severe discrimination in Oslo, as have the indigenous Sami people over the years.
Iranian-born Florence Aryanik (20), who grew up in Norway, described the kind of “reverse” racism that she first experienced at the age of 15. “You would maybe expect it to be a Norweigan who said “you are not one of us,” she told newspaper Dagsavisen. “But for me it was totally the other way round.” A couple of boys from Iranian families asked her one day why she was hanging out with “the blondes,” at high school. “You’re not one of them. You’re dark, you are one of us,” they told her.
She is one of the leading figues in the campaign group Youth Against Racism (Ungdom mot rasisme) and recently cancelled a speech she’d planned to give at a commemoration of kristallnacht in Germany, where nazis attacked German Jews, after receiving a death threat on the phone. She has received more than 30 anonymous threats, by letter and phone, since March this year.
“The main problem is that some think that women with minority backgrounds should not think much. Drop their head, make food, and just exist. I know of people who have it like that, but I don’t know them personally. It really hurts me to think of them,” she told Dagsavisen. She has to carry on, she says, because it would be worse to be forced into silence.
As well as facing up to alleged racism today, Norway is also investigating racism in its past. The Holocaust Center in Bygdøy, Oslo, is now researching the country’s treatment of Norwegian Roma during the Second World War. They know that some were going to be sent to work colonies in the country and managed to escape, others were refused entry to the country under new discriminatory legislation and were later sent to concentration camps.
“It is a big knowledge gap in our collective memory,” Conservative Minister of local government Jan Tore Sanner told Dagsavisen.