NEWS ANALYSIS: After weeks of demonstrations, news stories, and personal accounts of discrimination, Norwegians are coming to grips with racism in their otherwise egalitarian society. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, criticized for initial silence over police brutality in the US against George Floyd, has been speaking out again, too.
“After the police violence that led to George Floyd’s tragic death, racism and discrimination are unfortunately high on the agenda again,” Solberg said after tens of thousands of Norwegians demonstrated against racism all over the country. She’s lately been preoccupied with the Corona crisis and trying to avoid a jobs crisis, but addressed racism at a meeting of her own Conservative Party’s central board shortly after first large anti-racism demonstrations in Norway.
“Racism isn’t only a social problem in the USA,” Solberg said, reminding how her own government already has tried to address racism and discrimination in Norway. “This is an acknowledgment that it’s also a problem in our own country.”
Some still in denial mode
Many Norwegians don’t like to admit that, especially some top politicians in the conservative Progress Party that left Solberg’s government coalition in January. Per-Willy Amundsen, a Member of Parliament for Progress who earlier served as one of Progress’ several justice ministers in Solberg’s coalition, went so far as to write on social media that he had “zero respect” for his thousands of fellow Norwegians who were out demonstrating “against a racism that doesn’t exist in Norway.”
Amundsen’s denial mode sparked immediate uproar among those who branded him as an ethnic white middle-aged man who’s out of touch with the daily reality of ethnic minorities in Norway. His comments also came just as another young Norwegian white supremacist was sentenced to 21 years in prison, Norway’s maximum jail term, after murdering his Chinese-born adopted sister and trying to set off a massacre at a local mosque. Norway is also home to the ultra right-wing extremist who killed 77 people on July 22, 2011 when he bombed government headquarters and then massacred young Labour Party members at a summer camp, contending Labour had let too many immigrants into the country.
Amundsen was just as quickly defended, however, by party fellow Jon Helgheim, another Progress MP who also serves as the party’s spokesman on immigration issues. Helgheim also denied that “systematic racism” exists in Norway, a claim that newspaper commentator Bjørn G Sæbø in Rogalands Avis equated “to saying the world is flat.”
Sæbø and hundreds of thousands of others have been impressed with an outpouring of stories from Norwegians with immigrant background and adopted from abroad. They’ve amounted to a “Me-Too” movement for Norwegians who don’t have white skin or Norwegian-sounding names. “Me-Too was a kick in the backside for the perspectives of people like me,” wrote Sæbø, describing himself as a white, heterosexual middle-class man over 50. What’s happening now in the renewed debate over racism and discrimination is a new confrontation with the experiences of Norwegians who have been and are subjected to ethnic profiling, trouble getting jobs despite high education or facing difficulties even renting an apartment. The worst examples involve verbal and physical abuse.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported last week on how minority youth in Norway are far more likely, for example, to be stopped and questioned by police than white, so-called “ethnic Norwegian” youth. One young man named Abdi ,who didn’t want his last name to be used, recounted how police in Oslo suddenly stopped him on a street in the capital’s Grønland district when he was 15 years old, pushed him up against a wall and demanded to see his ID.
“They were aggressive and it came out of the blue,” Abdi, now 23, told Dagsavisen. “There was no clarification, they got my ID but weren’t convinced I wasn’t the person they were looking for,” based on his “brown” skin colour. “This happened in front of lots of other people and was quite traumatic,” Abdi said.
Safia Ahmed, who works as a secretary and receptionist at the national hospital in Oslo (Rikshospitalet, which serves patients from around the country) told newspaper Aftenposten how one patient screamed at her that “all Muslims are terrorists” and grabbed her hijab. The elderly white man had heart problems and had caused such trouble before, loudly claiming in front of other patients that “he hated hijabs and that people like me shouldn’t be allowed to work at a hospital,” Ahmed told Aftenpostnen. He also claimed that she should “go home,” even though Norway is her home.
Aftenposten went through a thick file of court verdicts in racism cases, and found that Ahmed was far from alone. Nearly 30 Norwegians have been convicted for racist acts since 2015. The average age of those charged is 50, two-thirds are men and nearly half the cases were based on skin color, while nearly as many were directed against Muslims. In one case, a man who assaulted a Muslim was convicted of yelling during the attack that “I want to slaughter and hang all those coming by boat from Syria. The damn Syrians will come and rape Norwegian girls.”
The dreaded airport customs lines
Sony Kapoor, a British macroeconomist, financial adviser and founder of the international think tank Re-Define, wrote in Aftenposten this month about his own encounters with racism in Norway. “The first challenge when I moved to Oslo to advise the government,” he wrote, “was that it was almost impossible to rent an apartment as a brown Brit, at least not in the ‘right’ part of the city.” He also wrote on social media that “I had money, I was a strategy adviser to the government, I had a British passport,” but “sad to say, a blonde Norwegian friend of mine and I pretended to be a couple,” and only then was it easier to arrange accommodation.
Kapoor, who flew several times a week for years because of his work, also has experienced what for many is the classic example of not-so-subtle racism in Norway: getting plucked out of the line at immigration and customs after landing at Oslo’s airport. “That happened more than half of the roughly 10 times I landed in Oslo,” Kapoor wrote. He has no doubt he was singled out because of his brown skin. “When this happens to me, can you think how less privileged minorities are treated?” Kapoor wrote.
Several non-white Norwegian athletes have also told their stories of racism on the field or even on the winners’ platform. Wrestler Grace Bullen, who’ll be competing for Norway in the Olympics in Tokyo next year, has already won several international gold medals for Norway, but “I was once told that I didn’t need to sing the national anthem, because it wasn’t my national anthem,” Bullen said late last week when athletes gathered to address racism issues.
Bullen will now be part of a new “working group” set up by government minister Abid Raja, who’s experienced challenges of his own, to address racism in sports. Berit Kjøll, president of Norway’s national athletics association, admits that sports leaders haven’t paid enough attention to the racism and discrimination facing non-white athletes in Norway.
“We have no excuse for not being good enough, for not having recognized this earlier or acknowledging to the right degree how racism and discrimination must be taken seriously,” Kjøll told reporters, “but we’re doing so now.”
Bullying and integration
Others point out that racism begins in the schools, often at a young age. “I was bullied in elementary school for having dark skin,” recalled one 18-year-old girl from Asker, a generally affluent suburban area west of Oslo. “I was called names, like neger and brunost (brown cheese).” There also, however, have been clear signs of more integration among children and teenagers as more grow up together.
Aftenposten reported recently that four out of five Norwegians polled in a state “integration barometer” believe discrimination exists in Norway. The poll, conducted yearly since 2005 by the state directorate for integration and diversity (IMDI), found that 84 percent answered that discrimination occurs either to “some” or to a “large” degree. Those answering that discrimination occurs “to a large degree” jumped from 9 percent to 32 percent just since 2013.
Norwegians’ collective consciousness has thus been raised significantly, and likely even moreso during the past several weeks. Demonstrations that were allowed to be held despite Corona containment measures have played a role. Some demonstrators have even thanked police and government officials for “letting us demonstrate,” as was a small anti-Islam group called SIAN that mounted a counter-demonstration of sorts in Oslo this past weekend. While many ignored SIAN’s demonstrators, they were also met by others booing and throwing tomatoes and empty plastic bottles at them while police stood by to maintain control.
Prime Minister Solberg had defended SIAN’s right to demonstrate, just as the anti-racists have. So had several newspaper editorials, which also have suggested that despite ongoing problems with racism and discrimination, Norway seems to be moving forward, not least because people are speaking up.
“It’s no secret that many of us, the fathers of (people like government minister) Abid Raja and the mothers of Hadia Tajik (deputy leder of the Labour Party and a former government minister herself) kept quiet when they were spit at,” the first leader of Norway’s Anti-Racist Center, Khalid Salimi, told newspaper Morgenbladet. Now racism is being confronted, and today’s generation won’t tolerate what their parents did.
“They’re demonstrating, criticizing and confonting, they want to be heard, for this country that’s also their country,” editorialized Aftenposten, which added that “conflicts are the price we pay so that more voices come through.”
Acknowledgement of the discrimination problem is important, Aftenposten continued, because then the debate can be over how it can be addressed instead of over whether it exists: “Norway is moving foward, despite all the noise.” Or perhaps because of it.