Published June 2, 2014
Svarta Kaffið (“The Black Coffee”) on Laugavegur has been a fixture of downtown Reykjavík for more than two decades. The soup oriented café, which seats roughly 60 people, got a face-lift in 2003 when the Miljevic family took it over. Soup was no longer served in bowls, but rather in bread loaves and owner Darri Miljevic made a statue that he had been given at his last job the café’s mascot, plastering “Jakob” all over the place’s windows and menus. From outside, Jakob greeted patrons with a speech bubble that says, “The best soup in town,” a sentiment shared by many who frequent this bustling café.
This cafe, however has been frequently criticised through the years because “Jakob” is a black Sambo statue wearing clothes reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties. For example, Trip Advisor reviewer Rocky R left an entry on the site in 2012, noting the “incredibly racist statue,” likening it to minstrel shows and expressing astonishment that “a restaurant could be so clueless and have such a statue.” Numerous letters have been sent to the Grapevine on the matter, with Lizanne from the US saying in 2013 that every time she walked by Svarta Kaffið she got a sharp pain in her stomach. “Their signage, depicting a minstrel-esque character as their mascot, is pretty damn offensive. How can people feel OK about patronizing this establishment?”
The Levees Broke
Despite these complaints Svarta Kaffið remained unfazed, opting to not change its decorations or mascot. Until earlier this month, that is, when noted internet activist Hildur Lilliendahl Viggósdóttir posted a musing that decried the statue, stating that this simply wasn’t OK in the 21st century. With 108 “likes” and 76 comments to her post, Svarta Kaffið’s Facebook profile quickly flooded with complaints and accusations of racism. The following day, May 8, the Miljevic family deleted all of the comments and posted a photo of the staff along with the message that they would meet hatred with love.
Upon inquiry, Darri’s daughter Tinna did not want to talk about the statue, saying they had already apologised and removed it. She said her family had been persecuted and suffered enough abuse, a family that did not judge people based on the colour of their skin. She also defended the restaurant’s decision to have their former mascot, arguing that people were responsible for their own negative interpretation of it.
“It’s painful that we can’t have a dark skinned statue to represent the café, and it’s a case of reverse racism,” she said. “They forced us to remove the statue because it was black, but there were white slaves too. I just don’t know what good this will do them in the fight against racism.”
The café’s public apology received a lot of attention, earning coverage in the local media which had until then mostly turned a blind eye to the debate. Internet commenters’ opinions ranged from expressions of surprise (“What happened??????”) and support (“best people and family I know, keep going”), to adoration (“I love the soup in bread”) and anger (“You shouldn’t let the politically correct slaves that are affected by ‘white guilt’ control you!”).
Not The Only Case
In Iceland’s recent history there are a number of egregious examples of racially-fuelled behaviour. The city of Reykjavík, for example, banned black US soldiers from shore leave in the capital during World War II, and police interfered when people tried to tear down signs outside Hótel Borg that said “niggers not permitted” in the ‘50s. In 1968 former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, age 16, wrote in his school paper that he was opposed to black people mixing their blood with the Icelandic nation and that he was against them being granted Icelandic citizenship, let alone being let into the country. When Geir’s youthful folly hit the headlines last year, he retracted his words, saying they were a product of their time and his youthful ignorance.
More recently, in 2007 the children’s nursery book ‘Tíu litlir negrastrákar’ (an Icelandic adaption of the notorious ‘Ten Little Niggers’ rhyme) was reprinted in Iceland, to much outrage. While many claimed the book’s imagery and content was racist at worst and painfully anachronistic at best, others stepped to its defence, noting the book’s heritage and the historical value of its illustrations by fabled artist Muggur. As recently as two years ago, comedian Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon came under immense scrutiny when he portrayed an Asian stereotype caricature Tong Monitor in an ad campaign for TV station Stöð 2. In response to criticism from people like immigrant minister Toshiki Toma, who called the sketch “degrading to all immigrants,” Pétur apologised and expressed regret for his actions. “I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I was going to make fun of Asians, and hurt as many people as possible,” he said, explaining that his intentions had not been malicious.
Iceland’s Cultural Insensitivity
Unnur Dís Skaptadóttir, a professor of anthropology, believes Iceland’s cultural insensitivity stems from a lack of critical discussion on racial and cultural issues. Having studied in the US, where such things were routinely discussed, she was shocked by people’s language in Iceland when she returned 25 years ago. “People regularly used words like the n-word, completely oblivious to how degrading it is,” she recalls. Although she says things have improved, there’s still a ways to go.
Despite Icelanders living on an island, Unnur points out that they are not isolated from racial conceptions. “We watch films and shows from the West and we’re a part of that same world,” she says. “People say all kinds of ignorant things where they haven’t properly put themselves in other people’s shoes, things that people find to be very hurtful. When confronted about it, Icelanders get really defensive, blatantly unaware of the negative consequences that cultural stereotypes have on people’s opportunities in the labour market, housing market and life. We have no excuse for acting this way.”
For now the statue in question has disappeared along with his likeness, which used to appear on the restaurant’s menus and window displays. And the Miljevic family has publically stated that Jakob is away on holiday, but it’s probably safe to say that the Sambo statue has gone away for good.
The statue Jakob was given to Darri Miljevic for working 20 years in a restaurant before he opened Svarta Kaffið in 2003.