Are Icelanders Racist? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Are Icelanders Racist?

Are Icelanders Racist?

Published December 23, 2012

Arit John

I never intended to actually write this piece. It started off as a joke, in a bar, after a bizarre incident with an extremely drunk Icelander.

My group—a Brit, an Australian and two Americans—was sitting in the corner, minding our own business, when an elderly Icelandic man stumbled over to say hello, curious about our accents. “We’re American,” I said, not eager to get into specifics.

“Ah,” he said, the mystery solved. “You know, all Americans are descendant of Europe.”

I didn’t want to get into the waves of immigration, voluntary or not, that made America one of the most diverse, least European places on Earth. But, I had to say something.

Not a descendant of Europe
“Actually, my parents are from Africa,” I said.

I’d gotten his attention. He turned to me, pointed a pale, stubby finger at my face and said, “My sister married a black man, darker than you.”

The four of us were a bit shocked by his rudeness and tried not to burst out laughing and in the ten minutes that followed he told us about his half black, gay, Christian, cross dressing, cult joining, suicidal nephew. And the whole thing might have just been filed away under interesting bar stories to tell my friends, except that one of my friends asked me if I thought what the man had said was racist.

No, I didn’t think so. He was drunk after all, and he didn’t mean anything by it. I wasn’t hurt by it. But it reminded me of a similar drunken, not-meant-to-offend-me scenario at a certain bar for Iceland’s “Jersey Shore” wannabes, when a random guy tried to take a picture with me.

“Have you never seen a black person before?” I asked.

“I’ve never been in a picture with a black person,” he replied. Well now, somewhere on Facebook is a photo of the two of us, me looking slightly annoyed and him looking drunk, but pleased with himself. While I’m happy to help people cross items off their bucket list, it left a bad taste in my mouth. But again, he didn’t mean anything about it (he even apologised later) and he was drunk. Plus, there are about a dozen other reasons I should never have set foot in that bar anyway.

Not the only one wary of racism
Also, I was enjoying my time in Iceland and hadn’t worried about racism in the country since my preliminary “Are Icelanders racist?” Google search. If you’re Icelandic, check it out, you might be surprised by the results. The responses ranged from “Icelandic people are very friendly and open” to “no more than any other country” to “I can understand why Icelanders wouldn’t want black people ruining their genetic superiority.” As I read blog post after blog post, it occurred to me that I was far from the only black person who was worried about how I’d be treated in Iceland.

Think about it: I come from the same country as the KKK, “separate but equal,” and the entire state of Alabama, and I was worried about visiting Iceland.

Now that I’m back home, I’ll be one of those blog writers. Someone will Google “Are Icelanders accepting of black people” and this article will pop up. And my answer is… it depends.

If you’re just visiting for a layover, then yes, unless you mind being teased about not knowing what a kilometre is.

If you’re an African refugee trying to gain citizenship, probably not.

Not an exotic animal at the zoo
If you’re visiting for a few months, then it depends. Those moments got on my nerves because I suddenly felt like an “other.” Like I was different and exotic. Is darkness an indication of something? And is it okay to take pictures of people the way you might take pictures of an animal at the zoo?

That, I think, is why people get upset about things like the Tong Monitor commercial. It turns being Asian into a costume, a thing, an other (in this case not even a good costume—Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon’s pulled back eyes didn’t make him look Asian; they made him look cross-eyed). I agree, it’s not as bad as whatever the opposite of casual racism is (regular racism? serious racism? go die in a gutter you dirty something, something racism?) but why is it okay for something to be a little bit racist and make people feel a little bit uncomfortable?

When you come to a homogenous place like Iceland, you worry about racism because you just want to feel accepted. You don’t want to worry about dealing with racism because it taints your opinion of the whole culture. And for so many people Iceland is like a safe haven, both metaphorically and literally. For me, my three months in the country were beautiful, and I hope the good moments will stay with me for the rest of my life. I don’t want to think back on that guy in the one bar I won’t name.
For the most part, Icelanders are good people. Kind, surprisingly trusting, generous and accepting. Fifty years ago my trip to Iceland would have made the front page of Fréttablaðið. Now no one even cares, except for that guy with the camera. But it wasn’t just those incidents.

Not okay to think black face is okay
There was another bizarre incident, in a bar, with an extremely drunk Icelander. It was the weekend before Halloween, and I was out with more or less the same group of friends. I went as a medieval peasant, another girl went as a pumpkin, the same American as before went as the Easter Bunny and the drunken Icelander went as a black person. I wasn’t angry, or at least I wasn’t as angry as some people might be. Without even talking to him, I knew he didn’t understand that blackface is an enduring legacy of minstrel characters and the negative black stereotypes they portray. So, I went up to him and shouted over the music that his costume, specifically black face, was offensive.

Why is it offensive?” he asked.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t sober enough to sit him down and explain why. He wouldn’t have remembered, anyway. But that was the moment that this column went from a joke in a bar to a need to explain that there’s no excuse for that kind of ignorance. People get tired of explaining over and over again why the same mistakes are wrong.

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