I won’t soon forget the day I was finally awarded Icelandic citizenship. Having moved to Iceland eight years previous, I fulfilled all the necessary requirements for a non-Schengen immigrant – I had been living continuously in Iceland for at least the past seven years, I had not even so much as a speeding ticket on my criminal record, and I had received no social assistance in the past three years before applying. However, I soon realized that this was about as far as I was going to go towards integration. Citizenship is the immigration ceiling. You are, in the legal sense anyway, an Icelander like any other. In every other sense, you are still a foreigner. You will always be a foreigner. Even your Iceland-born children are categorized differently.
Not that this is a phenomenon special to Iceland. Human beings are social animals, and we like for our social settings to be the way we’re used to them. Unlike most animals, however, we can actively adapt to new social settings. The problem with the “immigration platform” of most governments – not just Iceland’s – is that the onus is put on the immigrant to adapt, through a process of “guilty until proven innocent” which lends legitimacy to the idea that one should not only always be suspicious of the foreigner, but that there is a natural hierarchy wherein the farther away you come from the country you’re currently living in, the fewer rights you deserve.
The most obvious example of this mentality can be seen in our own immigration laws. Here, we see an unapologetic ethnic hierarchy at work in terms of which foreigners will enjoy the most privilege upon arrival in Iceland: the “best” immigrants come from Scandinavia, followed by other Schengen-area immigrants (that is, mostly western Europe), followed by everyone else. At the same time, according to Eva Heiða Önnudóttir’s “Viðhorf Íslendinga til innflytjenda á Íslandi,” a report from 2009 done for Bífröst University, the further away from Iceland an immigrant hails, the more likely Icelanders are to view them in a negative light.
This is not to contend that immigration law necessarily creates this outlook, but it does arguably legitimize being more suspicious of non-European immigrants in Iceland. So long as the law itself divides immigrants into ethnic categories of being More Like and Less Like us, there can be little hope of undoing that mentality in the general public.
This More Like Us v. Less Like Us hierarchy is unfortunately used quite often by some of this country’s louder voices of intolerance. Turn on radio station Útvarp Saga, for example, and you will very often hear this kind of rhetoric: poor little Iceland just cannot defend itself, culturally or linguistically, against a massive influx of non-Scandinavian foreigners. Immigration is new to Iceland, they say, and our very national existence is in danger.
Of course this rhetoric doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Immigrants in Iceland comprise a lower percentage than they comprise in other Scandinavian countries. The population of Icelanders, and the number of Icelandic speakers, increases with every year. And I’ve been hearing “immigration is new to Iceland” for at least the past 15 years now. When does it stop being “new”, I wonder? But this rhetoric does tap into some very romantic notions of Iceland being a plucky underdog struggling for its very survival in a world overshadowed by the forces of evil, or at least the European Union. It’s also a kind of rhetoric politicians of every political stripe enjoy tapping into for easy votes.
Ten years ago, Frjálslyndi Flokkurinn (The Liberal Party) tried to use generalized anti-immigration rhetoric as a campaign point. The mistake they made was in doing this months ahead of election day – it gave them an initial ramp up of support but, six months down the line, they gained zero seats in parliament, and are today virtually extinct. Today, we have the Progressive Party of Reykjavík. This party used fear of the most distant kind of foreigner they could find – the Middle-Eastern Muslim – just weeks before election day. By choosing a specific target for our suspicions, by choosing one vastly different from your average Icelander, and by doing so in the days before ballots were cast, they were able to gain two seats on Reykjavík City Council, where previously they had none.
These are extreme and obvious examples of politicians tapping into the fears of others to get ahead. But you can see this idea of Iceland v. The Rest of the World from every political faction, whether we’re talking about those foreign financial analysts who were just “jealous” of our pre-crash financial success, those greedy foreigners and their Icesave demands, those hypocritical foreigners and their anti-whaling rhetoric, those unscrupulous foreigners and their tainted, steroid-laden beef, and so forth.
This mentality is insulting to Icelanders. It tells them that they are some kind of time travellers from the Viking Age who have not socially evolved in centuries; that they are a superstitious and fragile island people who just cannot handle new cultures, languages or religions, and rather than upsetting their narrow world view, foreigners must learn to be more like them.
To be sure, Iceland is a special country in many ways. The danger comes from believing this specialness gives us a pass to discriminate. But the key to undoing this lies in taking a more modern, and more accurate, look at what it means to be an Icelander.
In poll after poll over the years, the vast majority of foreigners report experiencing some form of prejudice from Icelanders on a daily or almost daily basis. As a journalist, I can attest that every time I have reported on this very basic and demonstrable fact, there will always be locals who respond with disbelief. Surely this is a misunderstanding of what “prejudice” means, they argue. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding based on language barriers. Maybe they just don’t get the “Icelandic way” of being.
Part of this disbelief in just how widespread discrimination against foreigners in Iceland is, in my experience, can be attributed to the belief that discrimination is an event that is a Big Deal in itself. Many locals set the bar pretty high for being able to say you were discriminated against. Being denied or fired from a job based on your ethnicity: yes, most Icelanders would agree, that is racist. A cartoonist depicting Obama with a bone through his nose, a minor Icelandic celebrity taping his eyes back to depict an Asian, a group of high school kids putting on blackface as a part of their end-of-year celebrations: well, you just need to have a sense of humor, some will say. None of these things are a big deal. Why do you let it bother you? Are you looking for a reason to be offended?
Here I want to point out the concept of “death by a thousand cuts”. Maybe none of these things, by themselves, is necessarily a “big deal”. But imagine you experienced these little things on a more or less daily basis. The accumulative effect wears a person down and grates on the nerves to the point where, each time one of these “little things” happen, the hurt you carry from all the previous little things hurts just a little bit more.
This is something I would like everyone to have in mind the next time you hear an immigrant say they have been discriminated against, or are hurt by what they see as racism or xenophobia. It is not their job to learn to either accept it or laugh it off; it is our job to listen and change our behavior. And no Icelander should accept the notion that they belong to a fragile and medieval culture that cannot adapt to change.
We cannot put the onus on foreigners to adapt, least of all when the law and the politicians who write them stack the deck against immigrants. Rather, the dynamic needs to be reversed. We should accept that Iceland is a fully modern nation. Icelanders travel more than ever, live and study abroad more than ever, and seem to be falling over themselves to welcome more visitors to our country. Steady immigration has been a fact of life in this country for at least a generation. Pretty much every job that no one wants to do will be replete with immigrant labor. Icelanders count foreigners among their co-workers, their friends, even members of their own families.
If we want foreigners to integrate better into Icelandic society, we need to actively engage in not just changing the law but changing how we approach those who voluntarily move here to start a new life for themselves. We need to question what it means to be an Icelander, and even question the importance of nationality itself. We need to accept that we are a part of the rest of the world; not separate from it. If we truly consider the future of this country something of paramount importance, we need to make integration something that we do for immigrants; not something immigrants need to do on their own.