Published April 17, 2015
You probably know that when a sentence begins, “I am not a racist, but…” the second part of that sentence is usually destined to be pretty racist (which is the polar opposite of when people say, “Well, I am no scientist, but…” where what follows will definitely not be scientific). My father once said to me “I am not a racist, but…” and then exclaimed, “… I was once in an elevator in New York with a black guy, and he smelled.”
I have once been witness to racism in Reykjavík. On a bright summer night, partying in the streets, I heard a couple of Icelandic boys howl at two black men: “Go back to Africa!” In the blink of an eye, the small groups of young folks still lining the streets transformed into a righteous mob out for justice, and the two Icelanders ran away, fear of God put into them.
I spoke to the men afterwards. Ironically enough, it turned out that they were indeed from the continent of Africa, and on their way back there. They also told me they had not encountered any problems in Iceland before the incident, which they said came as a surprise. By the response of the group/mob, it felt clear that casual racism in the streets of Reykjavík is neither a common thing, nor something tolerated by the locals.
SAMBÓ, THE LIQUORICE
But… there is one thing. Icelanders, along with their Nordic brethren, harbour a deep love for liquorice. In Iceland, chocolate covered salty liquorice is actually a thing—quite a popular one. One of the main producers of liquorice in Iceland is Kólus, who call their liquorice products “Sambó,” after the often banned children’s book ‘Little Black Sambo’ by Helen Bannerman, first published in 1899. Their black candy is named after a black boy.
The story of Little Black Sambo is really about a young Indian boy who tricks some tigers into turning into butter for some reason. Some have said the story itself is not racist, just the illustrations, like the ones used in the packaging of Sambó liquorice, and the names of Sambo’s parents “Mumbo” and “Jumbo.” The name Sambó is inappropriate enough, but that it is also a racial slur is another story. The Racial Slur Database has this entry on Sambo: “Currently embodies stereotypes of docility, laziness, stupidity, and disloyalty.”
Kólus don’t go as far as calling their product “Jim Crow liquorice,” but the name they chose is the second most offensive one they could have gone for. Seriously, Sambo is second only to Jim Crow on Wikipedia’s list of “African American stereotypes.”
DABBLING IN DRUNKEN CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISM
One drunken night last summer, I started a Facebook group demanding that Kólus change their liquorice brand’s offensive name. I furthermore sent the company a polite letter asking them to forego Sambó.
The response I received for my Facebook group was underwhelming. I said Icelandic people are not racist, I never claimed they aren’t apathetic. As for my letter, Kólus never answered, and I deleted the page a week later. Thus were fated my attempts at drunken civil rights activism.
Last week, however, a friend of mine sent me a picture of Sambó’s packaging that show a tiger following a young black boy. This is not the version that goes on retail shelves, so I had never seen it before. I thought: “This is going too far.” Yes, just the name Sambó is going too far, but using a picture of a black boy to sell black candy is going farther than far.
“NEGRI” THIS AND “NEGRI” THAT
So, I called the offices of Sambo HQ and spoke to a man who claimed he often speaks on behalf of the Managing Director. My intention was to ask him whether they ever thought about the racial connotations of the name. Before I could utter my question, he started ranting:
“People that take offence to this name are seriously sick… If we wanted to name it after a black person, we would have just named it Negró!”
Throughout our conversation, Kólus’s representative used the word “negri” often, and does so here when suggesting the name “Negró.” An archaic Icelandic term for people of colour, mostly acceptable until the 1970s, “negri” is now considered the Icelandic equivalent to “nigger.” Our conversation went on:
But why name a black candy after a black person?
“It isn’t. It’s just a name we like.”
Why then is there a black boy on some of your packaging?
“If you look closely, he is running away from a tiger. There aren’t any tigers in Africa.”
I understand that the original story happens in India, which has tigers, but no Indian has such curly hair as the little boy in the picture.
“The main point is that people who have a problem with this name are sick, sick in the head, there are many sick people in the world; the Muslims that are fighting each other in the Middle East, the pilot that flew that plane into the Alps. You can’t endlessly pander to sick people.”
Do you understand that this is a racial slur in other parts of the world, for example in the US, and the name Sambo has a different meaning than you maybe even realise?
“Then, those are just sick people. And we don’t export much anyway.”
I wanted to ask him if they ever considered renaming their liquorice, e.g. Samba or Mambo. But he said he was busy and hung up.
After that exchange I was a bit taken aback, I was expecting a rehearsed spin, pointing out it was just a children’s story and so on. What I got was a tidal wave of the word “negri,” which you usually only hear from people making fun of stereotypical racists.
A SWEET AND SALTY RELIC
Common views on different races, sexualities, religions, et cetera, can be quick to change in Iceland. Gay people were often assaulted in the streets in the early 1990s—by the end of that decade they flooded those same streets by the hundreds, dancing in celebration as they asserted their rights. With children holding balloons cheering them on.
I accept that the name “Sambó” is a relic of a simpler, more racist time, but that does not mean we should condone it. I will continue to boycott Sambó liquorice and they will continue to feel the repercussions. You can help them see the light by sending them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appolo’s liquorice is better, anyway.
A Letter On Icelandic Racism, That Doesn’t Bloody Exist.
Those few articles on Icelandic racism posted on this website recently have greatly annoyed me. Let me explain myself…