Infrastructure Minister Makes Racist Remark; Denials, Apologies And Calls For Resignation Follow

Infrastructure Minister Makes Racist Remark; Denials, Apologies And Calls For Resignation Follow

Published April 5, 2022

Photo by
Art Bicnick

An ugly remark made by Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson at a conference of the Icelandic Farmers’ Association (BÍ) last Thursday has caused a political scandal, and more importantly, a reminder that racism is still alive and well in Iceland.

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DV broke the story, reporting that at one point in the conference, a group photo was called for that would include BÍ director Vigdís Häsler. Sigurður Ingi was reported as having remarked that he did not want his photo taken “with this black one”, referring to Vigdís, who is a woman of colour.

The denials

Initially, Sigurður Ingi’s assistant, Ingveldur Sæmundsdóttir, denied that Sigurður Ingi ever said this, calling it “complete nonsense”. However, she was not at the scene of the group photo when the remark was made.

Vigdís responded to this denial by saying in part, “It is hurtful when attempts are made to downplay my lived experience and when precisely wrong explanations are used about it. I stand by what I said, I know what I heard, I know what was said. I refuse to bear responsibility for the words that minister used about me.”

The apology and its reception

Not too long after Vigdís posted her statement, Sigurður Ingi confirmed that he had indeed made “unacceptable remarks” about the director of BÍ, apologised, and said that he was still learning.

Vigdís has received an outpouring of support from politicians across the political spectrum. Helga Vala Helgadóttir, an MP for the Social Democrats, remarked on Vigdís’ post, saying, “It matters a lot that a powerful woman like you won’t stand for the gaslighting that you’ve had to endure.” Þorbjörg Sigríður Gunnlaugsdóttir, an MP for the Reform Party, remarked that she was deeply disappointed to hear about Sigurður Ingi’s remarks, while Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson called her a hero.

Calls for resignation

Sigurður’s apology, especially in light of initial denials from the minister’s assistant, was not well received.

Pirate Party MP Halldóra Mogensen raised the issue in Parliament, RÚV reports, saying that Sigurður Ingi’s remarks were a clear violation of the ethical code of government ministers, and directly asked Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir if the government was going to take responsibility for this.

Katrín replied that Sigurður had apologised for what he said, prompting Halldóra to remark, “Is it enough to apologise for breaking the law? Is that the message going forward?” Katrín repeated that the minister had apologised, and that this should be enough.

What may follow

Sigurður Ingi’s apology apparently is not enough for many, including the Young Social Democrats, who issued a statement calling for Sigurður Ingi to resign.

This would not be unprecedented on the world stage–government ministers and their assistants have resigned from their posts for racist speech in countries ranging from Canada to the UK to Malaysia.

This being Iceland, a resignation will probably not follow. As public relations professional Andrés Jónsson told RÚV, “I believe it very unlikely [that he will resign]. It could, however, end up very costly.” He added that Sigurður Ingi has not been known to make racist remarks in the past, and this, coupled with his apology and his expressed willingness to learn, “should not lead to his resignation.”

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