The Icelander and The Other

Over the past few weeks we’ve met with multiple people who work in the offices of multicultural centers or organizations that provide services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.  One persistent theme that we’ve noticed has been these representatives’ emphasis on a problem of “otherness” that seems so surround non-native people in Iceland.

Ewa Protasiuk, a fellow Colgate University student who is spending the summer researching youth immigrants of color in Poland, kindly forwarded us an article by Icelandic anthropologist Kristín Loftsdóttir titled “Republishing ‘The Ten Little Negros’: Exploring Nationalism and ‘Whiteness’ In Iceland.”  In 2007 this rhyming children’s book was republished in Iceland, evoking a wide variety of responses from Icelanders and foreigners alike.  Some people voiced the opinion that this book was outdated and racist and should not be circulated or republished.  Others cited it as a piece of Icelandic history, written and illustrated by famous Icelanders, that was not racist in its nature.

In her interviews with Icelanders (both native to the country and immigrants alike), Loftsdóttir observed many sentiments that we have also found prominent through our research.  She writes, “Many of the immigrants that I have interviewed, both members of the African diaspora and those historically classified as ‘white’, expressed how difficult they felt it was being accepted in Icelandic society and their persistent categorization as ‘foreigners’” (301).  She elaborated on the immense pride Icelanders have for their country’s history, culture, and language, and the frequent view that being ‘purely’ Icelandic is something to be proud of.

One of the most interesting observations in the paper is that those who defended the publication of the book often viewed racism as an outside problem that is not native to Iceland.  One blogger wrote, “For God’s sake, stop importing problems!” (305).  Loftsdóttir reflects on this:

The notion that problems are ‘imported’ seems to imply that the ‘multi-culturalists’ are making simple things complex… [These bloggers] claim that Icelanders are not racist and have not been racist, and that these are rather just ‘trivial’ imported problems – ‘foreign’ in a sense like the people involved. (305)

This idea is very similar to the comments we’ve heard from people working in organizations that provide services to immigrants and strive to promote a welcoming atmosphere to non-native Icelanders.  They agree that there is a continual labeling of immigrants as ‘others’ who bring challenges of integration and assimilation to the country that did not previously exist.

As we wrote in last week’s blog, a push for multicultural education, awareness, and appreciation is needed.  However, this is an issue that affects international society on a much wider scale than just Iceland alone.  As our lives become more interconnected in today’s globalized way of life, people have the ability to travel, move and meet people very different from themselves.  Immigration policies, as well as social issues that arise in newly diverse populations, are problems that most countries around the world are facing today.  Iceland’s experience of republishing “Ten Little Negros” provides a window through which we can view the domestic discussion of a homogenous population dealing with questions of race, diversity, and history.

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Graffiti seen in Reykjavik

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