Diversity in Norway

As with all countries, Norway has a few stereotypes. The biggest one is that everyone has blonde hair and blue eyes. This means that I’ve been asked multiple times about diversity in the country–usually by people who have a thing for blondes. Well first things first, not everyone has blonde hair and blue eyes. As a brunette, I’ve been quite happy to see a number of kindred spirits walking around. But I will say that asking about diversity in Norway is asking a bit of a broad question, and that a simple yes or no answer doesn’t fully address something so nuanced. I would argue that the better question is perhaps, what does it take to be considered Norwegian.

In the United States it doesn’t necessarily take a lot to establish that you are an American. If you have citizenship that is enough for most people, although as someone who has Asian heritage, I am often asked the annoying question “No, where are you REALLY from?” (to which I will refer you to this video). Although Americans are perhaps not the most skillful at talking and thinking about race, there is no real way to question how American someone is. Because the United States is a nation built of immigrants, there are no real grounds for someone to say that you don’t look or act American enough.

Things are a bit different in Norway. As I mentioned earlier, there does tend to be this idea that there is a Norwegian, or Scandinavian, look. I was talking to one of our current Fulbrighters, Jenna, who came to Trondheim to do a TEDx talk on race, and had the chance to talk to her about her research on race and ethnicity in Norway. Her take on things was interesting. In Norway, race is something that isn’t widely talked about, in fact it is something that a number of academic researchers even avoid in their work. When Norwegians do address race they tend to use the term “non-Western features” to talk about immigrants, or those with immigrant backgrounds. But this labeling is a bit problematic. Jenna was talking to one student whose parents were from Somalia and who asked her about studying in the United States. She gave him encouragement to go study in the States, but said, “Just so you’re aware, people might not initially believe you when you say you’re Norwegian.” His response was, “It’s okay. Not even Norwegians think I’m Norwegian.”

Clearly not all Norwegians have Western features, but unfortunately in Norway it appears as though looks do matter. It’s not enough for someone to have been born and raised in Norway. If they don’t look Norwegian enough, then they have trouble being considered Norwegian. But even for people who do look more Western, things are far from smooth. From what I’ve seen, immigrants who come to Norway from Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, are quite widely accepted, whereas immigrants from other European nations tend to be considered outsiders. In my classes, most of the students who are immigrants are ones who come from Eastern Europe, but to be honest I would have never known these students were immigrants unless my co-teachers hadn’t made a point of explicitly telling me. Turns out looking more Western isn’t everything.

So then what’s the other component to being Norwegian? From what I’ve seen it’s culture. Once immigrants arrive in Norway, Norway focuses a lot of energy on integration programs, or on teaching immigrants how to do things the Norwegian way. Some of the Fulbrighters even send their children to Norwegian integration schools, schools specifically set up to teach foreigners how to become more Norwegian. Unlike the United States, there is a desire to make people Norwegian. Those who don’t fit this mold seem to face difficulties.

Now all of this begs the question of what does it take for someone to become accepted as Norwegian. Is it looks, culture, or a combination of the two? I would argue that it’s a combination of the two. Through my Trondheim activities, I’ve seen a range of immigrant experiences in Norway. It’s pretty clear to me that right now it takes more than a perfect knowledge of Norwegian language, history, and culture to be accepted as Norwegian. It takes looks too. Those lucky enough to balance looks and cultural understanding are often the immigrants who seem to do the best. It’s no wonder that Swedes seem to do quite well in Norway.

Norway still has a long way to go when it comes to the ways in which it looks at what it means to be Norwegian and in the ways that it grapples with race. Norway’s struggles are clearly different from those faced in the United States; however, especially after my conversation with Jenna, I would have to say that I agree with her in that the only way to really start to wrestle with these issues in Norway is to start having a conversation about them.

The N-Word

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that students will always surprise you.

A few weeks ago I was spending most of my time conducting oral exams for my russ students. Because oral exams are easier to double team, my co-teacher Maria and I had a nice system set up where I would lead the students in discussions, while Maria took notes on their performance. My task was simple: students had to choose cards from a stack and then discuss whatever prompt was written on the back of the card. My job was to keep the discussion going and to try and make sure the students were showcasing what they’d learned during the course of the year (this was harder for some hungover russ students than others). While some of the students gave pretty standard answers to the discussion prompts, some really went above and beyond. The prompt that generated the most original thinking? This one:

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the word “nigger” is used repeatedly. What connotation (meaning, association) does it have in the novel?

Today, has the meaning of “nigger” changed? How do you feel about the n-word? Is this a word you use? When do you use it?

Should blacks be able to use the word nigger in ways forbidden to others? Why or why not?

Now I’ve struggled a bit with the n-word and other derogatory words, such as faggot, this year. For many non-Americans, these words don’t necessarily seem problematic. However, when they are used around me, I find it hard not to flinch.

For those of you who are less familiar with the n-word, or “nigger,” I thought I’d give you a short history of the word. The word comes from the Latin word “niger,” meaning black. It acquired its notoriety in the 17th century beginning with the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since then, it has generally been used in America as a demeaning word; one that is laced with hatred. It has been used in a number of ways and has appeared in many different forms, some more controversial than others. It’s common for American high school students to struggle through Mark Twain’s famous 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and to skirt, stutter, and attempt to avoid the novel’s many references to Jim, a saintly and kind slave, as a “nigger.” More recently, the rapper Nas tried to name his 2008 album “Nigger” but changed the title to “Untitled” due to pressure from leaders in the African American community. The National Football League (NFL) even tried to ban the word in 2014.

While my students were all correctly able to explain the n-word’s dark past, they struggled a bit more with the question of whether the meaning has changed and who should be allowed to use the word. Many of them talked about the word “nigga,” a derivative of the n-word that is usually interpreted to mean something like “bro” or “dude.” Most of my students argued that the usage of either “nigga” or “nigger” by African Americans was a way of taking ownership of the word, or limiting the power of the word to hurt, something that linguists call semantic inversion (other examples of this would include the gay community’s usage of words like “queer” and “dyke”). If you want a more thorough overview of either word I’d recommend this article on The Washington Post.

Where my students tended to differ was on who could use either version of the n-word. For some context was key, while for others the context didn’t matter. For some race also played a role, while for others it was irrelevant. To this day, the answer is far from clear in the US, and it is one that is argued about both inside and outside of the African American community. But I have to say that I was impressed with how critically my students were thinking about the word–something that is not always the case, as I’ve found out from living in international student housing.

And while discussing the history of the n-word and its usage was enjoyable, the part of the exam prompt that I enjoyed the most was having my students examine the use of the n-word in To Kill a Mockingbird (the rest of this is full of spoilers and will probably make more sense if you’ve read the book)All of my students were able to correctly tell me that the word is almost universally hurled as an insult by the book’s white population. The word comes up repeatedly and is even discussed within the context of the book. Atticus, the father of the protagonist, is the first person to tell the heroine, Scout, not to use the word, and makes it clear that it’s a “trashy” insult. From then on both Scout and her older brother Jem begin to take issue with the word, specifically when it comes to their father being critiqued for defending a “nigger” and being a “nigger-lover.”

What really made me proud however was when a few students were able to go a bit more in-depth and examine how the word is used by the African Americans in the book.* The only times that it is directly used is when Jem and Scout are brought to the local black church and during Tom Robinson’s trial. Both times the word is used to draw a distinction between the town’s black population and the town’s white population, and it is only used in a self deprecating way. It’s most powerful usage is probably when Tom Robinson explains why he ran away from a white woman trying to kiss him: “if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.” It’s the color of Tom Robinson’s skin that makes these advances troubling for the town’s population, what makes it impossible for the town’s jury to fully believe Robinson’s story, and ultimately what leads to his death. Robinson’s conscious decision to use a racial slur in his explanation perfectly captures how he is put in a life threatening situation purely based on the color of his skin. Having my students come to that conclusion on their own, and to even have one say “I never thought of it that way” was one of my teaching highlights for the year.

The n-word and other slurs have been something that has repeatedly popped up in my year here. I’ve heard many people use these words without thinking anything of it, and I’m sad to say that part of this definitely comes from the mass consumption of American media. They hear these words in American music and on American TV shows, and oftentimes it seems as though few stop to think about the history behind these words, the power of these words to wound, or to even care about these things. In fact, I’ve even had people argue that because they aren’t American or because English is their second language, that their usage of derogatory words is different and allowable, simply because it is placed outside of an American or native English speaking context. It’s something that I disagree with and something that I’ve struggled to explain this year. And although this topic generally has had me feeling a bit melancholy, I was incredibly proud of my students for taking the time to think critically about at least the n-word. I definitely left my class with a smile on my face.

*It also just made me happy since it showed that they had actually read the book.

The Svalbard Museum

My second day in Svalbard was much more low key. This time I was able to see more of the town simply because there was more daylight, and when I say daylight I really mean twilight. After about a 40 minute walk, Sarah and I made it to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and Sarah dropped me off at the adjoining Svalbard Museum.

The museum was great and full of useful information (pretty much everything below is taken from informational slides in the museum). Svalbard was originally seen as international and communal land; however, with the rise of the coal mining industry it became important that there be a governing body that could settle disputes. Things were finally established at the end of World War I with the Svalbard Treaty. In the treaty, Norway was given “absolute and unrestricted sovereignty over Svalbard.” However there are a few restrictions on this sovereignty. Norway is required to give the citizens and companies of the Svalbard Treaty signatories (as of 2005 this includes Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, The Dominican Republic, USA and Venezuela) equal rights regarding:

  • Entrance to and residence on Svalbard
  • Fishing, hunting, and trapping
  • Maritime, industrial, mining and commercial activities
  • Acquisition and utilization of property and mineral rights

Norway is still allowed to regulate the rights above, it just isn’t allowed to discriminate against a particular country. Svalbard itself is under the jurisdiction of the sysselmann, or the governor. The governor is not elected by those living on Svalbard, and is a part of the Norwegian administrative system. Fun fact: even though the sysselmann is part of a bureaucratic hierarchy, apparently the status of the sysselmann is the same as that of the king of Norway.

Because Svalbard is in some senses an international territory, the taxes and fees that are collected on Svalbard can only be used to benefit Svalbard’s residents. There is income tax on Svalbard, but there is not VAT (Value Added Tax) or fiscal taxes. The Norwegian government also helps subsidize the Svalbard budget.

Right now about 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. That’s 36,600 kmof land covered in about 7,000 km3
of ice. Svalbard’s glaciers and mountains add new dangers to living in Svalbard, mainly in the form of crevasses (people will occasionally fall in them when they are covered with winter snow) and avalanches. Yes, the total number of things I could severely hurt myself with or die from on Svalbard was at about four (frostbite/cold, polar bears, crevasses, avalanches). It felt good to be alive on Svalbard.

Svalbard was discovered as Northern European nations looked to find a Northwest passage to the East. They didn’t find such a passage, but they did find whales, seals, and walruses. Whale and seal products slowly became more popular as the European demand for oil increased. In order to meet this demand, whaling was developed and in 1612 organized whaling came to Svalbard.

Until the 17th century, whaling was done near Svalbard’s coasts and inside the fjords. As whaling continued year after year, more permanent settlements were slowly built. In order to actually catch a whale, numerous boats were used. The whales were essentially hit multiple times with harpoons and then sailors waited until the whales tired out from fighting the sailors and from blood loss. The whale was eventually dragged back to shore where it was finished off and then processed for oil. You can get an idea of what these settlements looked like how whaling worked from the pictures below.

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Svalbard was originally located down by the equator, which is what allowed it to develop coal deposits. Once whaling and trapping died down in Svalbard, coal mining gradually began to replace it; however, the mining industry encountered low oil prices in the 1970s. The price of coal was so low that in order to save Store Norske, the big Norwegian mining company on Svalbard, the Norwegian government had to buy nearly all of its shares in 1976.

Because the company was now owned by the State, it became politically necessary for Longyearbyen to transition from being a company town to being a family friendly town. Normal welfare and public services were introduced in Svalbard starting in 1975, and the State introduced or expanded education, hospitals, the postal system, administrative system, and telecommunications. These days the services offered on Longyearbyen exceed those found in some of the more rural areas in mainland Norway. Though with regards to healthcare, there is only one doctor that services the approximately 2,000 people living on Svalbard. What really helped normalize Longyearbyen however was the opening of the airport in 1974, effectively ending Svalbard’s long periods of isolation.

Things have continued to expand since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the coal industry was again hit with a crisis. This prompted the development of more businesses on Svalbard, particularly those related to research, tourism, trade, and services. The university, UNIS, was established in 1993.

Right now, Svalbard is considered more of a research town than a mining town (they actually have super fast fiber optic Internet due to all of the research that goes on). In fact, coal prices hit another low this year, causing the coal company to be in the red. Apparently this prompted the company to make a joke presentation at this year’s holiday party proposing that the government replace the coal industry with the timber industry. How can you tell this is a joke? There are no trees on Svalbard. How’s that for an arctic desert? But even though it’s a silly presentation, it does speak to a wider problem. As coal gets more and more expensive to mine (if I remember correctly there is only one working mine out of the ten that exist near Longyearbyen) the communities on Svalbard will have to start coming up with alternative ways to get fuel.

Once I finished reading through all of this history, I had a fun time looking around at some of the animals on display. The polar bear was huge in reality. On all fours it came up to about my shoulder (around just over four feet/1.2 meters tall). Sarah actually told me that one of the professors she works with was responsible for shooting it. Apparently he was so against shooting the bear he waited until it was 1.5 meters away before shooting.

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After that we went back to the barracks and spent the rest of the day lounging around one of the common rooms. I had a good time talking to some of the other students and working on some of my knitting. Guys, I’m getting better! Finished fox scarf featured below. Pattern here with the English version towards the bottom.

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One thing that I found interesting was talking about the upcoming solar eclipse. The eclipse is scheduled to happen on March 20th and Longyearbyen is one of the only places in the world where you can see the complete eclipse. This has sparked a huge wave of tourism to the island. The office of the sysselmann has estimated that approximately 50,000 people are flying into the island to see the eclipse. The population of Longyearbyen is just 2,000 people, so it’s literally 25 times more people coming to the island. This also means that the government is worried about people having places to stay. There is one hotel in Longyearbyen that hasn’t even been finished yet (it doesn’t even have walls or a roof) that is completely booked for the eclipse. One friend told me that when she stayed at an airbnb in Longyearbyen, her hostess told her that her house had been booked for the eclipse five years in advance. People are making a fortune renting out their houses, and apparently most rooms are going for tens of thousands of kroner a night. At this point hotels are charging a minimum of 10,000 NOK a night (1322.36 USD/night). The government is concerned that many people will arrive and not only lack a place to stay, but will also lack the necessary protective gear and clothing to survive the cold. There is currently talk of opening the local gym and using that as a place where people can sleep. All in all it seems a bit ridiculous, even more so since the weather on Svalbard is so finicky. There is a good chance that all of these people will show up and that it won’t be a clear day. But oh well. I guess that’s the risk that people take.