The worst you can say

I keep reading in newspapers and on the Internet that the worst thing you can call someone is “racist”. Lately it has become very popular to say that you can’t say anything anymore without being labelled racist – and that is dangerous for “the real racism”. I, personally, experience the opposite: it is not possible to say that anything is racist anymore. Unless one is David Irving and resides on the edge of what one is willing to term human. This is why it is not racism but “boyish pranks” when football supporters emit monkey noises and throw bananas at black players – as if “boyish pranks” in themselves are a guarantee against bad attitudes. It’s not racism but “insecurity” which is the explanation for systemic rejection of immigrants as tenants and employees. And it’s also not racism but people’s democratic right to say anything, mirrored in the hardening vocabulary, the polarisation between individual attitudes, and public acceptance of what one can allow oneself to say about Muslims, and about Somalians in particular.

For some reason we suddenly have a debate which is trying to cleanse the nation of all accusations of racism. This could of course be because we have now reached a point where equality between coloured and white is so equal there can’t be much to complain about anymore. Or it can be because the situation is more polarised than ever. For never before has there been so many coloured people in Norway than right now, and a lot of them are, for some reason, angry. Here they are, in the best country in the world (that’s what the UN said), and then they’re not satisfied. In fact, they are the exact opposite: they arrive here and are treated with kid gloves one day, the next day they call us racist. And “to be called racist is the worst thing one can have happen”, says social anthropologist Inger-Lise Lien. This autumn she has been Aftenposten‘s star witness in the discussion about whether there is racism in Norway or not, and she strongly advices against the use of the word as a label. For my part, I find it a lot worse being called a “Thai-whore” than a racist, but of course it’s been a while since I was called that.

So why do I sit here feeling that Norway has become more racist than before? Why do I imagine that, in spite of everything, it was safer being a coloured Norwegian in the seventies than today? For all I know it was just because I knew the codes back then, as one does as a kid. They called me “yellow”, I called them “racist”. They screamed “bought and paid for”, I screamed that they were so ugly no one would have paid for them. They hit me in the stomach, I hit them in the face. This is perhaps not how one teaches one’s own children to solve conflicts, at least not in the part of town where I live now, but I can’t say that it didn’t work in its way. At least for me. Because behind me stood Society and nodded its head. It gave me the right to be assertive and fearless. I never experienced a single teacher or any other person in a position of authority avoid the question about me being in the right and the others in the wrong when I demanded equal treatment. As a child I never experienced a single adult who meant that “a little scepticism is ok”, that “one must expect the odd dysphemism” or that “there is after all a difference”. Well, the odd person did mean that. But those were the ones that were not taken seriously. Today, this has become the general consensus, one can recognise it – if slightly more elegantly phrased – in political debates, in editorials, and in normal conversations around perfectly ordinary dinner tables.

And still it is not the relativisation of the racism expression which is being criticised. The blame for everything that has gone wrong in modern integration politics is instead aimed at the cultural relativists. The burden of proof has in some roundabout way been reversed – those who experience racism have to prove its existence. And at the same time they have to have a clear and concise definition of what it is. We have an unspoken battle about the power of definition: on one extreme we have Per-Willy Amundsen who is of the opinion that racism is synonymous with Nazism – and of course if the definition of racism is as narrow as the Frp [the Norwegian Progressive Party – right wing] spokesperson advocates, then we can declare ourselves the first racism free country in the world. But it is still not clear what problems this is supposed to solve. Because on the opposite side is a group of less articulate people who, when asked, reply that they “feel discriminated against”. I.e.: one side wishes to define “racism” so narrowly it is barely usable. The other relates to an expression so emotive it is hardly valid for anyone but those who share the feeling. And even if I, as I hinted, am no expert on conflict resolution, it is clear to me that the problems will be solved once the immigrants realise that the whites are always right – no matter what they might say, think or believe about people who are different to themselves.

Published 10 December 2008
Original in Norwegian
Translated by Ine Gundersveen
First published by Samtiden 4/2008 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Samtiden © Cathrine Sandnes / Samtiden / Eurozine


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