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The Norwegians who don't exist

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


Norway Now, 1995

 Although the outside world (as well as many Norwegians) still perceive Norway as a "white, Christian country", it has unquestionably become more motley in its pigmental makeup in recent years. Since the first Pakistani workers were invited, in the late 1960s, to fill jobs undesirable to Norwegians, the numbers of non-Europeans resident in the country have grown steadily. Despite the fact that Norway officially halted regular immigration in 1975, and even if the country today admits fewer refugees than most European countries, the presence of inhabitants of non-European origin is becoming ever more palpable, especially in the Oslo region.

Sadly, media focus on ethnic minorities in Norway tends to focus on problems. Whether the issue is "immigrant crime" (a nasty term coined by the tabloids a few years ago), arranged marriages among Pakistani immigrants, or systematic discrimination of non-whites by customs officials, many Norwegians get the impression that immigration is tantamount to cultural conflict and social problems.

This is not necessarily the case, and although Norway, unlike colonial powers such as Britain and France, has had little experience with non-Europeans before the 1960s, there have been no race riots in this country. In general, Norwegians and immigrants get on well. A student from Trøndelag told me recently about her surprise upon discovering the open and peaceful atmosphere of Grønland, a part of Oslo known for its large numbers of immigrants. This area is widely believed, in other parts of the country, to be be a centre of Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic tension.

Immigration has enrichened Norwegian society in many ways, bringing with it a plethora of foreign cultural expressions and impulses which would otherwise have remained unknown. On the other hand, it would be both foolish and dangerous to pretend that the relationship between Norwegians and newcomers is purely idyllic. Many natives are suspicious of immigrants and refugees, and it has time and again been documented that non-natives are treated as inferiors. The term restaurant racism has become part of the Norwegian vocabulary, and as a student, I worked as a bouncer at a nightclub in central Oslo where non-whites were systematically denied access. Harassment from the police is also common, and customs officials have a reputation for rude behaviour towards people who look non-European. A black Swede told me that during one year, he visited Norway seventeen times because his girlfriend was Norwegian, and every single time he was picked out and questioned by the customs officials, despite his Swedish passport and fluent Swedish language. (It was recently revealed that not a single customs official has a non-European background.)

Notwithstanding occasional instances of everyday discrimination, the most painful aspect of living in a foreign, frequently hostile and indifferent environment is, for many immigrants and refugees, the sense of nostalgia for one's home country, which it is usually impossible to share with Norwegians or even to make them understand. All immigrants have to learn about Norway and to master the outlandish Norwegian language, but no Norwegians have to learn Tamil or Urdu, or need to know that the Hindu feast of lights is called Divali, or that Baha'is are persecuted in Iran, or that the Kurds have been subjected to brutal domination by five states in this century. If the immigrants are to partake in Norwegian life, they have to learn to behave more or less as Norwegians; we do not have to behave like them. Until they manage to behave a little bit like ourselves, they do not exist.

Indeed, many of them are being told implicitly that they do not exist most of the time. A friend told me about the following situation at his workplace, a research institute in Oslo. One day he arrived at work early and met the cleaning woman, who was a Tamil of Sri Lankan origin. In the spirit of light-hearted conversation, he made a few passing remarks about Hinduism and asked her a specific question about the Hindu gods most highly revered in her part of Sri Lanka. The woman was moved almost to tears by his casual comment. During five years in Norway, she had never before met a Norwegian who had showed the slightest interest in her place of origin, or who had even indicated that he knew where she was from. She had grown accustomed to not existing until she began talking about Norway.

Is this the kind of country we want to live in? It would be an exaggeration to claim that the issue is on the national agenda, but one may at least hope that it will be in the near future.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1995