“Is everyone blonde in Iceland?” No wonder they ask… Media portrayals of Iceland have for the most part highlighted the whiteness of the population and the Nordic features of the Icelandic culture. And the truth is that although ethnic and racial diversity in Iceland has finally started to grow over the past 15-20 years, the population is still predominantly white. What is less commonly acknowledged, however, is that the Icelandic people have built their shared national identity on white supremacist beliefs that still linger underneath and above the surface.
An Icelandic scholar, Ólafur Rastrick, was quoted by the National Broadcasting Service (known as RUV) the other day stating that physical characteristics of white Icelandic bodies were strongly associated with supremacy in the early 20th century and that whiteness was used, along with other valued characteristics, to shape the national identity of the Icelandic people. In other words, early 20th century Iceland was influenced by European white supremacist beliefs and when defining ourselves in relation to the world, we took the pre-existing European racial hierarchy and placed ourselves squarely at the top.
The most intriguing part of all this is that these ideas are not just a part of our past. According to Kristín Loftsdóttir, an Icelandic professor in cultural anthropology who has written several articles on Icelandic nationalism, old beliefs about the cultural and racial supremacy of the Icelandic people have saturated literature, public and political discourse, educational material, and imagery up to the present day. Textbooks on Icelandic history have perpetuated the myth that Icelandic settlers represented the cream of the Norwegian crop, were invigorated even further by the rough nature of Iceland, and set the foundation for Icelandic excellence. Similarly, politicians and public figures still talk about the unique qualities of Icelanders as if they were a special breed of people.
Only a decade ago, in 2004, the Grapevine magazine challenged this outdated definition of what it means to be Icelandic, simply by having a black woman on the front cover wearing the traditional Icelandic national costume. People’s reactions were mixed, to say the least.
Celebrating and taking pride in ones ethnic origins is important, especially for cultural groups with small populations. However, building a national identity on a racist ideology and placing ones own group above others in terms of merit and quality is toxic. The idea that Iceland and its people are somehow “pure” due to centuries of isolation carries with it the notion that this alleged purity must be protected from outside influence. Many immigrants and asylum seekers in Iceland are well acquainted with this view and Icelanders of color experience more racism than the general public likes to acknowledge.
If we, as a people, were to hold on to this idea of “purity” and attempt to fully isolate ourselves from the big bad world, we would soon be in serious trouble. From what I understand, we are already related enough. And the belief that Icelandic culture needs to be preserved and protected from change shows a serious misunderstanding of the concept of culture. Culture is not a polaroid picture. It’s an ongoing movie with an unfinished, complicated plot, and a huge set of autonomous actors. A stagnant polaroid culture cannot evolve and if we insist on defining our national self in outdated, narrow, and oppressive ways, we will not thrive.