Cultural Diversity in Iceland: Who Gets to Be Icelandic?

Cultural diversity in Iceland is a preschooler. So young and yet maturing oh so fast. In the past 15-20 years, a decent number of people from around the world have been settling down in Iceland to live, work, study, raise a family, make it through the dark winter days, and join other sunstarved Icelanders in savoring bright summer days three months out of the year.

Over 52.000 people in Iceland have some “foreign” background. That is 16% of the total population. Roughly half of those people have moved to Iceland without any Icelandic roots. Some have lived here for 55 years and some came six months ago. Some are Icelandic citizens, know the national anthem better than the average native 30-year-old, and speak fluent Icelandic, while others are still getting acquainted with Icelandic society and struggle with the impossible grammar (and the varying pronounciation of words with the exact same spelling…). And some are somewhere in between.

Then there are folks with roots in more than one place. Those who have parents from different countries and cultures, those born abroad with both parents of Icelandic origin, and those born in Iceland with both parents of international origin. And let’s not forget all those who proudly trace their Icelandic ancestry way back, but may not be aware their mama was conceived after grandma’s brief encounter with a French sailor back in the day…

Who gets to be Icelandic and who does not? How do we split each other into “us” and “them”, Icelandic and non-Icelandic? Do we define Icelandic-ness by country of birth? By citizenship? Icelandic language fluency? Skin color? When it comes down to it, many of us would struggle to define what being Icelandic really means. Do we want it to be a VIP party where only a selected few get invited? I sure hope not. Wherever in the world we may live, we are responsible for contributing to a healthy, peaceful, and thriving society where everyone is included and valued. If we shut the doors to our fellow community members, we all lose out.

A current TV program in Iceland, Rætur (Roots), is perhaps the first to point out the commonalities and differences of Iceland’s diverse inhabitants in a warm, engaging, and respectful way. Persons who at some point migrated to Iceland have shared their experiences and perspectives in personal interviews and these conversations may have done more to shake up the stale stereotypes of “immigrants” than any other single intervention I know of in Iceland. Talking to each other is so very different from talking about each other.

We – Icelanders of all backgrounds – have a precious chance to collaborate on building an inclusive and welcoming society. After all, it takes a village to raise a preschooler. Icelandic nationality defined in a narrow, exclusive way can never unify a diverse population. We are so much better together!

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On Racial Battle Fatigue and Nice White People

Battle fatigue is an outdated term for the mental impact many soldiers experience after military combat. We’ve made up new terms throughout the years and now this type of “fatigue” is generally referred to as post-traumatic stress. The impact is real. Humans are not wired to thrive under extreme stress for long periods of time and when people get stuck in traumatic situations, bodies and minds are bound to suffer.

The terrorist attack/hate crime in Charleston, SC, this past week brought on yet another wave of vicarious trauma to millions of black Americans. People of color have been systematically traumatized by direct and vicarious (indirect) physical and mental violence for centuries in this country and with every new act of brutality, old racial wounds reopen. The mental impact hits not just the families and friends of those targeted, but millions of people who are reminded once again of the ongoing oppression and lack of safety in their own communities.

20150519_144125So while some are going through emotional pain and personal reactions to crimes that hit too close to home, the rest better pick up the slack and confront the racism that allows this to happen over and over again. And by “the rest”, I mean white people and people with enough energy left to fight racism in America. Racism is not relevant only to black Americans. It is a massive, insidious, systematic, social problem and each and every one of us is tangled up in it.

Talking won’t fix racism. Direct social and political action is needed and white folks must realize that this is where most of our collective energy needs to be channeled. Talking, however can challenge personal biases that contribute to the larger problem.

So here is where it gets sticky. Nice people don’t want to rock the boat. In fact, nice white people who witness other nice white people act or speak in racist ways, “let it go” all the time because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. As ironic as it is, research suggests that highly agreeable people are more likely than less agreeable ones to engage in behaviors that harm others – if they are expected to do so. In other words, agreeable, nice folks may be less likely to stand up for others if doing so means going against social expectations. And speaking against racism in a social setting where you are not “supposed” to be confrontational flies right in the face of social expectations.

Niceness isn’t bad in itself, but if being nice means sitting politely while people of color are being oppressed, kept in poverty, excluded from positions of power, ridiculed, assaulted, shot, and killed, then what? It’s like bullying. If you’re a bully, you cause harm. If you witness someone else being bullied and choose to do nothing, you allow harm to be caused.

Dr. Robin DiAngelo wrote a great satirical summary of the “rules of engagement” when confronting white people on their racism. These rules are a part of the unspoken social contract that states that we must not talk about uncomfortable things like racial oppression if we can possibly avoid it. This social contract makes it close to impossible to give any kind of racism feedback to a white person, without being seen as completely rude and inappropriate (check out another great article here on White Fragility). As Dr. DiAngelo pointed out, these rules rest on two basic misunderstandings:

  1. “that racists are bad people”, and
  2. “that racism is conscious dislike”.

So, if I challenge a friend on a racist remark, chances are that friend will feel highly uncomfortable, confused, and offended, as if I were suggesting that he/she is a bad person who consciously dislikes people of color. Most of the time that is not the case and we have to stop acting as if we are allergic to feedback.

An English guy in the 18th century once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If we are ever to get out of the racism swamp, we MUST challenge each other to do better and stop perpetuating this mess. And this means allowing our fellow humans to hold up a mirror for us so we can see our own shortcomings. It will be uncomfortable – but that’s how we grow.

Where Do You Go From Here?

Imagine looking back at your life as if it were a rocky mountain path and saying to yourself: This is where I walked.

Imagine looking at the miles of distance you have traveled with appreciation for the beautiful scenery and acknowledgement of the painful falls and difficult climbs you overcame. Imagine noticing how you have changed and grown along the way. How you may have collected heavy rocks in your backpack during your hike. Imagine taking that backpack off and placing it on the ground. You have carried it far enough. Those rocks were not even yours to begin with. Imagine then turning around and taking a breath of fresh air. You have traveled far and you have the freedom to choose where you go from here. There is no need to retrace the steps you have already taken. There is no need to pick up the backpack. You can leave it right where it is. And then, you can look up at the clouds and ahead at the unexplored landscape in front of you, and take a step in any direction you choose. Rest assured that wherever you go will bring you a beautiful view, new challenges, and unexpected detours.

There is no wrong way to go.

The path will unfold as you walk.

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Prisons, Profit, and Dehumanization

There are a lot of people in prison in the United States. Sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, mothers, nieces, friends, loved ones… In fact, there are more jails and prisons in the U.S., than there are colleges and universities. When friends or family members are locked up, the idea of prison becomes intensely personal. For others, prison is something you see on TV.

How do we, as a society, justify capital punishment, solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse by prison guards, and sexual violence experienced by inmates in the United States?

20150104_131719Well, some deny it. It’s hard to face that something horrific is going on every day in our society, with permission from the authorities we’ve chosen to trust.

Others know, but look away.

We are able to do this by dehumanizing prisoners. After all, they wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t deviant and evil… Right? By creating a separation between us and them we can comfortably ignore the harsh realities faced by millions of people on the other side of tall, concrete prison walls.

Recently, a women’s rights group called for an investigation into accounts of systemic sexual harassment and rape of multiple women held at a Texas immigration detention center for families (see here and here). To clarify, the women detained there are not Norwegian exchange students who have overstayed on their visa. They are poor women of color who have been imprisoned along with their families for having arrived without documentation to the Land of the Free, looking for opportunities to create a decent life. They are also women who for the most part go without the legal support, financial resources, and connections necessary to make their voices heard.

This parallels numerous other accounts of inhumane treatment, abuse, and harassment experienced by prisoners throughout the United States. Jessica S. Henry, Professor at the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, cited disturbing examples from 2010 and 2012 of cruel abuse of two male prisoners in Florida who died at the hands of their prison guards. Both men had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes.

I want to clarify that I am not stating that prison guards are worse people than others. However, the authoritarian and militaristic culture of the prison system is extremely effective at dehumanizing prisoners and shaping the attitudes and behaviors of guards and other people in authority. When someone has been dehumanized, they are no longer seen as a person with rights and dignity. Not surprisingly, this can result in horrific abuses of power.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how the prison mentality works. In short, a group of healthy, middle class, male Stanford University students took part in a study in 1971 on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The students were randomly divided into a group of “prisoners” and “prison guards” and instructed to simulate prison life, where guards had the role of overseeing prisoners and carry out coercive practices commonly found in U.S. prisons (see this website for an excellent description of the study). Long story short, on the fifth day of the experiment about a third of the guards had become “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation”, “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded”, and were “behaving sadistically”. By that time, the prisoners were already “withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways” and the study was prematurely ended on the sixth day for “moral reasons”.

The prison industry in the U.S. exists in a political, economic, and cultural context. It is not a coincidence that new prisons are being built all over the country and that owners of private “correction facilities” make more money than ever. Angela Davis has written extensively about the context of mass incarceration in the U.S. and she has pointed out the clear link between poverty, racism, and the ever-growing power of the prison system:

“Our criminal justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, health care, education, and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?”

When crimes are committed, race and class play a big role in determining who gets punished and how (click here if you are not familiar with this).

20150131_145135Race and class also play a big role in determining who gets “groomed” for prison in childhood. Children going to schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are less likely to experience school as a punitive, prison-like place, than children who attend seriously underfunded schools in predominantly black or Latino areas. Schools for kids living in poverty tend to lack proper funding. Schools for kids of color living in poverty tend to have even greater lack of funding. When this is the case, school stops being a place where you come to learn and develop your potential. Instead, it becomes a place where you are not attended to or stimulated mentally; where your strengths are not highlighted; where you don’t get access to healthy extracurricular activities and expressive art programs; where there are guards who place you in handcuffs when you misbehave; where you are sent to “detention” – instead of counseling – when you act out emotional problems; where there are too few staff on the ground to intervene when someone is bullied. It becomes a place you dread going to and a place you can’t wait to get away from at the end of the day. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t thrive in a place like that.

So what do we do with all this? Can we work together to see the humanity in each other?

Can we create a society where people are held accountable for their actions, without being unfairly targeted, abused, or killed by authority?

Can we dismantle a prison industry that bases its profits on human breakdown and militarism?

I want to believe we can.

When Plans Fall Apart

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I have this habit of wanting things to go according to my plan. The plan can include something as simple as what I want to do on a regular Sunday or something as broad as major life goals I want to accomplish, ideally in a particular order. When making decisions, this means I often spend a lot of time thinking about possible actions and consequences, as if there were one “correct” choice to be made. This also means I don’t like when things change unexpectedly and I definitely don’t like my plans falling through. When my plans don’t work out, I find myself caught off guard. As if things were supposed to happen the way I wanted them to.

This habit has been curiously persistent. I have had life-changing experiences where my well-thought-out plans have completely fallen apart and yet I have found myself getting right back up to design new plans and become mentally attached to particular outcomes that – again – may never materialize.

A friend of mine listened recently while I shared my frustration about not knowing how to reach one of my big goals in life. When I was done talking, she looked at me for a second and then moved her glass and plate apart on the kitchen table, put her phone squarely in the middle, and said: “Let’s say you want to travel from this glass to this plate. Turns out the phone is in your way. It seems you keep bumping into the phone, over and over again! It’s like you don’t realize you can turn to the right and go around it… or turn left… or jump over it… or go somewhere else!”

Of course she was right.

Most of the time, there is more than one way from A to B.

Also, B is just one of many possible destinations.

In other words, there is no one right way to live my life. I even dare say there is no one right way to live yours either.

Life keeps taking unexpected turns whether I want it or not. Time after time, I find myself in the middle of things that were not at all on my agenda and the more I try to stick with my plan, the more frustrated I get when life does its own thing.

At one point in my life, when I had experienced a series of difficult events and transitions, I decided to help myself recover mentally by setting only one big goal: To be. The result was a year where I ended up feeling more alive than I had felt in a long time. It was like an adventure – starting each day with a sense of appreciation for being present and curiosity about what I might encounter. I decided that all I really had to do was to be myself, breathe, and be ready to accept whatever the day were to bring.

The following year I made a different agenda. Instead of planning to be, I planned to accomplish. Needless to say, this plan didn’t work so well. The more I chased after my goals, the less often I remembered to look up and breathe. And the more frustrated I got with my lack of “progress”, the more stuck I became inside my own head, worrying and thinking things over… and over… and over. It is actually hard to be present in the world when you are stuck inside your head.

It seems simple, now that I think about it. But knowing myself, I think this may be one of those lessons I need to learn a few times before I finally get it.

Getting Active

I used to be scared of speaking in front of people. It was my second greatest fear throughout most of my childhood, awkward adolescence, and beyond. Basically, I was afraid of being seen and heard at the same time – afraid of my insecurities showing and my mind going blank. In my head, that and my house catching on fire were about equally as frightening…

I wondered what would happen if I had something really important to say later in life. Would I have the guts to say it? Or would I sit still and keep quiet…

For the most part, I’ve kept quiet. I’ve made myself busy with school and work, minding my own business, and participating in social justice efforts when it fits with my schedule. I have shied away from initiating difficult conversations about injustice when sensing that it might be perceived negatively and I have been more inclined to raise my concerns individually than to bring them up in groups when the spotlight might shine uncomfortably on me.

When I told a white acquaintance the other day I was going to join a march on Martin Luther King Day to call for respect for human rights in Philadelphia, she asked: “How long have you been an activist?”

My first reaction was disappointment. I keep hoping that fellow people of privilege see how critical and urgent it is to work towards justice and equality for all, instead of seeing that as the personal business of “activists” and marginalized groups.

And then, I wanted to shake my head. Because I cannot claim to be an activist. Not in the way Sybrina Fulton is who has channeled her grief and anger from losing her son, Trayvon Martin, into speaking up about racial oppression perpetrated by the U.S. justice system. Not like Laverne Cox who has called attention to silencing, harassment, and violence against trans people and queer folks. And not like the multitudes of people who work tirelessly to organize and implement programs and movements in their communities, in universities, in health care, and in grassroots political settings; to be dissenting voices in dominating groups and speak up over and over again against injustice; and who risk their jobs, health, and lives while disobeying civilly and taking to the streets when nothing else seems to work.

Going to an organized march is an easy gesture of solidarity. Being a real ally will require some real effort.

By entering their field of work, psychologists and other mental health professionals have signed up to promote health and wellbeing. That cannot be done without challenging the forces that corrode quality of life. Poverty and racism won’t be eradicated through individual counseling, research papers in academic journals, and poster presentations. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but really… it’s not happening.

And at the end of the day, speaking up for what is right is not about me. It is about lending my voice to what needs to be said. Being afraid is no excuse.Freedom3

Pushing for Change

IMG_2784I often notice when people have goals that revolve around changing another grown-up individual, either a partner, parent, friend, or another significant person who is behaving in an annoying, careless, rigid, or even harmful way. People want all kinds of change in relationships. They want their adult daughter to be more appreciative, a husband to be more considerate with the in-laws, a dad to stop smoking, a partner to be honest… Most of us have someone we would like to change in some way and chances are we have already tried. From the observer’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is more likely to lead to exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment, than actual change.

What I find harder to see is when I fall into that same trap. I have caught myself so many times feeling invested in someone else changing and I have voluntarily entered a field of work that is all about facilitating some form of change. Some of my best supervisors and mentors along the way have at times caught this for me and gently pointed out when I was getting far ahead of myself, being a bit too enthusiastic and ready to make progress in someone else’s life, when I could have been more helpful by simply joining the person exactly where they were at. I have also had to sit myself down more than once and remember that while I can work with people to make change in their lives, I cannot make that change for them. It sure is tempting though… Outside the office it can get even harder. The more invested we are personally in a particular relationship and the more other people’s actions influence our wellbeing and goals, the trickier it gets to accept that we are really only in charge of our own selves.

Although William Glasser’s reality therapy is not one of my main approaches to counseling, I appreciate the emphasis it places on being in charge of our own behavior – and acknowledging that we cannot control anyone else. Accepting that we cannot change other people does not mean that we must accept the status quo in every aspect of life. Some things really do need to change. Social change, for example, does not happen without efforts and energy spent influencing large groups of people. In interpersonal relationships, however, we can easily get stuck for a long time waiting, hoping, and pushing for change, when the object of change does not share our agenda.

So what can we do, when the people in our lives are out of bounds? Sometimes there are no simple answers, such as when a person is trapped in an abusive relationship with no easy way out. At other times, there are things we can do to re-channel our energy. For example, we can communicate directly what we want and what we do not find acceptable, seek and accept support, and take steps to protect our own wellbeing – perhaps by stepping away from toxic interactions or exiting unhealthy relationships.

And sometimes we may want to sit back, breathe for a minute, and ask ourselves:

Is what I am doing getting me what I want?