Er rasismi á Íslandi?

Rasismi, eða kynþáttahyggja, er í örstuttu máli hugmyndakerfi sem þróað var af körlum í Evrópu fyrir nokkrum öldum síðan til þess að réttlæta nýlendustefnu og þrælasölu landa sinna. Hún felur í sér flokkun mannfólks í hópa, eða kynþætti, sem hæpinn erfðafræðilegur grunnur er fyrir en byggist þess í stað á uppruna og útlitseinkennum, eins og húðlit og andlitsfalli. Hópunum var síðan raðað upp í snyrtilegan píramída, þar sem hvítir Evrópumenn voru á toppnum en fólk með afrískt útlit lenti neðst. Fyrir utan að styrkja evrópska karla í trú sinni á eigin yfirburði, var þetta flokkunarkerfi einstaklega hentugt til að sýna fram á réttmæti þess að seilast inn í lönd Afríku, Asíu og Ameríku eftir hráefnum, landsvæðum og fólki til að hneppa í ánauð.

“En ég er enginn rasisti”

Við búum öll í samfélagi þar sem staðalímyndir og valdaójafnvægi eru hluti af daglegu lífi. Kynþáttahyggja byggist sem fyrr á þeirri hugmynd að hvíti “kynstofninn” sé á einhvern hátt æðri öðrum og að menning og eiginleikar fólks með evrópskt útlit hafi ákveðna yfirburði í samanburði við aðra. Kynþáttahyggju má finna í skólabókum á öllum skólastigum á Íslandi, í dagblöðum, sjónvarpi og útvarpi, á internetinu, í almennri umræðu, í menningararfinum okkar, í tungumálinu og í skilgreiningum margra Íslendinga á eigin þjóðerni. Kynþáttahyggja er eins og fnykur sem liggur í loftinu og sest í fötin okkar ef við loftum ekki nógu vel út. Það þýðir þó ekki að fólk með fnyk í fötunum sé verra fólk en annað og mörgum hefur aldrei verið kennt að lofta út…

Ef það væri einungis lítill hópur fólks á Íslandi sem haldinn væri “rasisma” þá væri hægt að líta á vandann sem einstaklingsbundinn og við gætum flest fríað okkur ábyrgð á honum. Kynþáttahyggja virkar bara ekki þannig. Hún leggst ekki bara á “illa innrætt fólk” og hún er svo lúmsk að flest eigum við gríðarlega erfitt með að taka eftir henni. Kynþáttahyggja er kerfisbundin og hefur áhrif á heimsmynd okkar. Ef við sofum á verðinum, mótar hún hugmyndir okkar um hvað telst fallegt, rétt, virðingarvert, eðlilegt og gott, og leiðir til þess að við setjumst frekar við hliðina á ljóshærðum, fölleitum Jóni í bíó en svarthærðum og dökkbrúnum Jonathan. Ráðum svo frekar rauðhærða Kristínu frá Siglufirði í vinnu en teljum afrísk ættaða Victoriu ekki “passa nógu vel inn í starfshópinn”, þrátt fyrir svipaða menntun og reynslu. Hristum loks höfuðið yfir sjónvarpsfréttunum yfir því hvað “þetta fólk” í Pakistan er árásargjarnt og leiðum hjá okkur fréttir af drónaárásum Bandaríkjamanna sem drepa almenna borgara í skjóli nafnleysis og hátæknivopna.

“Hvítt fólk verður líka fyrir rasisma!”

Kynþáttahyggja gæti flokkast sem almennur dónaskapur og vanþekking, ef ekki væri fyrir samfélagslegt valdaójafnvægi. Kerfisbundinn munur á efnahagslegri stöðu, réttindum, aðgengi, atvinnutækifærum og sýnileika (t.d. í fjölmiðlum, stjórnmálum) eru dæmi um þætti sem hafa áhrif á félagslega stöðu og kynþáttahyggja á Íslandi sækir kraft sinn í þetta valdaójafnvægi milli fólks eftir húðlit og uppruna. Tælensk kona á Íslandi getur vissulega haft neikvæðar hugmyndir um ljósleita Íslendinga, en munurinn á því og kynþáttahyggju felst í samfélagslegri stöðu fólks af tælenskum og íslenskum uppruna á Íslandi. Á svipaðan hátt geta samkynhneigðir sýnt gagnkynhneigðum neikvætt viðmót, en þegar dæmið snýst við verða áhrifin önnur og meiri vegna sterkari stöðu gagnkynhneigðra í íslensku samfélagi og langri sögu fordóma og mismununar gegn samkynhneigðum í landinu.

IMG_1671Rasismi er því ekki bara dónaskapur og hann beinist ekki jafnt gegn öllum. Hann er beintengdur úreltri, en jafnframt þrálátri, hugmyndafræði um yfirburði hvítra og hefur lúmsk áhrif á hugsun okkar og hegðun út ævina, nema við tökum okkur sjálf í gegn. Sem hvít kona af íslenskum uppruna ber ég sjálf ábyrgð á því að taka eftir kynþáttahyggju í kringum mig og lagfæra mínar eigin skekkjur og fordóma. Og á meðan við búum í samfélagi þar sem kynþáttahyggja liggur í loftinu, hvort sem það er á Íslandi eða erlendis, þarf að lofta út daglega.

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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.

International Students: Bring on the Money!

During the 2013-2014 academic year there were 886,052 international students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate program in the U.S.

That’s close to one million people.

What does this mean for universities in the U.S.? What do these students bring and what do they gain from their time spent on American soil?

IMG_3208 (2)One thing they do bring is money. It is becoming increasingly evident that international students are a financial asset to educational institutions. In fact, international students bring in millions of dollars for many large universities, due in big part to them paying a higher tuition (even three times higher) than U.S. students who are from within the state. One example is the state of Indiana, where $688 million in economic benefits are gained yearly only from international students. Moreover, as pointed out by the New York Times, some universities have started to charge foreign students additional fees, making their presence even more profitable. Although they may at times need services that domestic students can do without, the net result is profit.

Another common perspective is that international students are fortunate to get the chance to study in the U.S. and gain academic knowledge to bring back to their home countries. I know many foreign students feel the same way. Thousands of them each year spend money, time, and a ton of effort trying to get into universities in the U.S. and a partial explanation for that is that sometimes students do not have equivalent educational opportunities in their home countries. That was my own story anyway, coming from a small country where graduate programs in counseling psychology were nonexistent. And then there is the imperialistic notion of Western (American) supremacy that leads a whole lot of people in our global village to believe that knowledge gained in the United States is more valid than knowledge gained elsewhere.

In sum, internationalization is the new buzzword for many colleges in the States. Universities gain money and foreign students gain education. Simple enough.

Except, high quality education is not a one-way street.

Educational excellence is not reached by gathering fresh minds and telling them how to think. It is reached by sharing information, shifting perspectives, encouraging critical discussions, allowing for personal reflection, applying theory to real-life situations, and graduating students with knowledge, skills, dedication, and abilities to exchange ideas with other humans in the world.

So when people talk about all the money foreign students bring and how lucky those students are to get to soak up American wisdom, a critical piece of the story is left out – the part on the immense educational benefit of a culturally rich college environment.

An educational system that reflects true appreciation for diversity provides invaluable opportunities for students and faculty to hear different perspectives on all kinds of topics, challenge preconceived notions about the world, experience intercultural friendships, practice second-language skills, and examine biases and stereotypes that emerge in classrooms and conversations. And when I say true appreciation for diversity, I mean not just admitting culturally diverse students and taking their money, but engaging them with inclusive teaching methods, valuing their input and ideas, encouraging critical questions and comments, re-evaluating discriminatory procedures, getting rid of biased course material, and showing openness to feedback at all times.

This is relevant to all students. When we do this well, international students and cultural minorities get the message that their presence is not just tolerated, but truly valued, and cultural majority students learn to grapple with new ideas, reflect on their position in the world, and engage in difficult and important dialogues.

The problem is that when the benefits of real, inclusive, mind-stretching, and cooperative diversity are not consistently highlighted, U.S. students and professors may sadly come to the conclusion that they have little to gain from interacting with international students and miss out on chances to broaden their worldview. They may also indirectly contribute to the separation of international and domestic students on campus and the devaluation of foreign ideas and values that all too often occur in academic settings.

International students have this amazing ability to open the door to the big world outside our backyard – as long as we’re willing to hear them out.

Bonding vs. Bridging

I sat this weekend in Teachers College at Columbia University and listened to Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky talk about prerequisites for peace. And by peace he did not mean simply the absence of violence, but the presence of justice, wellbeing, and opportunities for all. Dr. Prilleltensky is a leading scholar, researcher, and writer in the area of individual and community wellbeing and his talk covered a lot of material, but the concepts of bonding and bridging got particularly stuck in my head.

IMG_2825In short, bonding refers to our tendency to relate to people who are like us in some way, whereas bridging refers to the times when we reach out to people whom we perceive as being different. This is of course nothing new and many writers and thinkers have examined the human (and the evolutionary) habit of favoring those who are in our in-group, while looking with suspicion at those who belong to the out-group – basically all those who are not in our own circle.

It is easy for people of privileged groups to get comfortable with bonding and put little, if any, effort into building bridges. After all, if you have privileged status in society, bonding with those who are also privileged or have a similar social status feels good! In circles where everyone is on the same social page, there can be this cozy sense of community and shared meaning, and little risk of anyone bringing up uncomfortable topics like oppression and inequality. As soon as the party gets more inclusive, perhaps to the point of people of less-privileged groups joining the space, things can get more complex. Suddenly the party people have to decide whether to keep the conversation at a superficial level so that everyone can appear to relate, or really make a conscious effort to listen to each other and broaden the conversation to cover both shared and unique experiences. This may not sound too difficult, but the thing is that unique experiences of less-privileged people often have to do with social location and that can bring up aspects of reality that may be hard to acknowledge for those who are not directly affected by oppression.

An Icelandic family friend once shared her frustration with immigrant employees at her workplace, whom she perceived as always hanging out with each other instead of socializing with the Icelandic staff. When she was asked if she ever approached them first, she got flustered and stumbled on her words. Perhaps she had never thought of that. And perhaps that would have required her to make an effort to understand experiences that are very different from hers and work to create a common ground on which to build a possible friendship.

Listening to Dr. Prilleltensky, I thought of my own experiences as a foreigner in the U.S. and how that opened the door for me to redefine my in-group. Without the friends and family that had surrounded me back home, I found myself connecting very strongly with other international students and now I wonder if that was perhaps an example of bonding and bridging happening at the same time. Our shared experiences of being foreigners and our exhaustion from juggling the demands of a U.S. higher education program created a sense of cohesion and safety. At the same time, we reached across racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, and class differences and built solid friendships for life.

Dr. Prilleltensky and I agree that both bonding and bridging are important. They represent some of the fundamental processes of human interaction and in order to create decent societies we have to do both. However, what I find very interesting is how people of privileged groups sometimes feel entitled to bonding, while expecting people of minority or underprivileged groups to do all the bridging. Immigrants are given the side eye for hanging out with each other in Icelandic lunch rooms; international students are criticized for not engaging more with domestic students; Latinos are supposed to assimilate and stop speaking Spanish to their kids; African Americans are expected to integrate. Meanwhile, dominant groups at times reserve the right to keep to themselves, stay in their suburbs on the weekends, send their kids to after-school activities with other kids who look like them, and invite some but not others to dinner on Sundays.

This isn’t helpful. Because for minority groups and underprivileged populations, bonding creates an essential opportunity for sharing resources, getting support, expressing feelings and ideas safely, and gathering strength before heading back out into a society that does not view them as equals.

At the end of the day, we all need to bond. And then, we need to reach out to each other to make sure that everyone gets a place at the table. Bridges are best built from a position of equality and shared power. And safe bridges make this world a lot more interesting to navigate!

Sexual Assault – Are You Sure?

Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.

A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.

If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”

And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your bag just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”

I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.

What were you wearing?

How much alcohol did you have?

Why did you go to his house?

Why didn’t you fight back?

And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?

On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.

IMG_2997Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.

An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.

The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.

So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.

[Check out RAINN for more information]

Anger & Injustice

What is anger? A dangerous, explosive feeling that should be avoided? A sign of insanity? Unacceptable?

Despite all the diversity in this world, we all – for the most part – have the ability to get angry. It’s a natural part of how our human system is wired. And here we are, nonetheless, with a range of ideas on what this emotion means and how it should be dealt with.

News on any given day shows human anger. Today is no exception. Millions of people are outraged over a clear example of institutional oppression and injustice, with a white man of privilege walking free after cutting a young Black man’s life short. Interestingly though, some folks’ anger gets portrayed as irrational. Oppressed people showing loud resistance are labeled as barbaric while those with more power get to express their contempt in more socially acceptable ways – by removing funds, influencing media, and using politics, law enforcement, militaries, and criminal justice systems to target those who are in their way. Resisting oppression gets portrayed as pathological, while oppression itself is explained away and justified – sometimes by referring to the “out-of-control” reactions of those who refuse to submit.

Anger is a normal reaction to injustice or threat. Anger in response to oppression is a sign of strength and healthy resistance. But to those who don’t want the boat rocked, moderate anger becomes threatening.

While aggression and violence sit at one extreme, suppression of anger is at the other. And these two extremes tend to fuel each other. In a family where anger is not allowed, children learn to push their reactions down and ignore them. In abusive homes, anger is misplaced onto “safe” human targets that can’t retaliate or protect themselves. Their anger is not heard. Once pushed down, anger breeds symptoms of distress. Learning to give voice to unexpressed anger can be one of the most relieving and validating experiences of counseling for those who have been told their experiences don’t matter. Similarly, a society where healthy anger and resistance gets ignored or pathologized cannot be well. Expressing anger is essential and angry voices must be heard.

Gender Boxes

I was at an outdoor festival this summer, sitting on a bench with a friend, watching people walk by and enjoying the kind of summer weather I’ve rarely found in Iceland. As we sat there talking about politics, a person walking by caught my friend’s eye and he paused and asked with a slight grin, “Do you think that’s a man or a woman?” He seemed puzzled and amused at the same time.

I didn’t know. Who was I to answer that for anyone, really? And what made that any of our business to begin with?

Yet, we make assumptions about other people’s identity all the time. And sometimes, when we can’t seem to figure each other out, we get really uncomfortable. A person with an ambiguous gender expression gets confused looks on the street and some folks get very upset at the thought of someone daring to cross the “sacred” boundary between masculinity and femininity. As if world order is threatened by someone identifying their gender a bit differently than others do.

This doesn’t of course only happen with gender. Mixed race people and persons whose appearance does not fit neatly into a particular racial category get asked, “So, what are you?”, and American-born Americans of color are asked about their country of origin and questioned again when they say they’re from Ohio. Asked to explain and justify their identity to soothe the inquirer’s anxieties.

“Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when acceptance is dependent on you identifying with one of a few predefined groups and the identity that feels right to you doesn’t match any of those?”

How other people identify is really none of our business. But creating an environment where we can all be who we are without feeling excluded, judged, or rejected definitely is our business.