A Nation of Peers: On Equality and Corruption in the Icelandic House of Cards

Iceland is the home of the largest glacier in Europe, countless elves, and social inequality. Not unlike other parts of the world, a persistent gap exists between the rich and the rest of us, and power and money get concentrated on the hands of those who know how to play – and rig – the game.

In Iceland, like elsewhere, wealthy folks have access to opportunities that others can only dream of. While some kids grow up in financial bliss, other kids can’t participate in sports because fees and the cost of team trips are too heavy for their low-income parents. Inequality takes the form of immigrants with postgraduate degrees working in manual labour because they cannot get access to jobs that match their skills and education and it presents in people with disabilities still having to put up a fight to get essential services properly funded.

And yet, Iceland has a curious characteristic that works in the favour of social equality: Proximity.

Our population is tiny. While Iceland is a decent-sized island (in fact, Iceland is 80% the size of England) the population is minuscule on a global scale (0.6% of the population of England). In addition to that, Iceland’s population is predominantly located in the capital area and in small towns and villages along the coast, while most of the country is taken up by mountainous terrain and fast-melting glaciers. Thus, we literally live right next to each other.

This physical proximity, along with centuries of relative isolation and lack of diversity have created a need for us to look up promising dating prospects in Íslendingabók to check not whether, but how related we are. Not surprisingly, in a society this small, political scandals and financial crises take on a personal tone. We cannot talk about “those people” who engage in corruption without talking about ourselves.

In Iceland, physical proximity translates to social proximity. The son of Jón the factory worker goes to class with the daughter of Jónas the CEO and they just might start dating by the end of 9th grade. On a dark winter morning, the Mayor of Reykjavík (Iceland’s capital) sits shoulder to shoulder with a retired teacher and a construction worker from Lithuania at one of the many outdoor geothermal hot tubs. Everyone must wash thoroughly without swimsuit before entering the pool, regardless of taxable income and offshore assets. And if you keep your eyes open, you just might spot the President on an evening walk on one of the many public trails along the shore. Perhaps you’ll have a casual chat, especially if your aunt was his classmate in college.

Without exception, Icelanders speak to each other on a first name basis. Last names are made up of the first name of one’s parent (typically the father, although some Icelanders have now started challenging that patriarchal tradition) with “-son” (son) or “-dóttir” (daughter) at the end. Although last names help indicate whose kid you are, referring to an Icelander by their last name does not make any sense. Similarly, having a doctorate degree does not mean you will be referred to as Dr. LastName and formal honorifics are simply not used, save for the president, who may get a “Herra” or “Frú” before his or her first name.

Preventing a rigid class hierarchy and persistent social inequality shouldn’t be hard in a small and interconnected community like Iceland. Certainly there will be people who gather wealth, but lack of public reverence for the so-called elite and low or nonexistent fear of authority could work beautifully to our advantage.

And yet, somehow, we still seem to struggle to even out the playing field.

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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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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.

Freezing Over

It is time for winter to be over. By the end of February people at the northern end of the northern hemisphere have got all the freeze they need for one year and right now it is time to move on to other weathers. It’s that simple.

Sunshine at 1 pm in DecemberThis may be a surprise, but being from Iceland does not automatically mean that one is a fan of winter and loves being cold. For example, I don’t… At all. And I’m not alone in that. Darkness and cold weather have the side effect of changing many people’s habits and make them less likely to do some of the things that actually help lift mood and improve general quality of life. When it’s freezing outside, many of us are less likely to take walks, go to a gym class, leave the house to visit friends, bike to work, get sunlight on our face, and mow the lawn, and this can leave us inactive and moody. We may blame our low mood on the cold, but chances are it’s largely affecting us indirectly through our change in habits.

Personally, I don’t like too much winter. A three-week winter would be just fine and I don’t need it to get dark at 4 pm at any point during the year. I say this despite having some good winter clothes and a well-insulated place to call home. I’m not the construction worker staying outdoors all day and I’m not the homeless person who sits next to a hot-air vent on the sidewalk to keep herself warm while strangers pass her by and don’t even bother to check if she is dead or alive.

IMG_1397And yet, I complain. I complain to myself in private and once in a while I share my complaints with whomever seems equally tired of ice. In reality, my complaints are relatively senseless. I’ll be fine whether it’s freezing outside or not. Complaining about winter will not make spring arrive any sooner than it plans to and it keeps me in a mentality of unnecessary negativity. A wise woman has told me many times that a wind can be awfully cold or invigorating – depending on how you define it.

So if I were to take her advice, I would put on a scarf, embrace the storm, and get myself out for a walk. An invigorating walk… And then I’d welcome spring whenever it gets here.

But to be completely honest, that type of positivity requires advanced skills. Level 5 positivity skills…

I am at level 3.

Nordic Supremacy – Racist Elements of Icelandic Identity

“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.

So, How Are You?

Tough DaySuch a simple question really. In Icelandic, the equivalent is “Hvað segirðu?” – What do you say. And what do you say? Do you say what’s really on your mind, that you are having a pretty bad day actually and aren’t feeling too hopeful about the future, or do you say something more socially acceptable and keep the conversation light and superficial? Most of us do exactly that. Somehow it doesn’t seem appropriate to dive into personal feelings with someone who merely asked a polite small-talk question and never signed up for receiving any details on our mental state.

Even though the question itself isn’t unique to the English language, I found myself having much more trouble responding to it in the U.S. than I had anticipated. In my native language, the answer felt straight forward and comfortable: “Allt gott” – as in, all is good. But once I had made the transition from my Icelandic everyday life to the U.S., I suddenly had to think about the exact words that would go into answering that little question, day in and day out. Saying, “I’m good” felt right, but only on days when it was actually true. Somehow it was harder to play along in the small-talk game when I had to think about what to say.

And on days when all wasn’t good, I took the chance to say something more honest, like “I’m alright”, or “Not too great actually”. It turned out to be a tricky dilemma. Do you give a false answer for the sake of upholding social norms, or do you say what’s up and risk being perceived as a complainer or responded to with great concern and sympathy? My answer – it depends. What I do appreciate is when people are able and willing to accept that sometimes things aren’t good, and that it’s okay to admit that to oneself and others. And even when we hear an honest not-so-good answer, it doesn’t mean the rescue team needs to be sent out to fix it. It’s just a sign the person is human.