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!

20150519_142556

When Plans Fall Apart

20150131_145235

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.

Where Have You Been?

ObservationsI love to travel. In my world, travel is an adventure that unfolds in ways I cannot anticipate. If given the chance, I prefer side roads to main streets, a homemade meal to a fancy restaurant, and a small village to a tourist resort. I would rather travel to places I’ve never imagined, than visit the same beach two years in a row, and I would rather make friends at a local park than hang out at a hotel bar with peers from home. To me, travel adds flavor to life and widens my horizon, regardless of where I go.

Most of my journeys have been freely chosen and enjoyable. I have been the obvious bad-mannered tourist wearing shorts and flip-flops in tiny sacred chapels, a guest in local homes, a student receiving language lessons from playful neighborhood kids, and the lost hiker who walks off to the right when map says left. Some of my travels have left me forever changed, with a new outlook on life and the world, and some have made me rethink my very identity to the core. And none of my travels have been terrorizing.

In Killing Rage, bell hooks speaks of different types of travel. The kind of travel that involves forced migration to places where one hopes to be safe from persecution, trafficking across borders without consent, displacement from one corner of a city to another due to gentrification, and movement from a community of color to white spaces where one becomes the Other whose worth and merit are constantly questioned.

Frightening journeys are not always counted as valid. The travel stories are not openly shared and there may be no pictures to verify the sights seen on the way. The traveler may not be greeted with warm welcomes upon return. There may not be a return at all. Those journeys require more courage and strength than any vacationing tourist could ever assemble.

And travel is undertaken even while staying put. A first-generation college student may find himself moving mentally away from his native community toward a classist academic elite and an international student may experience a gradual shift from her previous cultural identity to a multilayered sense of self. My therapy clients take on journeys back to times in life they would rather forget, passages from helplessness to empowerment, and treks leading to new points of perspective. To be brought along on those travels is an honor.

In a way, our greatest journey starts when we enter this world and the best roadmaps may lead us down dark and narrow paths we never planned to tread. And yet, on every road there are lessons to be learned.

We have all traveled. Learning each other’s stories can only enrich our own.

Nordic Supremacy – Racist Elements of Icelandic Identity

“Is everyone blonde in Iceland?” No wonder they ask… International 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 as people.

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 just happen with gender. Multiracial people and persons whose appearance does not fit neatly into a particular racial category get asked, “So, what are you?”, and non-white American-born Americans 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.

But the male/female gender categories are curiously rigid. People who dare to challenge the male-female binary seem to challenge the beast within society that has not learned to contain it self and cannot tolerate ambiguity. It raises its head at a teenager who dresses in gender neutral ways and lashes out at a person who seems to be using the “wrong” bathroom at a bar.

“Which box do you check when you don’t belong in any box? How do you navigate the world when the world is built on identifying with one group or another group, male or female, and the place that feels most right to you is neither?”

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.

The Quiet One

The Quiet OneI have always been one of those who think more than they speak. The quiet, shy, introverted, reserved… Not exactly the life of the party. Missing opportunities to share my thoughts while waiting for others to pause long enough to give me space. Or not knowing what to share until later when I have chewed on all the information and points of view flying around in heated group discussions. On top of that, I accepted the message all too well growing up that kids (girls) should sit still and be quiet. So when the world called for initiative, assertiveness, and active participation, I struggled, more often than not. I used to see this as pure annoyance and character flaw.

Of course, I hadn’t yet read the book Quiet, by Susan Cain.

Fortunately, humans can learn, and I learned to speak up when needed and own my opinions. Talk, as well as listen. But what I also learned was to value this quieter way of being. First of all, we don’t all have to talk at once. Second, I am sometimes able to notice things in myself and others that often get lost in all the noise.

Being a foreigner in a giant country where I blend in with dominant groups due to my white skin and privileged social location has given me plenty to think about. I have observed people’s reactions to me and each other, systems that favor some and punish others, and my own biases, as I catch myself enacting what society has swayed me to think of those who are “different” in some way. This site will be an outlet for some of my thoughts on that. Culture, society, mental health, my work, and the ways in which all that blends together.