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.

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.

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.

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 had a conversation with my mother where she 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 in a sea of (mostly white) Americans 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 stronger friendships than I could ever have imagined.

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!

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.

Selma, Ferguson, Philadelphia – A People’s Movement

I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. at some point during my Icelandic school years. I learned he was a civil rights activist who had a dream and was killed because some white folks in America didn’t like what he had to say. That was about it.

Years later, I came to find out Dr. King did a whole lot more than say he had a dream. And there was a lot more people working alongside him than ever made it into my Icelandic history books. It took me a while to get it though. Formal educators on both sides of the Atlantic have not seemed too eager to speak up about the massive ongoing struggle for racial equality that continues in every corner of this big country.

Selma BridgeAt the movie theatre where I sat and watched Selma this afternoon, at least two extra showtimes had been added in the same hour just to accommodate the hundreds of viewers who were already on their way. For those unaware of it, Selma is a movie based on the struggle for voting rights for Black people in the U.S. and the march between the towns of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, leading up to a change in law that prohibited (white) officials from restricting Black voters from registering.

But Selma is not just about events that happened in the South in the 1960’s. It is about Ferguson, Missouri, and every other place in the U.S. where Black Americans face oppressive structures of power that would rather maintain status quo than facilitate a just society for all. Pictures of sit-ins in Selma in 1965 are strikingly similar to those of die-ins in cities around the U.S. this past year, in response to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many other Black men and women. People in Selma fought for the basic right for Black Americans to vote and people around the U.S. today continue to fight for justice and liberty.

Selma is also not a movie about an individual hero. It is a movie about a powerful movement of regular people who decided that enough was more than enough – people who stood up and risked their lives to change a racist system that had kept their political voice on mute for a long time. Dr. King did not do that alone. And this is, I believe, the most important message of Selma. We, the people, have the collective power to make change happen, with or without a hero.

Emilye Crosby quoted the SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson, who said:

“If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”

I think that sums it up.

As a psychologist I care about wellbeing. I know that people survive the most horrific circumstances, but we do not thrive under oppression. Wellbeing cannot exist without justice, safety, and liberty. A person cannot truly be well without economic means to provide for their family and a child cannot reach their potential without quality education in a healthy environment. This should be obvious to all of us by now. But somehow, demonstration and protest is needed in 2015, just like it was needed in 1965, to bring about basic rights in the “Land of the Free”.

The thousands of people who marched from Selma to Montgomery arrived a long time ago. But we, as inhabitants of the United States, have not yet arrived to where we need to be. We are moving forward, but there is a long way to go. On Monday, January 19, the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment will turn Philadelphia’s attention to three critical calls for change:

  1. An end to the use of “Stop and Frisk” and an Independent Police Review Board that is fully empowered and funded
  2. A $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to form unions
  3. A fully funded, democratically controlled local school system.

Safety and protection from abuse of authority, means to provide for oneself and a family, and quality education for all children is not too much to ask. Those things represent parts of a basic foundation for a decent society and we need to construct it together.

In other words: See the movie & join the movement.

Peace out.

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 consequence 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.