In Part One of a discussion about my time teaching about Black Lives Matter in Norway, I will provide a look at how I approach teaching race in Norway. Some of the questions that come up are quite similar to comments I have had about race in the U.S. and in other ways, a European context provides an entire new set of points for discussion. In Part Two, I will discuss the presentation I give on Black Lives Matter in more detail.
I would also like to say thanks to my fellow Roving Scholars, Ruth Fairbanks and Rachel Cohen, for discussing these ideas with me and providing a few of the sources on immigration linked to below. While this post is certainly my perspective and not theirs, discussions with them have been invaluable to, well, everything I’ve done as a Roving Scholar.
Fake news is one of the most popular workshops that I give in Norway, and also in the running for most popular is the lesson on Black Lives Matter. Teachers pick it for their students because it is current and because they think it might be a topic that shows up on the exams at the end of the year. I also have a feeling they pick it because it is useful to have an American talk about issues of race, which the teachers themselves might not always be sure how to approach from an American perspective. My Black Lives Matter workshop is at least the third workshop in so many years offered by a Roving Scholar on the topic, and it is still one of my most popular, so I think this shows there is a bit of a thirst for information of this kind.
I emphasize that Norwegian teachers seem to want to hear about race from an American perspective in particular because I have learned that Norwegians, and Europeans in general, have a very different way of talking about race than we do in the U.S. This was first brought to my attention by my friend who is French. She is a historian who worked with me in The Bahamas, and she studies and teaches about race in the Caribbean. She told me that when she went home to France and explained what she taught in the Caribbean, her friends and family were surprised that she was even talking about race. They found it rude or offensive to be discussing a person’s race. (The answer about why this is, which I have heard from more than one person, is echoed in this 2014 piece in the New Yorker—that countries in Western Europe don’t want to count people by race because of the legacy of Nazism.)
I’m glad my friend told me this about race in Europe, because as an American and an Americanist, I really had no idea about this difference. This piece of knowledge altered my approach to discussing Black Lives Matter in Norway. Instead of starting by introducing the topic of Black Lives Matter generally, I begin with the slide below:
The question on the slide, “Why is race important to U.S. history?” is a very big question, of course, but I answer it simply: You can’t talk about U.S. history without taking about race. Period. The map in the background helps to illustrate this. It is a historic map from 1860, which shows the percentages of slaves across the southern U.S. You can see how widespread slavery was and how concentrated it was in some areas. I think this map helps students understand why race is a category of study in the U.S. They still don’t tend to use the word race I have noticed—preferring the term skin color—but I hope that this helps them understand my approach to the topic.
I have also discussed how and why we count people by race/ethnicity in the U.S. with a group of teachers-in-training. They are taking a course about the U.S., so I thought they might be interested in learning a little bit about how we talk about race in the U.S. I showed them a sample of the question at the end of a job application that asks about race and ethnicity. (This is one different than many I have seen, which tend to give you the option of picking both Hispanic or Latino and another category.) The students were very interested in this, and I did my best to explain why job applications ask for this type of information. I didn’t, however, know all the ins and outs of how this information is used or not by hiring committees, and if I do a similar exercise again, I would use this article from Chronicle Vitae to explain this further.
These topics can seem so bureaucratic, but they are important markers of not only institutional policies but also of important topics and trends in a country. While Norway does not ask about race in job applications, I was interested to see a box on a recent job application I filled out in Norway that asked: “Do you meet the requirements for special treatment for applicants of foreign origin?” This box did not mention race, but it did specifically ask about being an immigrant or coming from “an immigrant background.” It did surprise me to see this question at all, but it was not too surprising after a second’s thought. While race may not be a hot topic in Norway per se, immigration, and immigration of people from particular ethnic and religious backgrounds, certainly is.
Norway’s history of immigration is mostly a history of emigration—a fact that has been reintroduced into the conversation recently in the U.S. after Trump said that he would like to have more immigrants from Norway. This NPR article discusses how many Norwegian immigrants there were in the U.S. during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Even though I knew that a lot of Norwegians moved to the U.S. I was still quite surprised to learn how many Norwegians left the country. The NPR article notes, “From 1870 to 1910 a quarter of Norway’s working-age population emigrated, mostly to the United States.” A quarter of the population! And while the beginning of the 20th century was not that long ago, things are certainly much different in Norway today. The chart below shows the number of immigrants and children born to immigrants in Norway. For reference, there are over 5 million people in Norway in total. It is clear that the Norway of the early 21st century is not the Norway of the early 20th.
I have been very curious about how Norwegians are adjusting to the changes in their demographics. I have asked many of the people I have met in Norway about these issues. Some people want to really engage with a discussion of their changing society and others have shied away from this conversation. I think it can be difficult to discuss because it is not just that there are more new people but also more people who are not white and more people who are not Christian. While in the U.S. we spend a lot of time talking about difference, diversity, and cross-cultural competance, this kind of conversation seems new to many Norwegians. (And/or it is also possible that they don’t want to have it with a relative stranger in English. I don’t think I can take my own foreignness out of the equation.)
From an outsider’s point of view, you can see that this society is not changing seamlessly. In Oslo, for example, there is a clear divide between the western part of the city, which is more affluent and more white, and the east part of the city, which has more people of color. Or take the instances when I hear people referred to as immigrants, when they are second or third generation. As the pushy American, I have asked several people if “immigrant” is just a euphemism for person of color and the answer I have mostly gotten is, well, I guess so. Or take the mosque in a tiny, northern Norway town, which had these posters explaining what it means to be Muslim. I don’t know the motivation for these posters, but I imagine that you don’t make them if you haven’t been met with some resistance or at least have been met with some people who you feel need a little bit of an education.
I often say in my workshops that it is unfair to compare Norway and the U.S. on a one-to-one ratio because they are vastly different places with vastly different histories. So I do not offer these thoughts on Norway’s discussions around immigration in order to say that are the same as the conversations and disagreements we are having in the U.S. around race. And I’m not trying to suggest my very U.S.-centric view of placing an emphasis on diversity is the right way of viewing the world. However, I do think that almost all of the issues that one country faces are mirrored in a variety of ways in other countries. And that sometimes it takes holding up that mirror to see your own world with clarity.