This is long and serious – not my usual practical tips or snapshots of horses – but that is the beauty of a blog; if I want to say something, I can post it here. I originally wrote this back in January, after some discussion in the Norwegian media about every day racism. I never posted it on my blog, but now, after what has happened in Ferguson, I feel that I want to share this. Long story short: White people, whether European or American, why don’t we stop being so ignorant about racism? Let’s try to educate ourselves and validate other people’s experiences. That’s all!
I am writing this in English, because I don’t have that many readers and I want all of them to understand, but it is really a comment to a debate that took place in Norway a month or so ago. [And now, almost a year later, on the no indictment of Darren Wilson.] I think it started with a discussion on whether Sweden or Norway were more racist, and then with a commentary article in one of Norway’s paper saying that Norway really isn’t that racist. Immigrants in Norway, or people with an immigrant family background, then started tweeting using the hashtag #hverdagsrasisme (every day racism) to show that well, there is actually racism in Norway. (@somalieren the first to start this I believe and came with some excellent examples.) I was fascinated by the fact that people would even argue that there is little or no racism in Norway, so I followed the debate with great interest. After having lived in the US, I feel that I have at least some experience in talking about racism and in many ways, the Scandinavian countries are quite new to issues of race and racism, so the debate can seem pretty behind.
The debate made me think of a few things that I think some white people in Norway don’t consider, and it also made me reflect on my own situation as an immigrant or visitor in Argentina. (Immigrant, guest worker, expat – I am not sure what to call myself, as I am not a typical expat in any way, but I also have a much more sheltered and privileged life than someone from another Latin American country who comes to work here.)
Here are a few things my fellow white Norwegians need to think about:
Racism exists. Almost everywhere. In the US, African Americans still experience racism (the title of this posts comes from the expression “Driving while black”, which refers to the fact that black men are many, many times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving.) In Argentina, Bolivians, Paraguayans and Argentines of indigenous background are still discriminated against. Once I went to a big box store and asked if a membership was needed or if it was open to the public. The security guard told me that anyone could enter – Bolivians, Peruvians, Paraguayans, they all come here, he added with a disgusted look on his face. In Norway, people with foreign-sounding names are routinely excluded from job interviews and rental viewings. So, well, racism exists. We can’t pretend it doesn’t, either by a liberal “everyone has the same chance as long as they work hard”, or the more leftist “I am colorblind” attitude. Studies show that even small children notice race and can react negatively to people of a different race, even with no real input, so it makes no sense to pretend it doesn’t exist. What makes sense, is to educate ourselves and our children about race from an early age, to show that yes, we are different, but we are all just as important and as much worth. Trying to shush little kids who point out that someone has a different skin color or hair texture or eye shape does no good, it only makes them ashamed and confused. (For more reading on this, I recommend the blog Rage Against the Minivan, who writes eloquently about children and race. Her recent post about the decision not to charge Darren Wilson is a great starting point: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2014/11/why-lack-of-indictment-for-mike-browns.html A short excerpt: “If the anger around the decision made yesterday is confusing to you, it’s time to listen. It’s time to research. It’s time to pull your head out of the sand and face the cold, hard facts about racial bias and police brutality. No one is saying that all police are racists. In fact, it’s quite possible that many of the cops who have slain black boys weren’t themselves racists by the general definition of the word. But they were living in the context of systemic racism . . . in a country that socializes us to be afraid of black men. Whether we like it or not, society conditions our impulses. We can try to counteract the systemic racism we’re living in, and many of us do, but research indicates that racial bias infiltrates our first response, before logic takes over.”
Reverse racism is not a thing. I do not use the expression “reverse racism.” From lots of reading and discussion on the topic, I believe that racism is a system of oppression and discrimination based on skin color and/or race, and that it is directed from white or whiter people towards people with darker skin. This might sound simplistic, but in most of history, that is true. Yes, there are examples of lighter-skinned people being discriminated against, but on the aggregate, the other way around is true. A very good example of this is that almost all over the world, white features, such as straight or wavy (not curly) hair, blue eyes and white skin are seen as “good” or desirable. In Asia, plastic surgery to get whiter features is big business, and for centuries, tight curly African hair has been seen as bad. This does not mean that white people cannot experience discrimination; for instance, in Oslo there are many examples of white kids feeling discriminated against for their religion, or for not wearing hijab, by Muslim kids in school. This is bad, of course, but I would call it discrimination or bullying, not reverse racism.
Mixing discussions on immigration and race can often confuse the topic at hand. In Norway, these two invariably get mixed up, and it takes something away from the discussion. Personally, I am skeptical to the large-scale immigration we see in Norway, because I don’t think our system can handle it. We either have to change the system, scaling back on the many social benefits we have, or scale back on the immigration. I don’t think it is OK that Polish workers in Norway can collect children’s benefits after just a short stint in Norway, and take it back to Poland indefinitely. I don’t think it is OK that certain immigrant groups have very low workforce participation. But that doesn’t mean that I feel that Poles or Somalis are less worth than Norwegians. I recognize that I can have racism latent in me, and recognizing this helps me confront it and try to move away from it.
White privilege is real. In the US, I felt this concept was at least somewhat well known. The actual expression comes from Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, which everybody should read, and refers to the fact that as white people, we don’t even notice our own race or our privileges, because to us, white is the default. We have the privilege to not think about race, because we are seen, and see ourselves, as the norm. Often we ignore other people’s experiences because we cannot imagine that they can be true – “you don’t really get followed around in a store, do you?”, we might say, because our default experience is NOT being followed around. McIntosh explains very well the importance of being aware of this privilege, and also what life in America is like for those who don’t possess this privilege. It is easy for white people to say that there is no racism when they don’t experience it! It is also easy to forget that we benefit from a lot of privileges in our public and private lives. The brilliant essay states: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
The majority or privileged group should not get to set the agenda or decide what is OK. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and something I feel I hear a lot more in Norway or Argentina than in the US. To me, if a member of another group says that such and such word should not be used, I respect that. If an African youth group in Norway explains why “neger” is not a great word to use, I take their lead. What drives me crazy is when white people say things like “But I don’t mean anything bad with it!” or “I know one person who doesn’t mind it” or “Political correctness has gone too far.” WTF?? My life does not get any poorer by not using those words. I do not feel that my freedom of speech is restricted because I am asked to not use terms that someone finds offensive. It is my responsibility, as a member of the majority or the privileged group (they are not always the same!) to listen to others and respect what they say. (This also applies to people with disabilities – I try to follow the consensus of the group in question. What I feel about the word shouldn’t matter. I know very well that most Deaf people prefer the word Deaf, so I use that, never “hearing impaired”. Blind people on the other hand have more of a diverse use of words, some prefer blind, others visually impaired, others low vision. Fine with me!) So when people of color in Norway say that they experience racism, I believe them.
Driving While White in Argentina: And now, to the title of my post. For over two years now, I have been la noruega en Argentina; the Norwegian in Argentina. I experienced plenty of white privilege in the US, I’ll give you just two examples: In the whole time I lived in the US, I never had to do a credit check for an apartment. Working at the IDB, it seemed that every one of my Latino colleagues had to do it whenever they were looking at an apartment. Secondly, I am the only person I know who got a DC driver’s license for ten years when my visa and contract were only valid for another six months. (According to DC rules, the driver’s license can never be valid longer than one’s G4 visa.) I had friends on three-month contracts that had to renew their licenses every three months. What a pain!
Here in Argentina, I feel that I am a prime example of someone from a minority but privileged group. This ties in with what Peggy McIntosh says: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” So this is why I think it is important that I point out some of these advantages.
I constantly get the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes my friends and colleagues are very surprised at what I am allowed. I seem to get credit whenever we shop places after just a few times. Our chef has been purchasing meats and sausages at the same place for three different estancias for maybe six years, but was never allowed to shop on credit until the worked with me. Now, they wave him out of the store with thousands of pesos worth of meat. In some places, they offer me credit even when I have the cash with me. I am allowed to take products and test them and then return them. If they don’t have change, they tell me to pay the remainder next time, rather than the other way around – that they will owe me the change. And when you ask Argentines, they say that nobody trusts each other and that everyone is skeptical or everyone else.
But the biggest white privilege moment (or white Nordic foreigner privilege moment) happened a few weeks ago while driving in Buenos Aires. I am legally allowed to drive the car, since I have the cedula azul, a card that designates who, other than the owner, is allowed to drive it and insured to do so. I drive with my US license and my Norwegian passport, although I should have gotten an Argentine one by now. Anyway, I was not driving, the chef was, as we were going to Makro in San Justo and I really don’t like driving in that part of town. Shortly before arriving, we were pulled aside by the gendarmeria. I have been stopped by other kinds of police before, once without a license, but talked myself out of it; another time driving the big truck that I am not designated to drive – I had to pay a bribe to get out of that one. But the gendarmeria are considered to be a very serious police force, you can’t bribe them, and they will take you to jail, as our chef pointed out to me when we were pulled over.
They were serious and asked for our documents. The chef didn’t even have his license with him, and he was driving! I then explained that he was driving because I had a bad cold and a fever (which I did, although it was not the reason I was not driving.) I handed over my license, my passport (in which it is blatantly obvious that I have been in the country well over my allotted three months) and my cedula azul. They took the documents and went away for what seemed like an eternity. The chef was literally prepping me on what to do if we were taken to jail, he was that sure that we would not get out of this one. When they came back, they asked me if I needed a doctor, and told the chef to get his license in order. We then sat there looking at each other and the chef said he had never experienced anything like this. We had talked about white privilege before and I think this is the star example…
So what is the point of all of this? To show that white privilege exists, that racism exist, and that as members of the privileged group, people like myself need to be open to listen to the experiences of people of color or other non-privileged groups, because otherwise, we seem like a bunch of idiots with no compassion or understanding of other people’s experiences. Let’s recognize that racism is real and that unless we talk about it, it won’t get better. What black people in the US are experiencing is very, very real, and when whites negate these experiences, it is both very sad and extremely ignorant. As a white European immigrant, I should recognize that I have privileges and benefits that other immigrants don’t have, and try to speak up for those who are discriminated against.