The world is talking about racism, and I believe we should all ask ourselves all the uncomfortable questions we have within ourselves to educate ourselves further. I wanted to take this opportunity to look inside my motherland and ask the question of unconscious and conscious racism in Iceland and if there’s a way to destigmatize the subject and push it forward. The majority of Icelanders are born into a system of white privilege, and hold white supremacy unconsciously even if they don’t recognize it.
I am a white Icelandic woman married to an American black man. We live in New York City and in Reykjavík. With the movement of fighting for justice and black lives in America I felt it was timely to ask the questions many of us think about asking, but don’t.
The following script is an interview I took with my husband - and I truly hope it inspires and encourages you to practise conscious inclusivity from now until the day it doesn't have to be called out anymore.
Anna Rósa Parker (AR)
Shanga Parker (SP)
AR: How do you describe unconscious racism or bias?
SP: We all have it. We’re not aware of it until it’s conscious. We encounter someone and have an initial reaction to that person unconsciously. Unconsciously we feel it first - there’s bias towards or against them. We feel how close we stand to them and how we angle ourselves. It’s inherent in all of us. When it becomes conscious judgement we have to address it with ourselves and ask questions like - why am I reacting this way?
AR: As a person of color - have you felt racism in Iceland?
SP: Absolutely. Surprisingly less than I initially thought I would, but sure it’s there.
AR: How does it come across?
The signs I notice are when people stare too long (longer than that Icelandic “normal” stare). Eye contact. People either look away purposefully or don't make eye contact. Treat me like I’m not there. I internally ask the question if it’s because I’m an American or is it a skin thing.
Iceland is a homogenous society, they don’t have the history my country has. Whatever the nature of the eye contact is, I always see it through the filter of growing up as a black man in America. Sometimes it is benign, sometimes it is not. In Iceland, I cannot always be sure. The primary contact is with your family and I’ve never felt anything negative from them - which was surprising.
AR: In the 15 years you’ve been going to Iceland have you seen/felt any change?
SP: Yes. And not just because of the increase in tourism - I’m much more aware of darker skin people who are Icelandic - identify as Icelandic. Unconscious or conscious bias I notice more towards Asian people in Iceland. I would have a problem if I were being treated that way.
AR: About people of color who are identified as Icelandic and get frequently asked - Where are you actually from? or Where are your parents from?… Can you speak to that?
I can only answer for me. I try to educate people with my answers. The dominant culture wants to know about the people walking amongst them and why they look different - they want to categorize them. We all do that - we box people. But when it comes to race - race is a human construct. There are no genetic differences between humans that determine race.
It’s tough to wrap our minds around that because of our need to categorize. I’m an American - people that look like me have been in this country free since the beginning of 1800. And that is a notion that people have a hard time reckoning with.
AR: What should be taught in preschools and grade school about race in Iceland?
SP: Race education must be a part of curriculum in schools and training in the workplace all throughout our lives. Because we need to be reminded. Until you know someone's story from their point of view you cannot assume that you understand. If I were curious to know about your nephew because he doesn’t look like the rest of you. I have to wait to hear his answer and then think: Ok that’s his story. Period. If we’re curious it’s ok to ask - but it’s not ok to assume. Because that is a prejudice - as in pre-judging.
AR: Do you think that Iceland is inclusive?
SP: From being there for short bits of period at a time, sometimes longer, it has been for me. Time varies - I cannot say if it’s inclusive within the society. When I walk into a room the internal Icelandic dynamic changes.
AR: What I often notice is a group of friends that all look the same (white Icelanders). I also worry that immigrants are not being considered for the jobs that they qualify for. What can Iceland do to enhance inclusivity?
To understand that a multicultural society and workplace will always have more and better ideas because of different perspectives. The conversations are much more robust. It helps to have a diverse point of view in everything we do. Whether that is racial differences, colorism, sexual orientation or identity.
AR: Can you please speak to the following “terms”:
“Being white isn’t the norm”
SP: When people refer to minorities I wonder where they are a minority. The world is not a majority of white culture.
SP: The question is around whom they claim to be colorblind. What is their level of blindness. Are you ok sitting across the table? Would you work together or be a family together? It’s ok to have a line but knowing where the line is is beneficial to both parties.
SP: Some incremental change is happening now and some reforms will occur, but I don’t think it’s race that will get us together. It’s the environment. And then we'll have people working together across all lines...
AR: Last words:
SP: I love that you’re on fire about this and being a muckraker. And now is the moment to ask all the questions.
Texti: Anna Rósa Parker