fimmtudagur, febrúar 12, 2009

the hierarchy

One of the most-Googled phrases by which new readers land on the IR is "iceland racism" and it lands readers here. (Interestingly, I didn't use the word "racism" in the original post, but one of the commenters threw it out there.) This Google search has been popular for a long time, and it always surprises me how many out in the world are searching for that phrase or variants on it: around 5% of all Google hits to this site involve the word "racism". That's more than "puffin meat" and "starbucks in iceland" combined!

But then a friend of mine and I were discussing the topic of racism the other day and she explained for me that Icelanders think of themselves and their relation to the outside world in a series of ordered tranches. They go like this:

1. "us": The population of native-born Icelanders. (This the reason why some people I have met here will never consider me a full member of Icelandic society, though I live here, work here, speak the language here, vote, pay taxes, o.fl, o.fl.)

2. "our cousins": Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Finns. Newscasters here often use the word "cousins" to introduce a story taking place in one of these countries. (Interestingly, although around 10% of the gene pool here is Celtic/Irish, due to the Vikings taking slaves, the Irish aren't cousins. Icelandair doesn't even fly there.)

3. Western Europeans and Americans (The fact that I am originally from the United States doesn't make me a "real" immigrant here, either, as one or two have explained to me. The "real" immigrants are from Poland, Thailand, and the Philippines, and come further down the hierarchy.)

4. Eastern Europeans and Russians

5. Latin Americans

6. Asians

7. Muslims

8. "Blacks"

I was sort of amazed that she had all of this worked out so clearly.* This is a person who has lived and studied on several continents, and attained a Ph.D. in the process. But I had previously gotten a whiff of this sense of human hierarchy from other Icelanders. Granted this is a land that was until just a few decades ago basically cut off from the world. But these days everyone has TV channels up the wazoo, tourists come through in droves, some from as far away as the "6th circle", and Iceland has a fair-sized immigrant population, including yours truly.

So I put it to the "real" Icelandic readers: How accurate is this sense of hierarchy? And if this is how you were brought up, how was this information conveyed to you, and what do you plan to tell your kids?

*And it also raises some interesting questions and paradoxes: What about Mexican-Americans: are they 3rd circle or 5th circle? African-Americans, like the new President? Where does the Indian subcontinent fit in? How about the large Muslim population in Sweden? Are they "cousins"?


Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Sensitive subject.

"Foreigner" will never become us.
If I would move to America and live there and get all the papers to become as close to an American as possible. I wouldn't consider myself REAL American......Icelander living in USA.

It's like Henry Hill said in Goodfellas. "To become a member of a crew you had to be 100% Italian, so they could trace all your relatives back to the old country. It's the highest honer they could give you"

Blogger JB said...

Funny. With a 5 or 10 years of residence + U.S. citizenship, you might not consider yourself a "real" American.

But nearly everyone around you would.

Blogger Teddy said...

I was thinking the same thing -- you might not think of yourself as a "real" American after some period of residence, but "real" Americans would consider you an American because... that's what Americans are. A huge mix of everything at various stages of "assimilation" (if you want to call it that).

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

It's pretty much accurate, although my perception is that Latin Americans may be a circle above Russians/East Europeans.

As for Mexican Americans and African Americans, they're just plain and simple Americans (just like your average Irish Americans).

The muslim population in Sweden would have to share a "circle" with muslims here.

Blogger JB said...

This post has been up more than 10 hours and I have to say I am somewhat shocked and quite a bit disappointed. I was expecting a horde of incensed Icelanders, out of the many who have already read it, to come roaring out of the woodwork and denounce what I wrote as rubbish.

Instead I got one Icelander confirming that he won't ever truly accept me here, and another correcting the finer points of the "circles".


Blogger Joy said...

Fascinating hierarchy, and fascinating original post as well. Interestingly, the hierarchy for Russia is fairly similar, with the various white folk of the first four categories in slightly different order.

Your question about what about Mexican-Americans or African-Americans is an easy one to answer here. Anyone non-white is lower down the status hierarchy, no matter what their citizenship is, and the darker you are, the lower you are. (A lot of Russians had a hard time accepting that Obama really won the presidency, because they themselves are convinced that white Americans are the real Americans and would never "let" a black man become president.)

Does Icelandic have an "us-them" structure built deeply into the language? Russian does, and I think that it plays a considerable role in helping people maintain mental xenophobia that can then be translated into everyday xenophobic action. Instead of asking, "Are there lots of movie theaters in America?" a Russian is more likely to phrase the question "Do you have lots of movie theaters in America?" And instead of saying, "There are lots of parks in Moscow," saying, "We have lots of parks in Moscow."

This habit of speech--and resulting habit of thought--is really easy to pick up and very hard to break.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Interesting post.
I was born in the UK.
I have been in the USA since 1988.
In 2007 I became a citizen.
Something I did not do lightly, I view it equal to marriage in depth.
I consider myself American, 100%.
And I feel I am accepted as such also.
Warmly accepted, in fact.
I am still learning the language.
And I don't do the accent.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Hmmm, interesting! I wonder where Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans sit in the hierarchy ...

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

I find it sad to read what you wrote. I am a Canadian who lived in Iceland from 1996 to 2003.

By around the year 2000, I was able to speak fluent Icelandic and many people around me condered me as an Icelander. Was I just lucky or what????

Many Icelanders I knew considered me as Icelander mainly because I spoke Icelandic. But then, once in a while, someone would tell me "So, when do you go home?". And I would say "right after work!! And then he would say "no, I mean, when you go back to your country?!" But I wasn't going back.

What were these people thinking? That they wanted me to leave Iceland or it was just some disturbing curiosity?

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Reason is that icelanders don´t think of people that are not native born not icelanders is not to insult people and not accept them as Icelanders.
The reason is they think the citizen(thing) from their point of view. F.x. if they lived in another country and took another citizenship,,they would always think of themself as icelander and they would always call iceland home.(even though they lived in the country for 50 years and only 10 years in iceland) I have relatives in Canada that they have lived there since 1979,,and they have canadian citizenship,,they think of themself as Icelanders(not canadians) and they call Iceland home! And I have heard this from alot of icelanders that are living abroad. Even I heard this from old lady living in Winnipeg Canada, she called herself a icelander and Iceland home,,she was born and raised in Canada but had Icelandic parents!
I know it is strange,,but I have to admit,,I think this way myself, I would always be an Icelander and proud of it. As you said yourself just few decades ago we were basically cut off from the world. Maybe we are just new at the immigration thing,,and after 100 years we would be just like USA,,everybody would be some part immigrant.
P.s I don´t agree with grouping of your hierarchy! ;)
Hulda Katrín

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

Jared, I do not think this applies to a very large part of the population here and I would, like the Canadian in response no. 9, make the distinction between those who make the effort to learn Icelandic (and thus seek to (and do) get accepted into the society and those who do not make an effort to speak the language and thus do not try to get accepted into the society.
The Irish/Scottish percentage of the population is considered to have been as high as 70% and Iceland has never been as isolated as some people have regarded it to be and the gene pool was being stirred far more than people normally realise.
As for feeling foreign, one of the most famous Icelanders in the UK, Magnús Magnússon of "Mastermind" fame, was born in Scotland to Icelandic parents and always regarded himself as Icelandic.
He kept Icelandic citizenship which prevented him from receiving knighthood that would have received if he had been a UK citizen but he regarded his "Icelandishness" higher.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

From an Iris Erlingsdottir article in HuffPo:
"Iceland is not America. We are bound by a common history, a common ancestry, and a common language, not by the ideals of liberty and equality."
I guess Iceland is more like a family--you belong by right of birth, but America is more like a church--you belong because you believe.

Blogger Sveinn said...

Íris Erlingsdóttir hit the core. Very few nations are as interconnected as icelanders. We can log onto Íslendigabók and find out how related we are to the next person. The fact that we are so few and have been isolated for a long period of time gives us this distinction.

The fact that every native born Icelander can trace his family to one of the original settlers has a big influence on the way we see ourselves. We are proud of this fact. This is the reason an Icelander will never regard his self as anything other.

We also regard ourselves as imigrandts. We fled to the Land from the rule of a violent viking king. We wanted freedom and justice. I believe that these are the core values of the Icelandic psyche.

The "us and them" way of thinking is engraved in the older generations. My grandparents will never consider any one non-native born as an Icelander. My parents aren't as conservative and my generations is also more liberal.

For me being Icelandic is more a state of mind. Those who choose to imigrate to this godforsaken rock in the North-Atlantic, learn our language and be a part of our culture is indeed one of "us".

In regards to the tranches classification in your post I would say that the list makes sense in regards to compliance to our way of thinking.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

By now it should be obvious enough, that your friend’s opinion is in fact the common one. I would go as far as suggesting it to be equally pervasive in most nations of the world with the notable exception of the United States. In my opinion, it simply emphasises the difference between a nation founded on immigration and just about the rest of the world. In Denmark, your friend’s way of grading foreignness would be representative too. At least, I admit to subscribing. There are, of course, always those idealists who oppose the idea loudly, but they constitute in my opinion a minority, both in Iceland and elsewhere in Europe. The idea that you can, in fact construct a valid and full-fledged national identity in less than several decades and at least a few generations is a very abstract concept to many people in the old world. In some respects, such a feat would require an ideology of some sorts, and we have been somewhat immunised towards universal ideologies and especially nationalist varieties. I was born in Denmark by an Icelandic mother, and even though I was hurried into Iceland for my christening and have spent not a little time in learning the language, I will never be able to approach true Icelandic-ness. That fate you’ll share, I’m afraid. Get fluent in Icelandic and start using your patronymic; find some local girl and have your children born in Iceland – they’ll probably be considered true natives, especially if you modify your given name to e.g. Garðar. You, on the other hand, will have to settle for honorary nationality at the most.

Brief aside: outside of the financial world, is “tranches” a word in common usage? I certainly didn’t know it.

Blogger JB said...

Thanks everyone for very helpful comments. I was hoping to get some good discussion on this point, and it looks like I succeeded. (And was perhaps just a little too impatient in those first 10 hours.)

Teddy: I couldn't agree more. But it appears as though Americans are nearly unique in this respect. (But I wonder: what about the other countries that have been built on immigration: Canadians? Australians?)

Joy: I heard the same sentiments about Obama when I was in France in November. And of course, here in Iceland, where many I spoke with took it as accepted wisdom that there was no way he could win.

There is an us-them structure woven right into the fabric of Icelandic language, as you surmised.

út í heimi - out in the world
útlendingur - outlander (foreigner)
útlensku - outland-language (usually to refer to English)
útlönd - out-lands (other countries)
að fara út yfir landssteinana - to go out "over the land-stones" (to leave the country)

hér heima - here at home (here in Iceland)
til landsins - to the Land (to Iceland) well as lots of uses of við, okkar (we, ours) to describe things and people that are of "the Land"

Blogger JB said...

Paul H: I became a citizen of Iceland in 2008. I did not do it lightly, either, and was overjoyed to have attained it. It felt a bit like a rebirth. Those close to me made a big deal of it too, many of them saying, Velkominn í hópinn ("Welcome to the group"), but then of course there are others (who know me less well) who have told me that I don't belong in the group. A bit of a different reception than in the ole US of A.

Nafnlaus from Canada: I have many times had that same question: "when are you going home?". I don't get offended by it any more, but it does put the perspective of the questioner there on the table for all to see.

Hulda Katrín: I guess that's the difference in coming from a nation of one historical ethnicity versus one that has been built from many cultures over time, as I learned here.

Sigvaldi: Very interesting point about the gene pool. I would like to learn more, as this would change some fundamental Icelandic self-conceptions if it were true. Do you have a reference?

Blogger JB said...

Nafnlaus: Love it! Family versus church. Americans "belonging because they believe". Brilliant!

Sveinn: (Takk fyrir síðast!) I agree that being Icelandic is a state of mind, more than anything else. Being Icelandic is being able to walk down a steep ice-covered pathway, wind blowing sideways at 40 m/s, and nonchalantly asking your coworker, "So how was your weekend?"

Lars: 1) You're probably right on the "honorary nationality", at least in the eyes of many here. Funny thing about my given name is that "Jared" appears in three books of the Bible, in Icelandic, with the same spelling and all. So it would indeed make good Icelandic name fodder.

...and 2) tranches. This is a French word that was appropriated and is used mainly in "business English". It means a slice of something. ("The next tranche of managers consists of assistant general managers and board directors.") I like it. I think it should be used more broadly.

Blogger JB said...

Finally, all this being said, is this how we want things? It's our society after all. Do we want a rigid definition of that society, based on birth and genetic lineage, with specific in- and out-groups? Or do we want a more open definition of Iceland and what it means to be an "Icelander", one that welcomes the people who came here from other places and have their own experience, skills, and knowledge to contribute here? Are the "real Icelanders" the ones who are currently fleeing in droves to find work in Norway and Denmark, or the ones who are staying behind and rebuilding the Land? In the words of a guy I once worked with called The Hammer, "I'm just askin'."

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

You are what you are - it's not always just a matter of decision. BTW Iceland continues to express ties to Denmark despite all the forced animosity. I just learned that Moggann puts the shootout following a bar brawl in Haslev, Sealand under "innlent":

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

i'm icelandic but i lived in canada for four. i don't consider myself fully icelandic and i'm definitely moving back to canada - and staying there. not all icelanders are as devoted to their country as some people here have depicted.

in my experience, the polish are at the bottom of that list. i have nothing against them - just what i've heard from other people. among the younger generation, being black is considered to be extremely cool and they're pretty high up on that list. seeing people of different skin tones is becoming more common in iceland, and at every preschool i've seen there are a few kids of asian origin. the kids don't see anything different about them, of course, racism barely exists among the 17- population. unless it's learned behavior from their parents. i think the racism you mentioned is just something that's been normal for the 30+ crowd for most of their lives.

i don't really remember what i was going to say, just wanted to respond.

Blogger JB said...

God bless ya, latest Nafnlaus. Learned behavior, yep. Ain't it though.


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