Posted on May 26, 2010

Norway/Sweden: When the Locals Become a Minority

Åse Brandvold, Islam in Europe, May 9, 2010

“Why is it racism is we call them ‘black’ and not racism if they call us ‘white'”?

“I never called anybody ‘Nigger’ or ‘Black’ or anything like that. On the other hand, those of us who were White were talked about derogatorily. It was negative to be White, Christianity and Norwegian culture was negative and there were many curses,” says Mari Morken (16) and rattles them off “Whitey, potato and white cheese”

Three years ago she couldn’t take it any more. She moved from a school in Groruddalen to a school on the west side. Every morning she takes the subway to the other side of the city to escape the curses and the bad class-environment. Where she goes now, it’s good to have good grades, and she doesn’t stand out because she’s light. Before she made dark stripes in her medium-blond hair. Now she dyes her hair a bit lighter. She’s in the process of ‘taking back’ her Norwegianity, and is happy to be blond without being branded ‘whore’ and cheap’.

“Ah, girl, blond whore!”

‘Josephine’ was met with these words on the first school day at a high-school in an immigrant-dominated suburb south of Stockholm. Josphine was quite baffled, since aside from her hair color there was nothing about her appearance that would indicate she was promiscuous. She didn’t use makeup and had completely neutral clothing. It was exclusively her hair-color that branded her a ‘whore’.

‘Josephine’ is one of the informants for researchers Maria Bäckman, who did an ethnographic field study in a suburb south of Stockholm, where ethnic Swedes make up about 20% of the population. They’re therefore a minority. Klassekampen met Bäckman this week when she visited the University in Oslo and the Culcom research program (cultural complexity in the new Norway). She’s the first in Sweden who researched ethnic Swedes as a minority. A similar study was not done in Norway.

“In the suburbs the invisible Swedishness become visible. Ethnic Swedes experience being defined and labeled by their culture and religion, similarly with minorities of a different background,” Bäckman told Klassekampen.

In her study she focused on ethnic Swedish girls. They experience being linked to the notion of free, Swedish sexuality, which in the densely immigrant suburbs is not necessarily linked with something positive. The strategy for the suburb girls was therefore to play down their Swedish identity.

“Several dyed their hair. Not necessarily because they wanted to look like immigrants, but because they didn’t want to look so Swedish,” says Bäckman.

“Yes, it’s typical, Exactly like that.” Mari Morken nodded vigorously to us from the other side of the cafe table when we repeated some of what Maria Bäckman has found out. “I was called a whore so many times, I became immune.”

We meet her and her mother, Kristin Pedersen, for a talk about why Mari changed schools. They tell of systematic bullying and harassment since Mari reached puberty when she was 10-11, till she transferred school when she was 13.

Pedersen is still upset at the school’s lack of handling of the case.

“They laid the responsibility for the situation on Mari. She just had to cope, because she was strong in resources, white middle-class. But Mari also has a right to a good and safe environment,” says Pedersen, who tried to address the harassment repeatedly without anything being done. She was told that the bullies had a very difficult time at home.

Mari says that now, after three years, she’s distanced herself enough to come forward with it. “I want to show that I won’t let it break me.”

Although school was a nightmare, they like their home area, and they have a good relationship with their Pakistani neighbors. Mari remembers her childhood as safe and nice. She also enjoyed school during the first years. In first grade a third of the students were of non-Norwegian background. When she left, barely a third of the class were ethnic Norwegian.

“At first all the Norwegian girls were active in class, but in the end we Norwegian girls sat in the back of the classroom and were silent as a mouse while the others made a racket,” says Mari.

Kristin Pedersen thinks it happens when the group of immigrant background becomes too big and dominating. Something which isn’t positive. The elementary school Mari started at, has just 5% ethnic Norwegians. Mari knows three girls who started there but then moved to a school with a smaller proportion of immigrants. All the girls are naturally blond, but had dyed their hair dark.

Althoguh Mari got negative attention from the boys, it was a girls’ gang made up of an ethnic Norwegian and three girls of Pakistani background who devastated her.

“the girls too on the boys’ role in a way. They were into fighting and conflicts,” says Mari, who was also physically attacked.

Once, the situation escalated so much that the teacher chose to calm the situation by asking Mari to go home. After school eight of the students trooped home with her.

For a long time Mari didn’t dare go to the local center. She knew that the girls had told older boys in the A and B gangs [ed: Pakistani gangs] that she had said nasty things about their skin color and religion.

“That’s what provokes them the most,” says Mari.

Kristin Pedersen says that boys who parents are assumed to be linked to the gangs, had for a long time acted threateningly towards Mari’s father.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mari was that when she was in 7th grade, she got the responsibility to teach the others in class choreography for a school play. Mari was mainly active in dance and the school therefore thought she could take the job. Of course everything went wrong when she was supposed to teach the bullies.

At that point, Pedersen and her husband got tired of the lack of response form the school and complained about it to the county, which agreed with them on several points. A few days after they lodged a complaint, the principal was put on early retirement.

Klassekampen has been in contact with the retired headmaster. She says it’s a positive thing that we’re dealing with the issues regarding how we live together, but thinks maybe we should take with somebody else. For reasons of confidentiality, she didn’t want to go into the specific harassment case. She didn’t want to comment on the decision of the county either.

“Before I always went in long pants and t-shirts, regardless of how warm it was,” says Mari.

She changed after transferring schools. She replaced the hooded sweater with tight clothes and makeup. This summer she will go with a singlet, which she didn’t dare do before. She was ashamed if her bra strap was showing. But now she’s decided not to care about the stares.

Maria Bäckman’s field work outside Stockholm shows the same trend. Girls dress neutrally and tone down their femininity, in order to avoid stares and attention. Another thing she found out was that several went with a cross. Not necessarily because they were so Christian but because it was embarrassing not to have a religious identity.

Mari nods vigorously again.

“I know people who go with a cross in order to be accepted. It’s a little like going with brand clothes. There are just some codes you need to follow.”

“Now I’ve been confirmed secularly, but I think it would be difficult to be accepted for that, if I had continued to go to a school in Groruddalen,” she said.

Though Mari doesn’t see herself as Christian, she sees Christianity as ‘her religion’.

“We learned more about the others’ religion than about our own.”

“We thought it was more exciting with other religions, but our religion never got the same positive attention,” she says.

Upbringing, education and living conditions are the key words for the government’s effort in Groruddalen, which will continue till 2016. Mother and daughter have noticed that there’s new recreational activities for the youth, but Mari has stayed away, both because she’s uncomfortable in the community, and because she feels foreign in those activities.

“They reach group who don’t have any activities today. It doesn’t unify. Many of the ethnic Norwegian don’t go to this. It actually reinforces the differences,” says Mari.

Kristin Pedersen thinks the problem is the attitudes of the responsible politicians and the professions who work with integration.

“They need to understand that were we live, we could all feel like a minority. Therefore it’s also necessary to have a minority perspective for the ethnic Norwegian parts of the population,” she says.

When it comes to the teachers and school administration in Groruddalen, Pedersen thinks that they should be trained in creating a positive environment.

“They are so afraid of being called racists. They fear getting involved with the difficult things, because they’re afraid it will be used against them,” she says.

Source: Klassekampen (Norwegian)