Being in Scandinavia last week and being intentionally conscious of my white skin was different from past visits when I was not paying attention to it. During the two days I was bathing in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, I only saw one black woman, two black men and maybe half a dozen Indian men. I was at the airport in Reykjavik three times in eight days and it was a busy sea of very tall white people. I am 5′ 10″ and was average height in this crowd, I’ll admit it made me feel something I wasn’t expecting, to not be the tallest gal in the room.
It’s really white in Iceland. If you’re paying attention to your whiteness, it’s weird. Or not, I know not every developed spot on Earth is going to be a kaleidoscope of color, and probably not this isolated northern island that doesn’t even have trees. But I truly wonder who besides the minority in the room or the ones filled with hate are paying attention to it? Are you paying attention to how racially mixed your surroundings are? Does it matter or mean anything to you?
Two summers ago I started to pay a lot of attention to it. I realized that every summer I’d spent in Mt. Desert Island ME for the bulk of my life, was a place with mostly white tourists or visitors. That summer, the same summer the Obama family came for holiday, I started to look around and spotted almost no nonwhite people. Except the very dark Caribbean workers shipped up from Florida hotels to work in Maine hotels in the summer. I started a head count at every regular spot I frequent that summer, from the Opera House Cafe where I drink bad coffee and check my email, to Sherman’s where I buy books and counted almost no nonwhite people. Millions of people descend on this island every summer, but according to the statistics running in Ingrid’s mind, the guests were 95% white.
Besides fairly regular incidents of stereotyping (the bitchy cousin of racism) for being part Italian, I had been living a white life for so long I didn’t consciously even think about it, thinking that because I am not racist that I got a pass but what the hell? Part of my life is spent in all white places? What does that mean? Is it like the pat-yourself-on-the-back wealthy liberal towns with great schools and picturesque holiday parades that only have mostly white residents? These places are everywhere, in every state, I live next to two such towns. It’s plain exclusionary and full of intentional, silent or unconscious racism.
Why do we want so badly to be with look-a-likes? Does it feel like something, is the difference in our skin tone filled with fear? Fear of what? Is it a conscious thought? Is it biology? Is there nature involved? Jesus, that sounds creepy and hitleresque even to write down. But for all the colonialism, genocide, racial superiority and skin lightening cremes I just want to really fucking understand why it’s all so. Why do hate and racism exist?
It was a bit frustrating to be in Norway last week and not be able to watch the Breivik trial because the news is in Norwegian, a language I don’t speak. (Norwegian is just not a language that you hear spoken in NJ, perhaps if I’d grown up in parts of Brooklyn or Minnesota I’d be fluent.) There was also no wi-fi at my grandmom’s house, so I just did a lot of question asking instead, and this is what I gathered. But I need to give you some back story.
So Norway is a rich (like crazy fourth richest country in the world rich) socialist country. Their money coming from owning a lion’s share of the world’s oil, every citizen a trust-fund kid to one of the richest parents on Earth. They believe in equal, for the most part, distribution of wealth. It’s frowned upon and also hard to become that much wealthier than your neighbor. This of course works really well if your population is small, for them five million people. The average income is 55k a year, everybody has an education and fab healthcare. Every citizen is taken care of very well.
I think in this environment the Norwegians have set up a sort of utopia or experiment by way of ideals. I think that Norway and its ideals vs. Breivik (his trial, its outcome and the whole story) may be a case of chicken/ egg. Norway is a non-violent, very intellectual place and he could just be a one-off, or did these utopian ideals of equality create a monster of such freakish proportions? One who killed 77 people, mostly children?
Most interesting, true to the non-violent and intellectual beliefs of Norway’s people, from what I gathered, Breivik is getting some public sympathy. For being human. It was explained to me like this. The Norwegian news has been reporting and watching his every move. Questioning what it means if his left hand touches the right side of his nose. And I was told that all this minute detail is forcing some Norwegians to see him in a humanistic way and creating sympathy for him. This feeling is not about his crime. For some people this may be impossible to understand, in particular Americans. But with Norway’s commitment to non-violence and humanitarianism I can see how they’d feel this, the ones who do. He is a human being, a terrible one, but human none the less. I found this so fascinating, like being in the future, or in a book. His sentence and trial an experiment, so different from the barbaric way the rest of the world would deal with a barbaric criminal of this type. But I wonder, when it comes down to basic human nature, is this utopian country a model that would even work anywhere else, will it work in Norway? Or is Breivik showing the very hidden extreme side of nationalistic nordicism, possibly a feeling many have?
I started to think about love when I was rolling the idea of hating a person based solely on their skin color, religion or origin around in my mind. (When I don’t understand a perspective, I try with all my might to wrap my head around it, get deep inside it, usually sitting in a chair lost for an hour.) Maybe hate works just like love? Maybe the mechanics are the same. It’s easy to love your family, children or friends. You have a history with them, it grew. Same way hate for family and friends can show up, history. But to love or hate a person (with little or no history present), type of person or group of people is maybe the same too. Love gets a lot of attention in its mystery, um like every song ever written amount of attention. To fall in love with someone you barely know, there is no logic in it, no reason. But still it exists quite powerfully in you, physically visible to the outside world, even glowing off of you, and that power of deep feelings overrides reason and logic. Maybe feeling hate is the same? Maybe the feeling is as powerful and mysterious as falling in love? Maybe it swells inside of you with no logic present and forces you to behave irrationally. Just like the fool in love?
I may never understand what I believe is the complex stupidity that is hate and racism but I want to. My good friend Anjali and I talk about this topic all the time. We even joke that it’s an awesome hobby we have, albeit strange.
I wish more people would want to understand racism, really deeply think about it. I think the hoodie nonsense in FL was a perfect example of just how unwilling we are, as a society, to talk about what’s really happening. The moronic hoodie sound bite told me a couple of things. One was that as a society, the level of critical thinking is startlingly shallow and in this kids case, life-cheapening. I kept wondering if he had his pants below his ass, instead of a hoodie over his head, if celebrities would have been photographed like that or would society have silently agreed he had it coming to him? And to be just so plain dumb to get swept up in a story about a hoodie, and talk about that, because it is just to uncomfortable to address what really lurks in our minds. If we did talk about racism, maybe than we could get past it. Maybe.
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