Are you a maid, au pair or prostitute? I have heard all this through my childhood and professional career in Norway.
A Norwegian chronicle by May Martinsen, CEO of IRMI Group. Written in collaboration with the Norwegian Adoptionforum organisation and translated from the original article published in Norwegian newspapers.
I started writing this text nine years ago, but it was filed and stored because I didn’t dare stand up. Have we managed to break the code and have a country without racism?
According to Norwegian People’s Aid, job seekers with foreign names have a 25 percent less chance of being interviewed, and 43 percent of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America were overqualified in the positions they worked (2012). In Norway, we have section 185 of the Criminal Code, also known as the racism section, but it may seem that we have not been able to solve the challenge.
ALSO READ: Speaks up after writing about racism for ten years
It is often talked about that Norway and Norwegians are so friendly and inclusive and that there is hardly any racism in this country. But the concept of racism also encompasses attitudes and discrimination that impose on people traits based on race, religion and culture. I was born in Korea and adopted by ethnic Norwegian parents from the West Coast. I would say we were mutually fortunate; they were resourceful parents who wanted a child, and I was a child who needed parents. You’d think I was Norwegian.
But society and individuals have often reminded me that I am not.
I recently met another resourceful lady with a Chinese background, but she is Norwegian like me. She wrote a post in Drammens Tidende on April 5, 2016 about what it is like to be an entrepreneur and a woman with an immigrant background who faces the daily racism in Norway. Although I was adopted by Norwegians, held leadership positions for 15 years, I have also not been able to escape racism.
The Visible Racism
I grew up in a village where almost everyone was ethnically Norwegian. Because of this, I had rough parts in my childhood. My parents probably also experienced racism early on. They told me about an episode where I, as a young child, cried on a flight. One of the passengers had told them that “people like her” belongs to Emma Hjort, that is a home for mentally disabled children.
As a child, I had to get used to getting comments like negro pussy, negro whore, fucking yellow geek, etc. Children make pranks and strikes, and it belongs to everyone’s childhood. But if something went wrong, the blame was put “on the yellow one”. I got grounded and more often blamed than what is deserved. It did something to me as a little kid. And I was never a whistleblower. I chose to “suffer in silence”.
I learned early on to acquire the attitudes “if you are going to accomplish something in life, then you must ‘fight twice as hard’ and ‘it’s never about how you feel, but how you take it’.” Instead of getting sad and bitter, I focused on finding a solution for a better everyday life.
My solution was to become a Tomboy with a touch of humour.
But it never stopped entirely. The worst episode was at a church service and we were confirmants. Before the service, several people forced me into the school toilet. They put my head down in the toilet bowl saying, “If you are to be confirmed, you must be baptised first” as they soaked my head with toilet water. I arrived at the church sticky, and some shouted, “I think yellow sewage smells in here!” The statement was followed by scornful laughter from the whole rural school. This was the day I felt I had two choices: to commit suicide by cutting up my artery or drowning; choice number two was to stay focused on the school and think about getting away from the village. I chose the latter.
According to school surveys conducted by the Olweus Group, over 40 percent of those who have been bullied have thought about suicide.
The Youth Data Survey February 2017 says that 10 percent of 16-year-olds have tried to kill themselves. Some, unfortunately, “succeed” with it, so bullying and racism, combined with isolation, have fatal consequences for many young people.
For me, a major turning point came when one of the leading bullies, after many years, apologised to me and acknowledged to their parents and me what I had been exposed to as a child. Not everyone gets the opportunity to forgive as I did.
The Silent Racism
In the book Plausible Prejudice by anthropologist Marianne Gullestad, she writes about invisible racism – the discrimination we do not notice because it is based on beliefs that many people think are perfectly normal. Many seem to think that identity is something to do with descent.
I was of the belief that society was improving. But in adulthood came a new lesson – I have chosen to call it “the silent racism”.
I had given birth to my second child and was rolling around my little blonde daughter when people on the street stopped me and asked, “Whose child are you looking after? Where are you a maid?” Men would frequently approach and asked how much I cost for one night. I have always had a classic and conservative style, so I was surprised. I quickly learned not to get too offended and accept that this society is “just like that”. It is again about attitudes, ignorance and stigma.
As an Asian-looking woman in Norway, I have the impression of being seen as an international commodity: A maid, au pair or a prostitute. When it was tempting to get angry, I let it be. When the “offers” have appeared, I have used humour and responded with a clear West/Midcoast dialect and a smile saying, “Sorry – I’m way too expensive for you!“
Already in 2012, the United Nations expressed concern about rising digital racism. Our children are now learning about online web behaviour through school. But what about the adults?
On digital dating sites, people meet in search of possible boyfriends, girlfriends and future life partners. I know several people who have married, as a result of contact through digital platforms.
Although I have been skeptical of these arenas and thought it best to meet people in real life, I was curious about established and used dating sites while I was single in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, I then drowned in requests for prostitution and bedroom activities, both the visible and invisible explained that I was an Asian. I concluded early on that this arena was most suitable for ethnic Norwegians, and quickly signed out and terminated the account.
Has there been any positive development here in this area for the last 15-20 years, I wondered recently and established a profile to take the test. The conclusion is that fortunately it seems to have gotten somewhat better. But unfortunately it is not entirely gone.
Societal Development and Responsibility
After spending some years in Tokyo as a diplomat for Foreign Ministry, my husband and I moved home, and I started a new director job in Oslo in 2011.
On the first day of work, a colleague asks during a closed program with a guided tour,
“Where are you from?” A logical question and the answer was simple: “I just arrived back from Tokyo, but grew up outside Namsos” (a local city in Norway). But the colleague gave me a look as if I should have fallen from the planet Mars: “That is not true!” I laughed before connecting that it was my ethnicity that suddenly came into focus. Given that I was the only woman in the management group and also had a different ethnic background, maybe it wasn’t strange? I politely replied that I was adopted from Korea by Norwegian parents.
The reaction was unforgettable. “No, it’s not called that. Such people as you, are not adopted. You are imported.” I couldn’t help but laugh, also because I didn’t believe my own ears. Had we really not come any further?
In a fiftieth birthday celebration, I was in a conversation with a senior director in a Norwegian directorate, who spoke about the challenges Norway is facing with all the Somalis. I became curious and had to ask more about what that person meant, explaining that I myself was adopted and had Norwegian parents. The answer was, “Oh, you’re from Asia. Yes, people such as you, are so hardworking and sweet.”
“People such as you“?
I thought I was Norwegian!
I travel a lot at work. Amongst all the airports I visit, OSL Gardermoen stands out. 9 out of 10 times, I and my luggage must be inspected. It’s called “random control.” An interesting observation is that this happens all the time, whereas it rarely happens in other European cities when I arrive. I have done sports of it, so when I am with others in the traveling party I tend to say: Keep track of what’s happening in security checks now.
I will not claim that these everyday episodes are racism, but they are my observations. Two weeks ago they tried to be expel me from the EU / EEA queue in passport control, citing that I was Japanese. When I showed my Norwegian passport with a smile, the person who had approached was quite upset and embarrassed.
When it comes to immigration policy, integration and prevention of racism, do not forget the “invisible” Norwegians who are adopted or born in Norway. My daughters have an ethnic Norwegian father and are born in Norway. New generations, young promising adults, will not have to find themselves in comments, prejudices and discrimination. As a mother, I can teach my own children to include and care for, and strike hard when others are subjected to bullying or racism. But we can never manage the battle alone.
We need to increase knowledge and clarify the responsibility we all have for helping to change attitudes. Do not let those who are exposed suffer in silence. The work must be rooted in the politicians and the state as part of an important social responsibility. It is a disappointment that we have not been able to improve any further.