Always an Immigrant, Never Norwegian

Immigrants have become integrated into Norwegian society with degrees of success that range between two possible extremes: strong attachment and total alienation. In debates about integration, ethnicity and country of origin are often claimed to be the key factors for determining whether or not integration will be successful. Other important factors are seen as secondary. This contributes to the one-track nature of debates about integration.

Foto: Werner Anderson/Norwegian Peoples Aid. V`CC BY 2.0

The significance of time

Politicians, the media and researchers tend to focus on where a person “is from”. But in our research on migration – including in particular the relative strength of an immigrant’s sense of attachment to Norway versus his or her sense of attachment to people and places in other countries – we find that two other questions are just as relevant: “When did you come to Norway?”; and “How old were you when you arrived?” For one of our research projects we interviewed 67 people originating from 21 different countries, including Australia, Brazil, Iran, Pakistan, Poland and Sri Lanka. The interviewees had either come to Norway recently; during their childhood; or been born in Norway to two immigrant parents. Despite their very diverse national backgrounds, the interviewees had much in common when asked about their senses of belonging.

Common denominators across ethnic origins

For example, young adults who had been born in Norway, or who had arrived in Norway as children, often had much in common whatever their country of origin. Many of these young adults had grown up in bilingual homes, with two or more sets of cultural references. Many had progressed to higher education and showed every sign of being “well integrated”. Even so, there were times when they might feel that they were being treated differently. This might be the result of having a foreign-sounding first or last name, or quite simply physical appearance. A newly qualified doctor whose grandparents came from Pakistan may well feel Norwegian, until older colleagues at the hospital ask where he is “really” from.

The stage of life the person finds him – or herself in is also very important for sense of belonging. People who are young and single or who have recently become parents may have more in common with each other than with people who are from the same country of origin, but who are at different stages of life. Gender and economic circumstances create divides between people from the same country of origin, just as they do among the population as a whole. Growing up, getting married, having children, and losing one’s parents are important life events, where the experience of belonging may become stronger or weaker. These experiences also bring about encounters with wider Norwegian society in the form, for example, of hospitals, school, and kindergartens. A casual remark becomes an existential question: “Will my daughter ever be fully accepted in this society?”

Forever an immigrant?

The vast majority of the people we have spoken to have strong attachments to people and places in Norway. They make great efforts to learn Norwegian, support themselves financially, and ensure that their children do well at school. Nevertheless, the experience of these people, like that of their Norwegian-born children, is that their inclusion in Norwegian society is by no means inevitable. Almost whatever they do, often despite the fact that they are Norwegian citizens, they continue to be seen as “immigrants”.

Society has a responsibility to address how questions about immigration and integration are discussed. True integration requires the considered and responsible use of language, as this will combat social divides and exclusion. The categories and words that politicians, politicians and the media use for describing people send strong signals to the wider population. It is still common to distinguish between “first”, “second” and “third generation” immigrants. The use of these terms tells society at large that a person whose parents or grandparents migrated to Norway at some time in the past will never be anything other than an immigrant. When does a person stop being an immigrant, and instead become a first generation Norwegian?

Categorizing people on the basis of ethnicity also communicates the idea that a person’s skin colour and ethnic origin are the most important things about them. Ethnicity and country of origin are often the key points mentioned when the media, politicians or researchers discuss immigrants’ sense of belonging and integration in Norway. As a result, two people – one a surgeon and an illiterate – may be put in the same category, simply because they were born in the same country. But country of origin is not always the factor that determines a person’s experiences and actions.

Sense of belonging

Focusing on ethnicity and country of origin when discussing sense of belonging lends credence to the idea that attachment is an either/or matter: either one feels a sense of belonging to Norway; or one feels a sense of belonging to somewhere else. In reality, however, the situation is usually far more nuanced, as a person’s attachments will evolve over time. One of our interviewees, for example, described how she had a feeling of “coming home” on holiday visits to the rural town that she left as a child, where she was still familiar with the streets and former neighbours. Even so, only one or two weeks into her visit, she would start to feel that it was not there, but in Norway, that she belonged. In other words, it is entirely possible, to greater or lesser degrees, to feel attachment to several places. And reflections regarding attachment may well vacillate.

A sense of belonging is created by the interaction of many different factors that will make a person feel “at home” in a local environment or in Norwegian society as a whole. These include geographical roots, age, gender, education, work status and religion.

Many people manage to balance almost unconsciously their attachments to Norway and to other places in the world; indeed some find their multiple attachments enormously useful. Others find it difficult satisfactorily to balance the demands of everyday life, culture and religion, both at a personal level and as a part of a family and wider social network. Using language that fosters a sense of exclusion in young people who feel uncertainty about their sense of belonging is not constructive for Norwegian society.

This text was published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende 22 January: Evig innvandrer, aldri norsk

See also the Policy Brief Age, life cycle, and length of stay: temporal perspectives on integration.

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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