Polarized debates about racism can be counterproductive, closing down possible spaces of mutual understanding, instead of opening them.
Over the last few months, the debate in Norway around racism has been far more polarized than it needs to be. Many of the discussions are important, like the exchanges around the term “structural racism”. At the same time, both research and practical experience clearly show that: where individuals meet, with all their different experience, intentions, and backgrounds, we have a chance to understand each other, listen, be challenged and challenge one another. This opportunity does not depend on clear definitions; all it requires is a willingness to try to understand others’ opinions and experiences.
Classrooms and possibilities
In the classroom students and teachers meet. These are the kinds of settings where opportunities to learn to understand each other, listen, and dare to be challenged occur. Dembra is a Norwegian organization that works with exactly these kinds of settings and opportunities, to support teachers and schools. Because, in principle, every encounter holds the potential to spark a conversation, whether at school or in another setting. But that requires opening up and a willingness to understand others. We know this is possible.
The teaching tool “Us and the others in our classroom” is one example of the resources available to create these dialogues in the Norwegian classroom. The approach comes from a research project on “the nation” and diversity, where almost 300 students from six high schools took part in the exercise. One thing was clear from the results: such arenas for encounter can be facilitated, but it they rarely just happen of their own accord. Human interactions have the power to plant new ideas, change or create new perspectives, that people can take further. These interactions can change how we view each other, how we talk to and about each other. But there is a precondition: a willingness to understand others.
In obvious, serious cases of racism, like someone yelling “Goddamn xxx, go back to where you came from,” these arenas for conversation can be nonexistent. The person receiving such hate speech can answer or leave it be. Observers can say something, or leave it be. Reactions can be clear and immediate, but just as often reactions are invisible and take time. Different people react in different ways. But it is almost impossible not to be affected if one experiences or is witness to that kind of harassment. Few will remain unmoved.
When we talk about these “arenas” we are including anyone potentially on the scene. It can be difficult. But there are always possibilities, like in the incident where a bus driver in Trondheim reacted when a man verbally attacked a woman on the bus. The woman’s experience was surely very different in that case than if no one had reacted. In all likelihood it was also different for the other passengers. The bus driver contributed to opening up and using an arena of the kind we are discussing here.
Willingness to understand
These arenas of encounter might be more obvious and accessible in the less dramatic situations. People with visible minority backgrounds experience, again and again, that their completely legitimate belonging in Norwegian society is put on trial. As isolated incidents these might seem insignificant. But for the ones experiencing them, a clear and consistent pattern emerges. In a case like this it is relevant to ask: are there arenas for exploring experiences and intentions together?
One example is when someone asks “where are you (really) from?”. The situation can be handled in several different ways. Some answer “where are you from?”. Some say “from [Norwegian town]”. Some answer “my parents are from Somalia”. The conversation can go in various directions. But the arenas we are looking for rely on everyone relating to each other, listening to each other’s experiences and intentions. That requires openness and willingness to understand.
Are we ignoring everyday experiences?
The line between intentions and experiences is important, and it is a useful exercise to identify it. But this is not enough. It should be possible to reach a common understanding of what happened in a given situation; an intersubjective meaning beyond the participants individual intentions and experiences seen in isolation. But is that possible? And should it be a goal?
No, the intersubjective cannot necessarily objectively reign in every setting. Still, something more than individual, isolated experiences and intentions does exist. For, in the tension between intention and experience there is room for conversation, listening, sharing.
Polarized debates about racism can close down arenas of exchange, opportunity for real encounters. That is true of debates about scientific applicability, power, and so on. This is what happens when one focuses more on definitions and limitations instead of looking at experiences from multiple perspectives. This is also when everyday racism can disappear into the background, despite being a very real experience for many individuals. Effectively, experiences of everyday racism risk being set aside as irrelevant to these very conversations.
Who dares to discuss?
We would suggest that it is more often those who do not experience racism who are most quick to dismiss experiences of everyday racism. Maybe it is easier to be focused on definitions and limitations when one is not on the receiving end of everyday racism? At the same time, we should also include the power dynamic here: it is valuable to reflect on how we can also recognize experiences of everyday racism, while leaving room and understanding for contrasting perspectives.
One challenge when it comes to experiences of racism in Norway is that arenas for real encounter and conversation are all too rare, and are often not used. They are not created in the moment, and too often people do not dare to grasp the opportunity of encounter when such present themselves in everyday life. A willingness to understand may exist, but it has often yet to be activated.
- This piece originally appeared online in Norwegian in Utrop. You can read it here.
- Translation by Indigo Trigg-Hauger