Black Lives and Experiences – From USA to Norway

“Please, I can’t breathe,” said 46-year-old George Floyd before becoming unconscious. Floyd died of asphyxiation during an arrest in Minneapolis in May. His family ordered two independent autopsy reports. They did not trust the report from the authorities, which stated that he did not die from asphyxiation but a combination of pre-existing health conditions and the officer restraining him on the ground. Derek Chauvin held his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. While writing an editorial for the Norwegian newspaper, Vårt Land, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and worldwide protests, I was asked by the editor to include personal reflections about racial inequality in the United States.

MHC—A Home Away from Home

Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts enriched my life undoubtedly and represented not only a microcosm of the nation and its highest ideals but also the nation that Langston Hughes described as—a “dream deferred.” In the fall of 1989 at Brigham Hall, I met my future roommates and close friends. The group of eight of us, who came to campus from six different states, was a microcosm of the United States. My first year at Mount Holyoke, I experienced a memorable incident, a moment that made me feel that as a Texan and African American, I was less prepared than my fellow students. Was this part of the legacy of inequality? I received a D grade on my semester term paper in macroeconomics. I was disappointed. The poor grade was punishment enough, as it was the first time that I received a D. But more hurtful than the grade was the note that the professor wrote on the paper. He suggested that my writing was so bad that he didn’t know how I had been admitted to MHC. Affirmative Action practices and anti-discrimination laws were well in place in 1989.

I had received a generous scholarship from MHC, and fortunately my family paid only a modest sum each semester. As most first-year students who had “work-study” obligations as part of our financial aid, I worked about 10 hours per week in the dorm’s kitchen and dining room. So did Ann, Sumati, and Mary, three of my closest friends. Mary didn’t have to work for financial reasons but did so to keep us company. That year was perhaps the most educational of my life. My African American heritage seemed richer the more we shared our stories and validated each other’s experiences.

My Brother from Another Mother

George Floyd and I grew up in Houston around the same time. His people are from the Third Ward district, southeast of downtown Houston. I grew up northeast of downtown in Independence Heights, home to the city’s first African American high school, Booker T. Washington. Growing up, I didn’t think much about whether my life in Houston was characterized by racism. I honestly don’t remember us talking much about it. My mom and dad both had an opportunity to attend university — my father at the HBCU Texas Southern University and my mother attended Texas Women’s University. Still, while living with my grandparents, I learned that I had to work twice as hard and be twice as good as my peers to excel in life. I used to think that striving for survival and success was a unique characteristic of U.S. society, a manifestation of an individualistic competitive spirit, a version of the “American dream.” Over the decades, we have learned that injustice, structural inequality, and discrimination have shaped the central aspects of the nation and its populations.

Education and Equal Opportunity

In the late 1970s, I was a student at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Studewood, where all the kids were Black — the whole neighborhood was Black. I also considered that a characteristic trait of U.S. society. Today, of course, I understand that my childhood neighborhood was segregated — and not necessarily by choice but because of historical conditions. When I started in sixth grade at Alexander Hamilton Middle School in the nearby middle-class Historic Heights neighborhood, I had my first unique and personal experience of social inequality. One day in world history and geography class, I was embarrassed and made to feel stupid because everyone could identify countries, capitals, other basic geography facts. I discovered that I knew nothing about geography and became upset when I realized that the other students had received regular social studies instruction. At John F. Kennedy Elementary School, I recalled that teachers made sure that they fulfilled the minimum requirement for the semester. For the first time, I understood that my classmates had attended “better” schools than I had. The farther away from my neighborhood and out into the world I ventured, the more of these experiences I collected.

USA—A Dream Deferred?

African Americans constitute a national minority, a population that has a historical presence in a territory and, therefore, has contributed to the nation’s history and heritage. From 1619, when the enslaved Africans came to England’s American colonies, until the abolition of slavery in 1865, we were considered property, investments and essential assets for the plantation economy. After the abolition of slavery, we were “free” but did not have basic human and civil rights. Only in 1965 — 55 years ago — did U.S. legislators amended the U.S. Constitution to ensure that my grandmother (then 45 years old) could safely exercise her constitutional right to vote. Throughout our 400-year history in the U.S., African Americans have endured unthinkable, brutal and dangerous conditions. The United States has never been a country of promise for native and African American populations; it has been a country of justice denied and delayed. Can institutions of law enforcement, born of the same history, ever be neutral or unbiased? It is unfair that George Floyd should die so brutally and so young. I feel survivor guilt, when I think of my “wonder years” at MHC and graduate school at Harvard. What difference did they make? While I was social distancing in Oslo, Floyd’s life was ending on the streets of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis May 2020

Floyd’s death is a stark reminder that many populations in the United States are underserved and overpoliced. Many people are angry and feel disdain for racism and its entanglement with police violence and forms of inequality. Being underserved and over policed – amid systemic discrimination and a justice system that badly needs reforming – means that everyday life for an African American, Indigenous, and ethnic minority in the United States today can feel dangerous. Over the past decades, daily life has become more uncertain, and the past four years have revealed a deepening divide between those who are vulnerable to and those who are insulated from social inequality and economic injustice.

Oslo June 2020

On June 5, 2020, the African Student Association (Univ. Oslo) and ARISE (Africans Rising in Solidarity and Empowerment) organized the demonstration “We Can’t Breathe – Justice for George Floyd”, in Oslo. More than 15,000 people participated in the demonstration at Eidsvoll Square, while others gathered at the US Embassy in Oslo. The demonstrators at the embassy marched all the way to Eidsvoll Square in front of the Norwegian Storting (Parliament). Crowds of demonstrators lined the streets from the embassy to Eidsvoll Square. Elsewhere in the city, protesters rallied to show solidarity with Floyd and to demand justice for Floyd. There were also demonstrations in Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim, and many other Norwegian cities.

The African Student Association (UiO) and Arise invited several individuals to hold appeals during the demonstration. The appeals represented testimonies, demands, and stories about society. The appeals, like the protest posters, illustrate the interplay between critical events and awareness-raising, articulation, and collective mobilization. The use of personal experiences as historical fact is important to the social movement for antiracism and social injustice. The speakers shared their encounters with racism in Norway. They spoke of vulnerability, sorrow, and outrage. Based on the testimonies, it seems that in both the US and in Norway, racism and over-policing are symptoms of individual attitudes and structural inequality.

This collective mobilization is also an example of democratic participation in society in everyday life. Combining individual voices with collective action is an important strategy of identity politics, intersectionality, and the “politics of experience”. In her article in Oxford Bibliographies, my dear friend Prof. Vasiliki P. Neofotistos (University of Buffalo) defines identity politics as:

[…] the deployment of the category of identity as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition.[1]Additionally, identity politics refers to tensions and struggles over the right to map and define the contours and fixed “essence” of specific groups.

The murder of Floyd and demonstration on 5 June 2020 became “critical events” for the Norwegian antiracism and civil rights movement. A “critical event”, according to anthropologist Veena Das (1995), creates a new way of understanding a societal issue.[2]  Among people in a society, a “before” and an “after” are marked in connection with the event in question. Such events may have global, national, and local relevance. The protest contributed to an awareness-raising about racism in Norway, and the protest posters illustrate how this took place.

History? Documenting a Critical Event

After the demonstration, I founded the project Lift Every Voice (LEV) to document the social engagement for antiracism and civil rights in Norway today. When I woke up on 6 June, the day after the demonstration in Oslo, my first thought was: We must take care of the posters! Protest posters are important source material and ethnographic objects that represent individual contributions to a broader social movement and democratic practice. It is also important to collect and preserve the material as examples of free speech, individual perspectives, and collective narratives about racism and social justice in the US and Norway. The public support for the demonstration as well as the passionate engagement of the speakers at the protest convinced me that antiracism and civil rights are the right issues, and that this is the right moment to initiate a documentation project. The exhibition LIFT EVERY VOICE at Kunsthall Trondheim, features a selection of the donated posters, photographs, and video footage from the demonstration. LEV’s collaboration with social entrepreneur Ka Man Mak (The Oslo Desk) and curator Carl Martin Faurby (Kunsthall Trondheim) illustrates the value of social documentation and the relevance of history in daily life.

In the weeks and months following the demonstration, news stories, op-eds, and debates about the nature and source of Norwegian racism and structural inequality seemed to engulf the nation. Retriever’s quantitative and qualitative media analysis of the “racism debate” in Norway from 1 May to 31 August 2020 revealed that after George Floyd’s death the Norwegian media’s coverage of racism increased. [3] Content about Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and conditions outside of Norway comprised 55% of the media coverage, whereas 45% of the content about racism focused on the domestic situation and placed racism in a Norwegian context.

An important finding of the analysis is that the first wave of the domestic coverage served to orient the reader about the reality of the existence of racism in Norway. Notably, the report confirms that in the media coverage, “personal stories play a key role” (Retriever, 2020: 26). Another critical key finding is:

The debate on structural racism in the United States is being transferred to Norway and becomes a central part of the debate here as well. Next to discussing whether there is systematic racism in Norway, the discussion of the very concept of racism also has a central place. Which discussions about racism are fruitful, and help to advance the racism debate is also important part of this meta-debate.[4]

Debates about racism challenge definitional power and inevitably lead to disagreements about historical representation, national heritage, and belonging. There are many hidden stories to discover, document, and disseminate about antiracism civil rights movement in Norway.

Rediscovering the History of Civil Rights in Norway

In Norway, the solidarity protest for George Floyd (5.6.2020) is part of a long tradition of political engagement for antiracism and structural inequality. On October 5, 1976, immigrant organizations, workers, and antiracism allies organized a demonstration against racism and discrimination in Oslo. The important issues of the day were equal treatment in housing, the media, employment and obtaining resident and work permits. Previously, in 1975, the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget, had implemented “Innvandringsstopp”— halting immigration, reportedly to limit labor immigration. For “foreign workers,” this legislation also threatened the possibility of family reunification. The 1976 demonstration in Oslo protested this policy and the emerging racism and structural inequality in Norwegian society.

Social Inequality, a Global Pandemic?

No country is immune to social inequality and systemic racism. I learned that when I moved to Norway in the late 1990s. At the time, young Afro-Norwegians were speaking out against racism and exclusionary practices in everyday life. In 2017, #norsknok (Norwegian enough) and #hverdagsrasisme (everyday racism) were trending. As the demonstration in June confirmed, citizens with minority and immigrant backgrounds in Norway are still reporting that they do not feel fully accepted as Norwegians. They struggle with many of the fundamental questions that their counterparts faced twenty years ago.

Despite their seemingly different historical origins in the US and in Norway, structural inequality and racism have consequences for individuals, communities, and society. Individual attitudes about belonging and interpersonal interactions in daily life influence social processes and change in both societies. Historical discrimination and inequality create bias, insecurity, and vulnerability for individuals and society, as the recent mobilizations for antiracism and social equality in both countries illustrate.

Whether in the U.S. or in Norway, it is not enough to be non-racist. One must be anti-racist. “Finally, I feel there is enough pressure from white people to make a difference,” my college friend Mary from Wisconsin told me. “Finally, white people realize that this is their problem too.”

In the US and Norway, the death of George Floyd and the ensuing mobilizations have compelled people to reframe the problem of racism and structural inequality as a societal problem related to human rights, white privilege, and the persistence of racists attitudes. In both countries, the difficult and necessary conversations about race relations, racism, and belonging are shifting. The debates about racism, structural inequality, and social justice have also challenged our past and present representations of history and society. In both places, BLM and mobilizations for antiracism and social justice have encountered not only support but also criticism and challenges to their legitimacy.

For the next generation, I am keeping my fingers crossed that more people become antiracists and defenders of social justice, for the sake of the planet and our human variation. Afterall, race is not a biological fact but a social construct. Still, the concept is very real in our thoughts and imagination—as real as unicorns, in a sense.

 

Michelle A. Tisdel has a doctorate in social anthropology from Harvard University and works as a research librarian at the National Library of Norway. She is the founder of Lift Every Voice (LEV), a documentation project about antiracism and civil rights in Norway. lev-no.org. A version of this piece was previously published in the Norwegian newspaper Vårt Land in June 2020.

 

Cover Photo: Demonstration in Oslo 5 June 2020. Photo Ka Man Mak The Oslo Desk

Photo 1. Plakater donert til dokumentasjonsprosjektet Lift Every Voice.

Photo 2. College mates Sumi Mary Michelle 2015.

 

[1] (2013). Identity Politics. obo in Anthropology. doi: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-010

[2]  See Das, Veena. (1995). Critical events: An anthropological perspective on contemporary India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[3]  The Fritt Ord Foundation commissioned the report from Retriever. frittord.no/nb/aktuelt/rasismedebatt-i-norske-medier

[4]  Retriever, 2020: 4

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