Prejudice or paranoia?

“It was the worst experience!” said a young man who came to talk to me the other day. “I have never seen such disrespect. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it if my wife and kids had been with me.” He is from one of the countries that joined the EU a couple years ago. It was the first time that I had met him, and so far he was very polite, friendly, and lively. I asked him what had happened. He said he was in a home electronics shop and was looking at a product he intended to buy. The sales attendant was kind in the beginning, but after this young man mentioned where he was from, the friendly manner evaporated and the sales clerk was no longer willing to answer questions or spend time with the young man. Why? Nobody knows except the sales clerk himself.

One of the privileges of being a pastor is getting to hear peoples’ stories, and it is also my privilege as pastor for the foreign community to be able to talk about prejudice in Iceland. Of course, many different groups of people can be targets of prejudice, but here I am going to talk only about prejudice towards immigrants and foreigners. Now 21st of the March is the international day against racisim and it is a good occasion to reflect on this matter.

Prejudices manifest themselves in different ways. The kind of prejudice that the young man from the new EU member state experienced is called “hidden” prejudice. Hidden prejudice is expressed in a non-verbal, somewhat indirect way. Examples might be ignoring or failing to greet someone, giving substandard service, or treating someone like a small child. Hidden prejudice is very common in Iceland (probably every single immigrant has experienced it at some time), as well as probably in every other society on the earth. Nevertheless, it is rather hard to point it out or to discuss it in a public forum, unlike the vivid, aggressive, and blatant prejudice expressed in racially discriminative statements or speeches. Why is this?

First of all, hidden prejudice shows up in people’s behavior during routine, everyday encounters. When it happens, we do not usually have our video camera running. So we cannot rewind the scene and examine it later on.

Secondly, it is not so easy, even for us immigrants ourselves, to recognize hidden prejudice as prejudice right away when it happens. This was not prejudice, we think, just some misunderstanding or accident. Let me give an example that really happened to me. I bought a TV set for my children. It was a small one, but still cost some money. After I paid, with my Visa card, the sales clerk literally threw the card back to me, not even saying “gjörðu svo vel.” Afterwards, I asked myself how I should understand this gesture. It seemed to me there were at least four possible answers: 1. The sales clerk does this to every customer. He is just rude. 2. He happened to be in a bad mood. 3. He knew me personally and he didn´t like me. 4. He is prejudiced towards immigrants, at least Asians. Probably the only way to know for sure would be to ask him on the spot. But this is difficult in practice. It is already almost a declaration of war to ask someone such a question: “Excuse me, but did you do that because you are prejudiced against me?” Most of us avoid this kind of conflict as much as we can.

And even if I had asked the sales clerk this question, there is no guarantee that he would have answered honestly. He might say: “What are you talking about?” Others around us often join in a kind of denial that acts of prejudice actually happen. I know that in many cases, when an immigrant complains about experiencing discrimination, people around him say: “I think you must have misunderstood something,” “Oh, no, that couldn’t have happened!” or “ You are too sensitive, don’t be paranoid!”.

So where is the way out? Is there any way to engage the problem of “hidden” prejudice? Or do we have to be just quiet and endure it?

Of course I think we can do something, and we need to do something. Here “we” means both native Icelanders and immigrants. In my view, our main goal should be to develop our sense of what kind of words and attitudes can hurt other peoples’ feelings. This is a much larger project than I have time to describe in this article, so now I would like to return to the experience of those people who are experiencing prejudice. Here are some suggestions for how to react:

  1. Let us encourage those who experience prejudice to speak up. As with sexual crimes, silence serves mostly just those who cause hurt. Silence helps neither the victims nor the community.
  2. Let us not hesitate to speak about apparent incidents of prejudice just because we cannot prove what was in the other person’s mind. It is important to express feelings of hurt or disrespect even while we allow for the possibility of having misunderstood the situation.
  3. Let us not repress or block out our experiences of prejudice in daily life, nor deny automatically that such attitudes exist, nor call those who experience prejudice oversensitive, unless we have truly good reason to doubt what they say.
  4. Let us acknowledge that each of us bears prejudices, and that those who carry prejudices may be wealthy, or not; well educated, or not; highly respected, or not.
  5. Let us remember that those who are in weaker positions in society find it more difficult to speak up about prejudice than those who are in more powerful positions.
  6. If you want to talk about your experience of prejudice but cannot find anybody to listen, please contact me. I am honored to listen to you. I may not be able to act in your case, but I can and do act on the understanding I gain from listening to many people like yourselves.

Dear readers, especially Icelandic readers, I understand it must be tedious to hear somebody talk about prejudice in this country. But those of us who are forced to speak about prejudice also find it difficult and burdensome. I wish that we can just say “Allt í lagi,” smile, and see things improve on their own. But it doesn´t work like that.

I believe that most of us immigrants want to join with native Icelanders to improve our society and our understanding of each other. To do this, we need to talk about our difficulties as well as our successes.

(Toshiki Toma, pastor for immigrants)