Decolonisation: A view from the North
A global paradigm shift is underway, and some Norwegians won’t have it.
History: Under construction
“Norway is so highly valued in the world because we have no colonial past”. These are the words of our former prime minister and current Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg (2013). This being the general opinion, decolonisation talks in the public sphere began small in Norway, with the subject brought up only by minor groups and organisations like the African Student Union a few years back. These attempts received minimal attention. Why should anyone care? Norway has no colonial past. And the Nordics? Nothing worth faffing about. But is this the real story?
Getting a conversation started on the decolonisation of knowledge has been an uphill battle in Norway. Early in 2020 the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund published a booklet for educators on how to teach and talk about decolonisation. It caused a stir and got some conversations going in academic circles – including about the shocking history of state maltreatment of the indigenous Sápmi peoples of northern Norway. But it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd that the issue took off.
Some 15,000 protesters, largely youth, and a diverse group, gathered at the Stortinget (Norway’s parliament) in the largest demonstration our country has ever seen. Statues were defaced, raging battles ensued in newspaper columns, Facebook comments sections exploded and a leader of the far right group SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) was beaten up and had to be hospitalised. Suddenly ‘race’ was front page news, with decolonisation an important tie-on.
Like many European nations, Norway’s decolonisation movement has had two central effects. First, it has triggered a re-examination of the past. If we take the ‘all men are created equal’ notion seriously then we must also re-examine how we tell the story of Europe’s history in the world. In this regard, a fog seems to be lifting; the fog of the colonial and race-based worldview permeating the history-writing of white men long dead, on which our present understanding of the past is based.
A rewriting of that history is now being done, albeit reluctantly, involving re-examination of street names, children’s song lyrics (the n-word has been systematically erased from all archives in Sweden), commercials and statue plaques.
When we begin to look for the remnants of colonialism what we find can be overwhelming. The British Museum turned out to not be a British Museum at all. And Denmark and Norway were part of the trade triangle in as large a way as a small player could be. The Danish West Indies and Guinea Company had six trading forts on the Gold Coast, the most important being Christiansborg. Between 85,000 and 120,000 slaves were exported from these possessions. A small group of ship-owners suddenly became extremely rich, especially in western Norway. Sugar, tobacco and other exotic products appeared and were sold in what we call ‘Kolonial’ stores – a name still carried today by Norway’s biggest home delivery supermarket.
The sum of many articles, debates and films – like the ground-breaking documentary on the slave ship Fredensborg that lies sunk off the south coast – has arguably seen a slow turning of the tide of public opinion when it comes to knowing the true colonial past, despite the fervent opposition of some and uncomfortable acquiescence of most.
Fury and flame in public debate
Second, there has been a broadening and deepening of general understandings of racism in the present, based largely on American literature and concepts. Terms such as ‘everyday racism’, ‘microaggression’, ‘whiteness studies’ and ‘critical race theory’ are making themselves comfortable in the discourse. Some have charged that using or teaching these terms in academia is indoctrination of the vilest sort – and those people have influence. For instance, 137 students and others at the Oslo Academy of Art wrote to their principal asking for the integration of critical race theory in the curriculum and inclusion of more non-western theorists. They were met with open arms by principal Måns Wrange, a Dane, who thought it was an outstanding idea. However, Wrange was widely attacked in the media and by other students, and in the end, stepped down from his post.
The art academy scandal, and the general level of fury and flame in the debate, illustrate both the real-world consequences and the intensity of feelings surrounding the decolonisation of academic discourse. It is personal for every Norwegian because decolonisation in Norway challenges one of the most important premises of our nation-building: Norway was not involved in colonisation. And, one might add, Norway is not a racist country. In fact, antiracism, tolerance and ‘Norwegian kindness’ are central to our understanding of ourselves as a people. Therefore, suggesting that we need any kind of decolonisation here flies in the face of who we thought we were.
For young people, this is setting new premises for nation-building. So, what next? Who are we now, if we are not this sweet, kind and blameless nation?
A global paradigm shift
Well, we reconcile with the past and make changes in the present. Or do we? We continue to buy cheap clothes and other major stores, knowing full well the clothing industry’s history of using child labour – much like our ancestors of the late 1800s sprinkled their sugar without thinking too much about who cut the canes. However, the younger generation has grown up in a more globalised society than the older generations and, as of the curriculum revision of 2020 (L2020), a stronger emphasis is put on global goals such as the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Norwegian schools. The results of these developments are already starting to show. Among young people, there is a higher interest in less consumption, sustainable development and opposing Norway’s licensing of oil exploration.
I expect recent developments will be significant, though this is in no way a linear march towards lasting change. I believe that the Nordic decolonising goings-on is part of a larger, global shift, which may have other and more profound consequences in time. The youth are central drivers of this movement, through active engagement, putting pressure on local authorities, using democratic channels and demonstrating. The internet allows young people to feel part of something larger than what is happening locally.
The decolonisation movement itself can arguably be seen as part of a greater global paradigm shift. Indicators include the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, #everythingmustfall and other student uprisings, alongside the emergence of Whiteness studies and other academic streams and a myriad of other locally articulated movements. The paradigm shift is not necessarily an easy, straightforward or linear process. The path is sometimes violent, disorienting, painful, sometimes slow, and sometimes fast. But something big is going on.
What exactly the paradigm shift is from or to must and probably will be examined at length by others elsewhere, but I believe it can be crudely summed up like this: the halo of the West is fading. This involves a deeper understanding of the cultural power structures that made 500 years of European global domination possible. The coin of the Industrial Revolution has been flipped, and the other side hardly bears looking at. Knowledge about the past had been manufactured by the victors of history. Now we must look at it all with open eyes, and create an understanding of our place through time. Furthermore, it involves turning the viewfinder to the omissions of European history-writing, to the gaps in science and knowledge production, and the recognition of a plurality of epistemologies. This requires the emergence of projects that go beyond the colonial moment and the reactionary. For instance, a project I am involved in examines future fiction in non-Anglophone traditions.
Is there only so much plurality we can take in? Real cultural history is muddy, multifaceted and complex. It almost makes me yearn for simpler times when up was up and down was down. Perhaps this yearning explains movements based on an imagined, idealised and simple past, such as the resurgence of European nationalism and attempts to ‘make X great again’. I suppose we must all ask ourselves if a simple self-glorifying illusion is to be preferred to a more exact, infinitely complex and sublimely humbling alternative.
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This article appears in the youth edition of ECDPM's Great Insights magazine – check out the full issue or the other articles and multimedia below.