"Culture is not a costume"
Racism can be subtle and is often hidden from people who don’t experience it first-hand, but Kristín Taiwo Reynisdóttir, Valgerður Kehinde Reynisdóttir, Anna Sonde and Johanna Haile know it all too well. Together they are responsible for the Instagram account Antirasistarnir. The account’s objective is to educate other Icelanders about the country’s hidden racism, and to allow them a brief view into the reality of those who experience it. First and foremost they want to be a voice for minority groups in society.
Culture and race are not a costume
In one of the group’s posts which has received a fair amount of attention they ask parents to not dress up their children based on another culture, heritage or race on öskudagur (a day of celebration when children typically dress up). With this request they are referring to the use of blackface, dressing as indiginous peoples, Chinese, wearing afro hair or any other dress or adornment to replicate and ultimately belittle people of a specific race. “Icelanders were not happy to hear this,” says Kristín, and adds that people have a hard time changing their ways.
The post says: “Culture is not a costume and especially not when it has been mocked and suppressed for hundreds of years.” They explain that blackface was originally used to belittle black people and to reinforce stereotypes. Foreign cultures are often sexualised through western interpretations. This strengthens harmful opinions of the cultures which are being imitated through the use of these costumes.
“Our responsibility to say something”
They explain having experienced racism from a young age. Anywhere from fellow children, to the internet, then mostly from adults. “We don’t fit into the Icelandic stereotype,” says Kristín referring to the colour of their skin, that they aren’t white, blonde and blue-eyed. “Therefore somehow we are a threat to society.”
“We are different and clearly that is not ok,” Kristín adds. When children are different they tend to be teased. They explain that it isn’t necessarily from their school mates that they experience prejudice, but that teachers have read out the N-word during lectures. “It’s very uncomfortable, and incredibly disparaging,” says Anna. “Especially when you’re met with glances from all around you,” adds Valgerður. People expect them to say something in this situation.
“It’s always our responsibility, because we have dark skin we’re always expected to speak up,” says Anna and mentions the example of her classmates witnessing prejudice but staying silent because only she was expected to say something.
Did not experience much of their own culture
The Anti-racists’ Instagram page is home to various examples detailing how racism presents itself and advice on how to be an ally to people of colour. The account was created following a discussion on the app where unnamed individuals shared racist remarks. It was then that Johanna rallied them together with the goal to shine a light on prejudice and discrimination based on race. “We try to educate Icelanders on our experiences and racism in general,” says Anna.
The girls mention that they receive so many questions through their Instagram page that they just barely manage to keep up with answering them all. Kristín says that for example the mother of one dark-skinned girl reached out for advice on how to celebrate her daughter’s culture. She didn’t want her daughter to feel like she wasn’t a part of something, like she didn’t belong. Kristín and Valgerður are sisters and they understand that feeling since they have two white dads. They didn’t get to know much of their own culture growing up. The sisters were both adopted from Nigeria.
“I suggested trying the food from her culture or homeland and to look into trying some of the traditions there,” says Kristín and adds that she then advised her to learn how to do her daughter’s hair. That this is something that’s missing from society, teaching how to do black hair.
Salons turn them away
There’s one store in the country that sells products for afro hair like theirs. More often than not hair salons turn them away and so some members of the group have not had their hair cut in Iceland for several years. “Nobody really knows what they’re doing when it comes to my hair,” Anna says.
Some of them have learned to work with their hair texture from Youtube videos and Kristín says she hasn’t had her hair cut in Iceland since she was five years old. This is something that really should be emphasised in hairdressing studies.
Kristín, Valgerður, Anna and Johanna are behind the Instagram page Antirasistarnir (The Anti-racists). They range from 15-18 years old and conduct educational lectures in schools and youth clubs. They can be reached through Instagram.
Antirasistarnir were interviewed in Síðdegisútvarpið on Rás 2 radio.
- This article was kindly translated for RÚV English by Sigtýr Ægir Kárason, from the original interview and article published in Icelandic (June 4th 2021).