Norwegian Conditions

Adapted from the original police report

“Norwegians are among the least racist in the whole world.” — Siv Jensen and Jon Helgheim, Fremskrittspartiet (The Progress Party), 14th of June 2020

Last Monday, I finally managed to submit the police report for the racist incident, and hate crime, I was subjected to in October. It has taken this much time for me to do this, because it’s mentally taxing and exhausting; both to be exposed to this (on a regular basis) and to do something about it — and my plate is already overflowing as is.

This is that story.

In the early hours of Friday 9th of October 2020, headed home, I went on the Bergen Light Rail (bybanen) that was to leave Byparken at 00:28 (12:28 AM). A lot of people were out that day, and it quickly became quite full and many had to stand. I sat in the back carriage, alone on the seat next to the aisle, with my backpack on the window seat next to me. On the way to the light rail, I reminded myself to hide my ID-badge, which had my name, work title and place on it — but I forgot. As a woman, you must sadly think of such things for safety reasons. Sitting in my seat, I put a face mask on due to how crowded the carriage was. We were in a middle of a pandemic, and it was one the guidelines we were supposed to follow; not just for ourselves, but for others’ sake, too.

Right next to me stood a white ethnic Norwegian man in his 30–40s (I’ll call him “the man in the face mask”), talking to a white ethnic Norwegian man, around the same age, who was sitting next to me on the other side of the aisle (I’ll call him “the man in the winter jacket”). In the window seat next to him, sat a white Eastern European man in his 40–50s. Behind them sat two young, white ethnic Norwegian women, probably around 18–22 years old. Behind me sat two loud young white, ethnic Norwegian men around the age of 18–22, who had clearly been drinking.

Despite the carriage being quite full, it still had enough space for people to keep a reasonable distance from others. The man in the face mask made no effort to keep a distance. He stood with his back to me as he talked to the man in the winter jacket, and began repeatedly bumping into me as the light rail left the station, without apologizing or making any effort to stop. This was of course rude, but also worrying considering the pandemic and how contagious the coronavirus is. I looked at him disapprovingly to signal my dismay at this. The man in the winter jacket saw this and looked at me, which prompted the man in the face mask to turn around and look at me, too. He immediately stood over me, and stared down at me with an intense, threatening look. In fact, it was so intense and threatening that I genuinely thought he might hit me. I am not one to let others intimidate me, thus I did not look away; I looked back at him demonstrably nonplussed, straight into his angry eyes, and then I turned my gaze back to my cell phone.

Not a second after I did this, the man in the winter jacket reached his arm across the aisle, and grabbed my hair. I reacted immediately — instinctively — and looked right at him. You do not fucking touch my hair. He quickly put his hand in his lap, looked straight forward, and pretended — like a child — that he hadn’t done anything. Clearly amused, he smiled scornfully at what he had just done. It was obvious that this act was malicious; he had done this to provoke, to humiliate, to degrade, and to belittle. To make fun of me in front of all the — mainly (if not only) white — spectators that were increasingly paying attention to what was going on. And it was also obvious that he did this because 1) I was brown/part Black/had obvious African ancestry, 2) I was a (young) woman, and 3) I was alone. In sum: An easy target for cowards to bully, harass, and attack.

I hate cowards, I hate bullies, I hate racists, and I hate misogynists — and they were all of them combined (they usually are).

And I am NOT the one.

I got angry. I raised my voice, and I told him, without equivocation: “Don’t fucking touch my hair! Do you understand?! Don’t you ever touch someone else’s hair without their permission — especially during a pandemic!”

The man in the face mask immediately began ferociously defending him (they were clearly friends). He amped up his aggression, went on a verbal attack, crossed physical boundaries, and came so close to my face that I had to physically hold him back with both hands. I told him not to get so close/keep his distance multiple times; on one occasion he took off his face mask and came close to my face, and I had to tell him to put it on again, emphasizing several times that there was a pandemic and a high risk of infection. He pulled his face mask back up, but didn’t back off, and kept on attacking. At one point he stared at my ID-badge, clearly trying to read it. I kicked myself for forgetting to hide it, and tried to casually conceal it, but to no avail. It was too late. He now knew my name, my title, and where I worked.

The Eastern European man who was sitting next to the man in the winter jacket, who I do not think was an acquaintance of him nor the man in the face mask, threw himself with pleasure into the attack and loudly began to make fun of my hair, trying to get the others around us to join in. He spoke in English, and gestured and illustrated with large movements what my hair looked like while he laughed and smiled sneeringly, and talked about how my hair was so “interesting” and “different,” defending the fact that the man in the winter jacket had grabbed my hair, and intentionally violated my personal and physical boundaries. In English, I repeated what I had told the man in the winter jacket, telling him that I didn’t give a fuck about how “interesting” or “different” he found my hair; you don’t fucking touch it, and it was never okay to touch someone’s hair without their consent, especially not during a pandemic. I told him that it was a boundary violation, and that they were not allowed to do it. He of course ignored me, as he was perfectly aware of this already and what he was doing, and continued the ridicule throughout most of the trip.

The two young, white women in the back — who clearly enjoyed what was going on — joined in on the racist bullying/harassment, and began to openly laugh and giggle at what was happening to me, obviously done to reinforce the humiliation. Et tu, femina?

I was not at all surprised — by any of this.

By this time the situation had escalated so much, and the three men behaved so threateningly and aggressively — and did not stop when I defended myself and set clear boundaries; on the contrary, they only escalated their behavior — that I took out my cell phone to openly film them; both to hold them accountable, but more importantly for my own safety, in case they were to physically harm me. I had never done this before, but I knew I had to this time. When I did this, the two young women immediately stopped laughing, and the man in the winter jacket and the man in the face mask turned away from the camera, clearly in an attempt to avoid getting filmed. I said “hi” to get them to look directly into the camera and to make it clear that I now had them on video. The Eastern European man thought this was funny and looked directly into the camera and waved.

I stopped filming when I had them all on camera, and when I did this, the man in the winter jacket and the man in the face mask went on another indignant verbal attack. They said I shouldn’t have filmed them, they didn’t like it, that it was “unnecessary.” The man in the face mask started gaslighting me, blaming me, and tried to turn it around on me. He said that what the man in the winter jacket had done was “just for fun.” He even said I was “aggressive,” and that I had “overreacted” (classic micro-aggressions). And he repeated this many times, over and over, continually trying to shift the blame and make them the “victims” and me “the bad guy;” while I refused to be gaslighted, didn’t back down, and rationally argued against what he said.

Then suddenly, one of the young, white ethnic Norwegian boys who were sitting in the seats behind me, shouted mockingly: “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” I immediately turned around and took out the camera again to film him. At first, he was a little taken aback, but when I started filming and asked him to repeat what he had said, he shouted again, mockingly: “BLACK LIVES MATTERS!” I asked him why he said this while I was filming him, and he replied sarcastically and with a contemptuous smile on his face, something about “it is a known problem that Blacks struggle.” It was somewhat difficult to get what he said due to his dialect, but it was very obvious that he was not sincere in his answers, did not say directly nor would admit on camera what his true intentions were/what he meant, and that he thought it was funny. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, as if I was the fool. He, too, was a coward, a bully, a racist, and a misogynist.

He had witnessed/observed the racist (and sexual) harassment, bullying and ridicule the other three men and two women subjected me to, and made the conscious choice to join in on this by bullying and ridiculing my ethnicity; and by mocking a very well-known and important anti-racist movement for Black people and their civil/human rights (which has been covered a lot in the international media in recent months), in a deliberately “blasphemous” attack. It was obvious that he did this to provoke, humiliate, insult, ridicule, degrade, belittle, and mock me as a brown woman, hoping to hurt me. And that not only he, but that they all felt safe enough to do this publicly, since I was alone and was also, if I remember correctly, the only one in the entire carriage who was brown/not white. Because they thought I was vulnerable, defenseless, and helpless. And because they felt their behaviour was acceptable. There was no shame in their behaviour. Everyone in the carriage saw what happened, and in the beginning not a single person defended nor supported me. But they all watched.

The young man wanted to reinforce what the others had already done, and that was to make an obvious distinction between me and the others in the carriage, by emphasizing and pointing out my ethnicity and, in this context, “difference,” as something negative and ridiculous. Something to gawk and laugh at, to dehumanize, to not see as your equal, but as something inferior. To create a distance between me and all the white people who were present.

The three older men had stood up, and the man in the mask invaded my personal space. The man in the winter jacket said he would have “said something” if I hadn’t filmed him. He was referring to the obvious racism that the young man had just subjected me to. His cognitive dissonance and complete lack of self-awareness was astounding, but not surprising. His comment was obviously ironic considering the fact that it had all started due to HIS racist actions, and thus I asked him, sarcastically: “Oh, so you care?” “Yes, I do,” he said, and said something to the effect of “and I would’ve helped you if you hadn’t filmed me.” Then he said: “You’re reacting/doing this because of feminism and race,” exposing his own mindset and projecting his own motivations. I corrected him, and said: “Ethnicity - there is no such thing as ‘race.’”

The man in the mask squatted down and started talking to me in a slightly less aggressive tone. He kept blaming me for the situation, trying to convince me that it was my fault, that I was aggressive and overreacting. I calmly asked him his name, and if I remember correctly, he said his name was “Thomas Jensen.” He repeated this twice, and said I could find him on Facebook. He was not likely telling the truth, as he probably didn’t want to reveal his identity considering the situation (and I could not find someone who matched his appearance under that name on Facebook). He did seem to slip once, and referred to the man in the winter jacket as “Morten.” I do not know if any of these names were their real names.

A lot of what was done happened at the same time, and the situation was somewhat chaotic because of it. I don’t remember when, I think it was towards the end, I suddenly noticed that there was a clearly upset young white woman shouting something at us. At first I thought she was addressing me and supporting those who were harassing me, but then I realized that they were actually the ones she was addressing, and that she was yelling at them for what they were doing. I was too busy watching those who attacked me for my own safety and survival, for this to really sink in at that moment. But I do remember a sense of surprise, as I didn’t expect anyone to do anything to help me. Sadly, people rarely do. Some people always do, but most people never do. Or at least, that’s my experience.

Although I was able to film and document the situation in an attempt to protect myself from physical harm, I felt threatened and in danger, especially since there were so many who obviously sympathized with the attitudes of these four men, as they either participated directly or passively approved by doing nothing to stop it. The behavior of the three older men was visibly aggressive, and from the moment the attack started, I was afraid they would follow me if I got off on my station, where the stretch from my station to where I live is very dark, not so populated, and several women have been assaulted in this area over the years. Not only was I afraid they would follow me, but also physically attack me. The threatening man in the face mask and the creepy older Eastern European man made my alarm bells ring especially loud. Thus, I decided that I had to have a plan for what I would do to get home safely. Like so many women, I had been there, done that so many times before. I decided to get off on a station two stops after my own instead, as I had a friend who lived right by the stop, but I didn’t know if he were home.

As we approached the station, I changed tactics and tried a more diplomatic approach to bring down the level of aggression in these men, which seemed to work enough to make me feel that they would no longer physically attack or follow me. The man in the face mask eventually even conceded, and admitted that grabbing my hair was a violation and disrespectful. When we arrived at the station, I told the man with the face mask that “we’re not gonna do this again,” by this I meant that THEY should never do anything like that again.

I got off at the stop, and none of those who had harassed me followed. But when I went out, I heard someone else shouting at these men and yelling at them. They were yelling that they (the people who had harassed me) should be ashamed of what they had done, and that they were embarrassed about their behavior. I turned to see who was talking/doing this, and saw four young white people coming behind me. I asked them what they had said, and they repeated it. They asked if I was okay, and said that they had seen what had happened, and that it was reprehensible and unacceptable. I told them everything that had happened, and also that I had got off at another station for my own safety. They said that if these men had followed me at my station, they would also have left to protect/defend me, and that they were “certain” that more people would’ve done this. Since I lived relatively far away from where we were now standing and talking, they asked if I needed them to follow me home, or if they could at least follow me to where they were going. They regretted that they had not interfered while the attack was going on as they felt I handled it well, and apologized for this. I said that it was all right, and that I did not expect anyone to help me. I said thank you and that I appreciated what they did.

When we had reached the point where we would separate and say goodbye, one of their phones rang. It was their friend, a young woman who had been with them on the light rail, but who had stayed behind when they got off as she lived farther away. She was in a panic. She said that when we had left, the men who harassed me had turned their attention to her. They had gone on a verbal attack, saying she “was just a 13-year-old,” behaving aggressively and threateningly, intimidating her, and not letting her get off at her stop. She was then forced to get off at a different station farther away from where she lived, where they had got off after/with her. She had then hidden in a shed for fear of what they would do to her. She was very upset and scared. Then the conversation was abruptly interrupted, and she was gone. We were all alarmed by this, and very concerned about her safety. Her friends tried to call her back, but she didn’t answer the phone. We started to panic. They considered running to where she was at, but I said it would take too long if she was actually in danger. I said we had to call the police. At first they were very hesitant to do this, as most people have a high threshold for calling the police because then the situation becomes very serious; but I said that it was extremely important to call the police and risk a false alarm, rather than risking that we did not call the police and something actually ended up happening to their friend, and forever regret not calling. So I called the police, and explained the situation, and gave the phone to one of the girls so she could talk to them. Eventually we found out that their friend or someone else had also called the police to report the situation, and that she was near a convenience store at the station, and hid there. Police said they were sending a car to locate and help her.

The four young people thanked me for my help, and I thanked them for their help. They asked again if it was okay for me to walk home alone, and if I was sure it was safe. And I said that I’ve done this many times before, and that, no, I wasn’t sure it would be safe, but I did not want them to follow me (then I would worry about them), and that I just had to take the chance and hope that it would be fine. We exchanged phone numbers so that I could message them when I got home, and so that they could call me after about 30 minutes to check if I was okay; and we agreed that if I did not pick up the phone, they’d call the police. We said goodbye, they walked on home, and I started walking home alone.

At that point, the time was almost 01.30 at night, and shortly after I started walking home, a police car drove past me. I tried to get the attention of the car, but they did not see me, and drove away. I assumed that this was most likely the police car the police had sent, as it came from that direction. I was walking towards the underpass, it had been raining while we were outside, and I was wet, almost soaked, and my phone was now at 21% battery and had also gotten wet from the rain. When I came out of the underpass up towards the square, my mobile phone suddenly switched off. The battery had died. A sense of dread washed over me, because now I had no way to call for help or contact others, and was totally vulnerable to any attacks on the way home. I considered going to the gas station to call a friend or call for a taxi, but I decided not to do it and rather walk straight home. I was constantly on guard and watching my surroundings as I walked home. An available taxi drove by, and I considered stopping it, but it was too great a risk for me as a woman to take a taxi at night without the opportunity to use my mobile phone, that I would rather walk home and at least have the opportunity to run if something happened.

Fortunately, I got home safely, put the phone in the charger, turned it on, and immediately received messages from the young people who asked if I was okay. I told them I had arrived home safely, and asked if their friend was okay, and they said she was okay now.

The next day I called Skyss (public transport organizer) and told them what had happened. They were very understanding and helpful, and were to immediately arrange for the video from the surveillance cameras on that light rail trip to be taken care of and stored so that the police could retrieve it and use it as evidence in the case.

One of the girls contacted me and asked if I could give them pictures of the perpetrators, and I did. We talked about reporting the case together, but the day I was going to the police station to press charges, Thursday the following week (15th of October), I was told that their friend did not want to be involved in the case. I found it sad, but not surprising — sadly. So, I went alone. I expected the police to behave as they usually do (but not always), dismissive, uninterested, and unsympathetic, and that nothing would be done with the case. But to my surprise, the police officer I talked to was the polar opposite of that. She was understanding, empathetic, encouraging, and took it very seriously. In fact, coincidentally, she had worked that night it happened and knew exactly the incident I was talking about, and told me that it had been upsetting to them (the police). She commended me for filing a police report/pressing charges. She said it was so important that this was done, or else cowards like that wouldn’t learn and they would keep doing this to more people, and said that racially motivated hate crimes were of high priority and that they had their own task force to deal with it. I commended her for her response, and told her about my previous bad experiences with the police, and that I was happy people like her worked in this field. She said thank you, and that she was sad to hear that I had those bad experiences, and that it shouldn’t be that way.

She gave me instructions on how to file a police report electronically, but it took me about a month to do it. It was so easy in theory, but so hard in practice. It was emotionally taxing, and distracted me from literally everything else I had to or should do. I tried so many times, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do anything I was supposed to do — full stop. It affected me mentally. It was heavy, and another burden to bear on shoulders that were already carrying so much. But then I finally did it. And it’s done.

But my story doesn’t end here.

Friday the 16th of October, about a week after the incident on the light rail, I was gonna see a late film at BIFF. I had time to eat before it started, and visited a friend (whose a white ethnic Norwegian) I hadn’t seen in a very long time, and whom I just happened to run into on my way to buy food. He introduced me to his best friend (also a white ethnic Norwegian), whom I didn’t know beforehand. He struck me as a slightly odd, but mostly benevolent fellow. We had a nice chat, but at the end, right before I had to go to catch my film, something happened.

The best friend insisted that I must listen to a song before I go, and I reluctantly agreed to do it out of politeness. He said: “I assume that you like Alicia Keyes?” I laughed and shook my head, because instantly knew why he had made that assumption. He said something to the effect of: “I know, sista!” Confirming what I had understood/read between the lines. I laughed and said: “Don’t say that because I’m brown!” He immediately became serious, and said indignantly (something to the effect of): “I don’t like that you said that.” A little perplexed by how serious and indignant he had become, I tried to laugh it off, as I wasn’t interested in nor had time for an argument. Again, extremely offended (and defensive), he said: “I don’t like that you said that. What a bummer. This just ruined the whole vibe/mood. I hadn’t even noticed that you’re brown!” This was of course BS, as 1) he wasn’t blind, 2) had previously talked about my hair, and 3) had obviously assumed that I liked Alicia Keyes and called me “sista” because of how I looked. I said: “Really? You hadn’t noticed that I was brown? You obviously see it.” And again, he said, defensively: “No! I actually hadn’t noticed!” And then he said: “My father worked with African-Americans in a gospel choir! I always wanted to be Black! But I can’t!” And I, with the previous racist incident fresh in my mind, just thought, “No, you don’t.”

I was astounded by the gaslighting, by how he turned the situation around to be one where he was the one who was wronged, and I was the one who did something wrong by vocalizing my dislike for being stereotyped based on my ethnicity in a very friendly, non-confrontational manner. Lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Fetishizing and exoticizing Black people is not the opposite of racism, it’s a different side of the same coin. It’s dehumanizing, ignorant, reductive, and, quite frankly, offensive. I battled whether I should challenge him on this or not. I had to take several factors into consideration: I hadn’t seen my friend in a long time, we were in his home, it was his best friend, I had to go/didn’t have time to get into it — and thus I begrudgingly decided against it. I had to let it go. Like with so many other incidents like this, I had to let it go. But it comes at a cost. Constantly having to protect white emotions, and not be the “angry black woman,” takes a toll. And I’m tired of it.

By choosing to let it go, we went back to having “fun” again. I was persuaded into dancing to two songs he loved (by Alicia Keyes and Ms. Dynamite) before I headed out to catch the last film (a very bizarre, The Office-esque experience). It ended on a good note, and I was glad to have seen my friend again, who is a lovely person.

I missed the original screening I was supposed to catch, so I decided to see another movie instead, called “Shorta” (Arabic for “police”). It’s a film that deals with police brutality, ethnic/racial profiling, systemic racism, and segregation. It’s a deep dramatic film that hit me right in the heart, stomach and soul — especially as a half black brown woman born and raised in a majority white Nordic country, and who has encountered a shocking amount of racism after moving to Bergen (which opened my eyes to how bad things really are in this country — my country).

During the film, there was one, actually two, groups of young white ethnic Norwegian men who sat and literally cackled and guffawed at the explicit and gross racist comments and actions of one of the protagonists in the film (which were not meant to be comical, but meant to show the character’s racist attitudes and bad character). There’s nothing more meta than watching a film that deals with the insidious, toxic and dangerous racism ethnic minorities experience and are exposed to in Nordic countries/the West, while a white male audience sits and laughs at what they see as pure entertainment and comedy.

While this group was laughing at what was happening on the screen, the same actions made me cry. Not just because I recognized myself in the victims of these actions, but because it was painful, provocative, frustrating, heartbreaking, and terribly sad to see how innocent people are doomed to be treated and seen this way already at birth, due to nothing else but their skin color; and the consequences this will have for them from the second they are born until the moment they die.

This is our reality as ethnic minorities in the West — also here in Norway. This is my life as a brown woman, here, in my country of birth. And you do not know this if you do not ask, or listen when it is shared.

So, ask. And listen when we speak. Listen when we tell our stories. Because the way things are today is unacceptable. It cannot continue like this. Thus I will continue to do everything in my power to shed light on how it really is to be an ethnic minority in Norway. I won’t shut up, I won’t sit down, and I won’t go away.

I won’t be silenced.

SPEAK.

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Anine Bråten

Anine Bråten

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Student, feminist, anti-racist, activist. Freelance writer and public speaker.