Norwegian, Fulbright and Black in America.

‘So, where you from, brother?”, Reggie asked me, with a typical African American style of speaking. “I’m Norwegian”, I replied. “For real?”, Reggie responded, perhaps thinking that I was merely joking. “For real, brother.”, I replied, and then added, “Bona fide, from the West Coast of Norway, Bergen to be precise”. I could see Reggie was lost for words. He looked me over and I could almost hear his thoughts; hair – not blond, eyes – not blue, skin – excessively tanned. I knew Reggie would have appreciated some background information to help him reconcile his stereotypical Norwegian with the personage in front of him. Unfortunately, when it comes to such issues, I’ve never felt the need to satisfy other people’s curiosities. The onus was on him to appraise his stereotypical mind bank. This has always been my conviction. There’s however, a fine dividing line between theoretical convictions and pragmatism – it’s called realism.

My first realism challenge occurred at the home of a local dinner host, during my Fulbright Enrichment Seminar (Huntsville, Alabama), in November 2017. I sat at the same table with Fulbrighters from Nigeria, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, China, Malaysia, India, and Ivory Coast. Having such a unique international ensemble of scholars at his home, perhaps for the first time ever, it is understandable that our cultural backgrounds and academic achievements, were of equal interest to our host. I listened with increasing disagreement to the West African (Nigeria and Ivory Coast) Fulbrighters, as they talked about their home countries. My disagreement was with how they contrasted their home countries with other neighboring countries, one to which I could trace my roots. On several occasions, I was tempted to comment on what I considered was wrong presentation of facts. But I had to accept that they had the unique right to present their countries the way they deemed right (with or without my consent), just as I had the right to present my home country, Norway, in the best light possible. The best I could do was to ask leading questions, with the hope of getting them ‘on the right track’. Unfortunately, the debate is killed when the savannah gander tells the polar bear, “you won’t understand because you don’t belong”. In truth, I lost ties with West Africa more than 25 years ago.

Dealing with people from my roots, and being told that I didn’t belong, was just part of being Norwegian and black in America. It was a Saturday afternoon and I intentionally dressed to look the look – I’m black in America and I wanted the brothers to see I belonged. “Crazy weather, ha?”, the brother called out to me, to express his displeasure with the weather. My response drew a squint, as if he wanted to get a better look at the source of my accent. For sure, I didn’t say anything close to “fo shizzle ma nizzle”. But that’s stereotyping, as not all African Americans would respond using these words. Fact remains that there was an apparent dissonance between my dress style and my accent – that’s what he couldn’t deal with. “You’ve got an accent, bro. Where you from?”. I replied “Norway”. He smiled and asked, perhaps to be assured, “you from Norway?” “Yes, I’m a Norwegian, a visiting Fulbrighter at Cornell, right here in the US of A”, I replied as emphatically as I could. “Hmm, you have a nice day”, he said, and walked on. I wished he had said “You have a nice day, brother’. I wanted to shout back to him, “I’m still your brother”.

The female student who came looking for the visiting Norwegian professor walked past my office on two occasions before venturing in. The label on the door still bore the name of the former occupant, whom she probably knew. Apparently, my colleague who sent her my way either forgot, or found it irrelevant, to give her a good description of the Norwegian she was to meet. This student and I had communicated by email previously. Unfortunately, my name doesn’t really allow people to geo-localize me. In my blunt way of dealing with uncomfortable situations, I asked her “where you confused? Were you expecting someone else?”, to which she replied, “not exactly”. Then later on, she said, “I couldn’t tell anything from your name”. “Well”, I said, “if you want me to, I can explain a thing or two about my surname, that would make you believe I’m Norwegian”. She lit up and I took that as an invitation to continue. “You know, in the olden days, a surname was derived from the profession or by the character of the bearer. In Norwegian, the word ‘subbe’ means to ‘shuffle’. My family is known to shuffle – all my siblings do”. Fact is, my great grandfather spelled the surname ‘Subbe’, rather than ‘Subbey’. The latter spelling traces back to my deceased grandfather, and none in my family knows why he adopted this variant of our surname. It is also fact that shuffling runs in my family, and everyone (including myself) shuffle when we walk. But that’s where it all ends. Neither of my ancestors (and there’s no written record to that) has ever visited, or had any links to Norway. I have to stress that the story I told my student visitor wasn’t an attempt to “Norsk” my surname per se. Neither was it an attempt to deal with an identity crisis. I know who I am, and for the statistics, I’ve eaten ‘lutefisk’ and ‘gamalost’ more often than most people in Norway, and no youth below the age of thirty years can present any contest. I consider any form of skiing, short of the traditional Telemark (with wooden skis) as treacherous, and my undivided allegiance lies only with the country whose passport I carry – I’ve never believed in divided allegiances. I’m Norwegian!

Living in America however, has brought home one realism. I’ve come to accept the intermittent reminders of race and racial stereotypes, and learned to appreciate the bright side of being black and Norwegian in America. I’ve come to consider that perhaps, part of my mission (as a Norwegian ambassador, courtesy of the Norwegian Fulbright Committee) is to let my hosts understand that the definition of the “Norwegian” has evolved; that “the Norwegian” represents diversity in all aspects of life. Given that the president of the USA wants more migrants from Norway, perhaps I might use the opportunity to get an invitation to a White House dinner. When (not if) I do, I won’t share, nor leak to the press, any unsavory words that might be said by people in high places (in accordance with universally recognized Norwegian etiquette and diplomatic practice)– I promise.