A niggardly debate? Suggestion Svalbard has places with racist names doesn’t go over well with pale-faced locals

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The suggestion Svalbard has racist terrain is certainly stirring up a colorful debate, even if the opinions and the people giving them are pretty much all of a single hue.

Svalbardposten reported last week that three locations in the southern part of the archipelago have names that start with the Norwegian equivalent of “negro” (or the even more pejorative “n” word, according to some). Oddveig Øien Ørvoll, head of the naming committee for the Norwegian Polar Institute, told the newspaper there were no plans to reconsider renaming the mountains and it’s never come up as an issue, but “if someone were to submit a case to us in connection with this, it is something we will have to take up for consideration in accordance with our guidelines.”

If the readers responding to the article and an online poll – who after a few days had voted 92-4 against changing  the names – are any indication, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

“What will be next week’s experiment?” wrote Werner Jørgensen, calling the article a “new low” for the paper. “Should NP rename Pakkisen?” (Which could, in theory, be translated as “Pakistani” or “riff-raff” instead of “pack” ice.)

Even Rune Berglund Steen, head of the Anti-Racist Center in Oslo, told Svalbardposten that, while better alternative names certainly exist, it’s not something his agency plans to pursue because “we are work with a number of cases that are far more important.”

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Negerfjellet is one of three areas in southern Svalbard named for their large amount of black rocks. Photo by Anders Skoglund / Norwegian Polar Institute.

The names – Negerfjellet (“mountain”), Negerdalen (“valley”) and Negerpynten (“point”) – came from British sailors in the early 1600s due to high content of black rocks.

It’s worth noting black residents in Svalbard are far and few between. On the other hand, people from more than 40 countries are living in the archipelago under its loose residency laws – including a large Thai population. Few, if any, incidents involving open racism have been reported in recent years, although some internet forums over the years have suggested it’s not entirely absent.

“There’s a lot of low-level racism in Norway in general and Svalbard is no different,” wrote a Reddit user, who stated he lived in Longyearbyen “during my formative years (16-20),” in an “Ask Me Anything” forum five year ago. “In such a small society people accept you as a person if you stay for some time, but don’t expect an immediate acceptance.”

A 2007 discussion at asiaforum.no suggested some Norwegian parents didn’t let their kids play with Thai children – and comments quickly turned ugly with unsupported accusations most Thais were involved in shady activities.

Oddly, the longest online debate about the recent “Neger” debate, which has been published in other Norwegian media this week,  seems to be at NeoGAF.com (“a nexus of hardcore gamers, enthusiast press, and video game industry developers and publishers”), where, again, the prevailing opinion is the issue is politically correct nonsense.

“Are people really offended or is that another example of doing silly things because it could be that some people could be offended by the names of random places in Norway – although everyone knows that the names aren’t offensive in whatever ways?” wrote one of the more polite participants.

 

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