A rose by any other name

K and I subscribe to Morgenbladet, a Norwegian weekly newspaper. The following is my translation of an excerpt from an article in the November 7 issue about political correctness and whether (and how) it hinders open debate.

We went out to the countryside. It snowed that day, and photographer and journalist waded through the snow to catch the first train out of town. It turned out to be the Gjøvik Line. We wanted to find out what words people really use [to describe people of color], and planned random samples on the way out. The first place we got off was Nittedal [actually the first stop outside Oslo on that line].

We stop a lady outside the store.

She says she “keeps mostly to herself”, and has no idea which words prevail in Nittedal.

“We use normal words, as if they were normal people. No slang. We don’t call them anything.”

“If you were to tell someone that there’s a guy over there, and he’s dark-skinned, what would you say?”

“I can usually tell the difference between Pakistani and Somali and the like. In the beginning, I couldn’t tell the difference, but I learned a lot from a Pakistani at work. But I don’t use epithets, you know.”

“So what do you use?”

“Foreigner. Foreign extraction. Not svarting [derogatory form of svart, black] or sotrør [sooty, literally soot pipe] or the like. I’ve heard those words and I know about them, but I don’t use them.”

“Sooty?”

“Sooty… There aren’t that many of them here, but they’re starting to come. But I don’t really have a word for that. I try to concentrate on where they’re from, and make the right guess. And perhaps talk to them a little. Once you get to know them, they’re not so bad. But I just go to work, and then I go home, and then I watch TV, and then I go to bed. I’m not the kind of person who pays attention to what people say.”

We soon gave up on our research and waded back to the station, where we caught the train back to town. To summarize, no one in Nittedal uses derogatory terms themselves, but everybody’s heard others use those words.

I swear I’m not making this up.

This charming lady is not named in the article, but there is a photo at the top of the page with the caption “[name withheld] says she’s not the kind of person who pays attention to what people say”.

2 thoughts on “A rose by any other name

  1. I just go to work, and then I go home, and then I watch TV, and then I go to bed. I’m not the kind of person who pays attention to what people say.

    What an exciting life she does lead … and what a valuable participant in our democracy. o_O

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