For Americans of Color, Is Norway a Racism-Free Utopia?

It’s not cheap to live there, but for these expats of color, Norway is a place where no matter your color, you’re American first.

Joneien Johnson is an American citizen living in Oslo, Norway.
Joneien Johnson is an American citizen living in Oslo, Norway. Dayvee Sutton 

It’s cold, with really short days in the winter. Like, sunset is at 3 p.m. And it’s white. Like, really white—as in the descendants of Vikings. But in the city center of Oslo, Norway, black American expats are living what seems to be the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.: being judged by the content of their character and whatnot.

It’s so good at times that instead of worrying about random police stops when he leaves his house for work, Washington, D.C., native Anthony Durham is cheered with the nickname “Obama” when he walks inside his barbershop, which is operated by a Somali-and-Nigerian duo. He’s praised because he’s an American. White women don’t clutch their purses in his presence; instead, he says, most days he blends in with his new community. At most, he may get a glance out of curiosity when he and his wife speak English with an American accent.

“They’re like, ‘Are they tourists?’” he says. “In Norway it’s like I’m American first and black second.”

Oslo is the capital of Norway, a place you likely never think about unless you have to. History buffs may geek out over tales from the Vikings era, or be aware of the amicable U.S.-Norwegian relationship. Newsies may have read the headlines when Norway’s oil fund made all Norwegian citizens “technically” millionaires, or when there’s a cool Nobel Peace Prize laureate, like Malala Yousafzai. But it’s likely that most Americans don’t often think about Norway. Especially as a place to live.

It’s Durham’s third year living there, and that’s because he met his ethnically Norwegian wife while in college in Belgium. Their friendship led to dating, which led to marriage and a journey to a new life in Norway “because she had the better job.” Chicago native Joneien Johnson’s story is similar to Durham’s.

“My husband is Norwegian and we actually met at Iowa State University,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s husband got a job in Norway, and two years later, she joined him.

“When people meet me and hear me, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re American,’” she says. “I don’t have to put anything in front of it or explain why I look the way I look. Here, I’m just an American girl. It’s always ‘African American’ in the U.S.”

When Johnson’s husband asked his parents, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Johnson says it wasn’t a problem.

“In fact, my mother-in-law was more concerned about how it will be for us in the States as an interracial couple. She’s well aware of the racism in our country,” Johnson says.

Those are the first impressions that even visitors to Oslo will experience. The city center bustles with an international community that’s embedded, from the schools to the corporations. But that’s just Oslo. Durham explains, “Up until the ’70s, this was a largely homogeneous society. Even still now. If you go outside of Oslo, I think 86 percent of the population is ethnically Norwegian in Norway.”

But even if you leave the city limits, you shouldn’t expect to experience a change in the way people treat you.

“The history is just different than America’s,” Durham says.