No Good Answer
I stared, for a second too long, so I looked at my shoes and then across the room. I had just been caught flat-footed; I had no response. The student’s question was so sincere, there was no way I could give a pat answer to, “Are American police racist?”
A favorite bible story for me is from Luke, Chapter 15, “The Prodigal Son.” I feel a little like that son this week. Since Sunday night I have been in Trondheim, or “T” as I write it and, “T (big T)” as I say it. It has been a pleasure, it has been better than I deserve. This week has been a tourist bureau coup for why to come back again and again. And this week, perhaps, I came home.
Over 130 years ago my ancestors left Norway. Some left earlier and some left later, but they almost all left, such was their poverty. Not only did all my ancestors come from Norway, but almost all of them came from Trøndelag, more specifically, the Trondheim area. And here I am, all these years later. An American, from the richest country in the world. I came from a family of humble and hungry Norwegians who achieved the American Dream.
Because of my ancestral history to the area I wanted to like it. I wanted to feel a sense of place and being, maybe a little familiarity. I wanted to feel like I had a little claim to T. I wanted to love T and I really wanted T to love me back.
Again, the Fulbright experience has been too kind to me. Freyr has been too kind to me. T has been too kind to me. What can I say to express fully my gratitude? Really, I need help.
Mange tusen takk will have to suffice.
Byåsen Vidergåenda Skole has been my home for the week. Mostly suburban, mostly white, mostly affluent..seems like home. Apologies LM but the building is much nicer. It was purposely built almost a decade ago, there is a uniform architectural and aesthetic signature. And they have a real nice teaching resturant inside. Seriously, a real resturant that students work in to learn the food service and culinary trade.
My lessons have been with all manner of Byåsen students (in Norway its “pupils,” “student” is reserved for those at university). My guide has been a teacher, from America. Ahhh, nothing lost in translation – it must be relief for us both. The stage has been a small lecture hall instead of a classroom. I would prefer a classroom with students at tables to facilitate my group-work activities but I’ll take it. In Norway, the teachers move for every class. They have an office suite with other teachers but no classroom of their own. That was a strange bridge to cross for me.
My students ranged from those destined for university and well versed in english to those in the trade-school track and whose teachers were kind enough to forgo some of their class time to the odd American. Thank you.
“Are American police racist?” That question invited a quick, “No, but there are some bad actors in any organization, blah, blah, blah.” No, this question demanded a response that was soul-searching, a response but not an answer. Because there is no definitive answer.
“Are American police racist?” I repeated the question for all the class to hear and then said, “Thank you for such an important question. No, but I don’t know if I can answer it. It is a very complex question actually.”
I speak enough Norwegian to sound like a knowledgable idiot. It’s better when I don’t, thankfully in Norway the level of english language preparation is such that I don’t have even try too often. Like any country there are accents and regional differences in speech. The differences can be nearby yet pronounced, such as Boston accents from Beacon Hill versus Southie. Dialects can also span great distances, such as eastern Kentucky to northern Minnesota.
Norway has two official Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. Bokmål is the formal and Danish influenced language, it’s what everybody speaks. Nynorsk is a dialect language from the isolated fjords and valleys of western Norway. It was formalized during the patriotic fervor of the 19th century and adopted an official langauge alongside Bokmål. Teachers here tell me that the kids don’t want to learn Nynorsk. The language of the Sami is also recognized but you would have to be in the far north so see or hear it.
Trøndelag is famous for its accent. As a hopeful Norwegian speaker, it is everything I can do to keep up with the speakers of proper bokmål. The subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences of Trønder språk are just another level of challenge. Sometimes that is fun, but the effort gets old fast.
Learning a language is so demanding and challenging no wonder we need to learn it as young as possible. Like your new and complicated television remote, leave it to a nine-year-old, it may be too much for you. On Thursday I was invited to a “Speaking Table” at the central library. Built on ruins dating back 1,000 years, remodeling excavations revealed ancient artwork and graves with skeletons. Some of the excavation were left and incorporated into the new building. It makes for a clever little museum in the library. Pay your library fines or else!
The group met on the fourth floor. From an initial meeting with three participants, the weekly events now attracts 40-70. All are adults looking to improve their Norwegian with conversation and games. I was late, I had been dallying at the bones, and didn’t make the big room with games. I joined a small group in a separate room which turned out better anyway.
We were from: Philippines, Spain, America, Afghanistan, and Hungry. Our leader, I’ll call him Abe, was convivial local with a purple shirt, three-day beard, and the requisite large wristwatch. He fiddled with his paper coffee cup unceasingly. I was so proud for all the people who were there, trying, struggling, and laughing in the mission to fit in better and increase their opportunities. I even added a couple of new words to my language bank: innbygger, halvpart, and kikkert.
The topic that elicited the most animation was on accents. Abe relished in sharing some of the ways that Trønderfolk use contractions, shorten sentences, and generally make a little rebellion out of their language for outsiders. Maybe this is a type of revenge Trøndelag is able to exact on Oslo since Trondheim is no longer the capitol?
“Are American police racist?” After I hinted at a copout answer, I had a hint of inspiration, and then moved to its flank. I turn away from the querier to speak to the whole class. I told them about accents. How they had accents to me. That I had an accent different from many regions in America. We acquire our accents young.
I asked the students to think about how hard it can be to drop an accent, even subtle elements remain for the most practiced and clever. We needed a word for an answer, since I didn’t have the right word I used a token for it, a metaphor. I reminded the fresh faces that America, for all its laudable goals and remarkable beginning, was racist from the start. Slavery, racism, and hate were enshrined into our Constitution. The best minds in America gave our nation an original sin, a scar, something that persists despite great efforts.
Slavery and racism are accents of America. The accent is heavier in some places and less in others but America has an accent. And like the Trønder accent, it is deep. Perhaps you move from T to Oslo, your accent moves with you. Perhaps in Oslo you are able to get about without a noticeable accent, very nice. But in moment of excitement, or fear, or fatigue your accent returns. It happens, maybe you’re embarrassed, but nobody gets hurt. In America people get hurt.
The young man who asked the question seemed to accept the my offering, he gave me a knowing nod. In this mostly suburban, mostly white, mostly affluent school he was black with conspicuous hair. I can’t speak for police. But I do know that the police are Americans. And like all Americans, they have an accent.