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The Blue Men Group

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“Blámenn!” Palli, our Iceland Review photographer, shouts. “You call them Blámenn!” Of course, Palli is a leg-puller from way back, so I take this with a grain of salt. Although it’s something I desperately want answered. What are black people called in Iceland?

Palli’s answer of “blámenn” (blue men), however dubious, is historically how the ancient people of this isle referred to people from the African continent. Why blue and now black? Interestingly enough, in Old Norse the concept of “black” didn’t exist as it does today. Hence, seemingly black horses are most often called “brown.”

Other animals that we English-speakers normally call black, like the raven—a regular in the Icelandic fauna line-up—were called “blár” or blue, which is actually a tone the bird can sometimes takes on if the light strikes his feathers in just the right way.

So when Icelanders first laid eyes on people with particularly dark skin, they were called blue people, and the term has survived through the ages (or, at least with our staff photographer), even though the Icelandic concepts of colors have pretty much been normalized with the rest of the West.

But back to my question, what is the P.C. term for black people in Iceland? There have been a number of terms since the ancient “blámadur”—some of them have taken on nasty undertones and are often associated with the N-word in English. But the words most used today are “svertingi” (derived form the modern Iceland word for black svartur) and “blökkumadur” (an Icelandicized version of “black man”).

Even though there are relatively few black people in the Iceland, the discussion of what term to use comes up just as much as it did in America. And it seems to me that people make a more conscious effort not to make others feel marginalized. At least, the situation has gotten better since 1977, when this headline ran in Dagur, a daily paper out of Akureyri in the north:

The headline, “Negri í Thistilfirdi” means something like “Negro in Thistil Fjord,” and that’s exactly what the article is about. The first three paragraphs rhapsodize about winter life in the north. Finally, in the last paragraph they get around to this “breaking news.” Jóhannes Sigfússon hired an “African negro” from Ghana to work on his farm Gunnarsstadir over the winter. “He’s a cheerful man and is getting the hang of his job,” the news reports. “But there’s one thing he’s afraid of, and that’s tall snow drifts, because he feels that he might get stuck in them and never come out again.”

These days the only black people in Iceland’s news are America’s next president, Barrack Obama, and the stunning cover photo of the Reykjavík Grapevine’s bombshell second issue from 2004 (that’s back when I was on the staff, hehe) …

But when asked if racism towards black people exists in Iceland, I normally answer that it’s impossible to generalize an entire nation. Certainly there are haters here, as there are in any country. But in my experience, black people here aren’t the brunt of racism as much as they are the object of exoticism. Quite simply, a black man in Iceland is rare bird, and the nation does tend to stop and marvel whenever it has the chance.

JM – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.