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Normalising racial boundaries. The Norwegian dispute about the term neger


This article presents a contextualised, interpretative analysis of the debate about the word neger that took place in the Norwegian mass media during the winter of 2000–01. The aim is to contribute ethnographic material and analytical perspectives to the comparative analysis of the current reinforcement of ethnic national boundaries as a reaction to extra-European immigrants to Europe and the accompanying normalisation of racial discourses. On the one hand, Norwegian mainstream reaction draws on the same sort of racial ideas and boundary-constructing practices found in other European countries. On the other, the contributors to the debate drew on a complex set of discourses and exhibited particular points of emphasis. For many majority Norwegians a specific collective memory and a corresponding national self-image are currently at stake. In this self-image Norway is always outside imperialism and colonialism, and innocent in relation to the colonial legacy. The analytical argument of the paper is that when people construct racial boundaries, they draw on a mixture of discourses, rooted in different social realms, with different histories and degrees of legitimacy. The self-evidence of racial categories derives from the legitimacy of well established historical themes, concepts and lines of conflict. As the debate about the word neger unfolded over time, majority hegemony was challenged, rearticulated and reconfirmed.

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Earlier versions of this article were presented in 2001 at the presidential symposium ‘Initiating cross-Atlantic dialogues on race and culture in anthropology’ at the AAA meetings in Washington DC and at the opening conference of the Programme of Applied Ethics, Norwegian University of Science and Technology [NTNU], Trondheim; in 2002 as guest lectures at the CIESAS Sureste in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico and at the University of Ngaoundéré, Cameroon; and in 2003 as a NIAS lecture in Wassenaar, The Netherlands. The research work was funded by the IMER programme of the Research Council of Norway. Important revisions were made during my stay as ‘Guest of the Rector’ at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIAS) in Spring 2003. I thank Angela Jansen and Petronella Kievit-Tyson at the NIAS for efficient editorial help, and Peter Pels and an anonymous reviewer for valuable comments.
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Social Anthropology
  • ISSN: 0964-0282
  • EISSN: 1469-8676
  • URL: /core/journals/social-anthropology
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