Contributor: Kristín Loftsdóttir,Professor of Anthropology, University of Iceland

During the last few years, growing numbers of people from Africa and of African origin have settled in Iceland. Until recently relatively few individuals of African origin were present at all, which reflects the low level of immigration to Iceland in the past. The connection between Iceland and different African countries has historically not been extensive. Iceland was, for example, not engaged in the imperial or colonial exploitations of past centuries, thus having no ex-colonies, being itself a poor Danish dependency until the mid 20th century. Africa has still been a part of Icelandic reality in several ways, in particular through various mediums discussing the continent, inhabitants and its different countries.  In Iceland racist and colonial images were, furthermore, created and recycled, Icelanders thus participating in the colonial ideology that shaped European identities in 19th and early 20th century.

My discussion aims at giving an overview of images of Africa in Iceland, in addition to mapping out the presence of Africans in Iceland and prejudice against people of African origin in Iceland. I start with a brief discussion on how Africa has been made available to Icelanders through the centuries, in images and texts even though there has not been an extensive connection between Africa and Iceland. I then give general information about African immigration to Iceland and contemporary images of the continent in addition to narrating experiences expressed by few individuals of African origin living in Iceland. [1]


[1] The information presented here is for the most part based on two connected research projects in 2009 and 2011 supported by the Developmental Fund for Immigrant Matters which is run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The part of the data used here was collected with the assistance from Þóra Lilja Sigurðardóttir. In relation to these projects I have interviews with diverse group of people (focus groups and individual interviews) in order to capture the different views at stake in relation to racism and prejudices in Iceland. I have interviewed Icelanders with immigrant background, “ethnic” Icelanders, and individuals from several African countries.

Images of Africa existed in Iceland from the earliest time, many of whom were basing on works of other European scholars. One of the most extensive descriptions of Africa in medieval times, Hauksbók compiled in 1300, based on the work of Isidor from Sevilla who had great influence of medieval world view in Europe (Nordal, Tómasson and Ólafsson 1992). Images of Africa in Iceland during medieval times were still plural and not entirely negative (Loftsdóttir, in press). Looking at 19th and early 20th century images of Africa shows, however, a clear replication of racist and colonizing images found within European and American context. This is, for example, reflected in the teaching material for geography and history during this time. Geography books closely explain racial classifications, positioning them as objective scientific facts, often using subjective and degrading language. Colonialism is celebrated as a positive force in history books published during this time (Loftsdóttir, 2010). The annual journal Skírnir – being one of the most important sources of foreign news for Icelanders in the 19th century – reported occasionally on the continent even though usually not including extensive discussion. Very often the news were focused on Europeans in Africa, celebrating their masculinity and ‘civilization project.’ In that sense it is interesting how the Icelandic writers seem to have positioned Icelanders within these narratives as one of the collective ‘we’ that was civilizing and exploring the world – interesting due to that during that time Icelanders were few in numbers (only 78,000 people in 1900) and Icelandic society characterized by intensive poverty (Loftsdóttir 2009a).

When Iceland was occupied by the U.S. military forces following the Second World War there were great concerns with corruption of the Icelandic nation, leading to a strict regulations in regard to movements of the solders (Ingimundarson, 2004). Even though this has also to be contextualized within the resentment to an army occupation so recently after independence, it still shows particular attitudes toward foreigners. These attitudes were racialized because the Icelandic government even went so far as to demand that the USA government stationed no ‘black’ soldiers at the American base.  The ‘black’ solders were in particular seen as especially threatening to Icelandic women (Ingimundarson, 2004).

Moving rapidly to the current day Iceland, considerable changes have been in regard to the images of Africa in Icelandic context with more plural and vibrant image of the continent. To take schoolbooks again as a point of emphasis, many schoolbooks published around and after 2000 discussing Africa in one way or another, destabilize older views of homogeneity of the Icelandic nation. The authors seem to attempt to engage with the changing compositions of the Icelandic nation, along with acknowledging that diversity has always existed in Icelandic society. This can, for example, been seen as reflected in a book series used in primary schools to practice reading skills, where visual material shows Icelandic children with different skin shades, thus acknowledging children of African origin as Icelandic children (Loftsdóttir 2009b). This applies as well to some books addressing Africa as a continent. In one recent book teaching Icelandic history, the author tries to locate Iceland’s history within a wider historical framework and mentions in that respect briefly the West African Songhay kingdom. This discussion of the kingdom, in spite of being very brief, gives a view of dynamic and power state that is connected to the outside world, emphasizing agency (Helgason 2004:47). Even though there is certainly more work to be done in regard to this, the emphasis in some of these recent schoolbooks reflects still a drastic change from earlier schoolbooks presentation of Africa as traditional and uniform continent located in the past. The somewhat rapid change in how Africa is represented in the schoolbooks has to be contextualized with growing discussions about multicultural society in Iceland and emphasis that teaching material should reflect that diversity (Loftsdóttir 2009b). Schoolbooks do, however, of course not reflect on what happens in the classroom or school policies and practices in a wider sense. Analysis of the newest primary school curriculum in Iceland shows, for example, that increased plurality of Icelandic society is addressed in limited way and even occasionally by drawing a stark contrast between immigrants and native Icelanders (Loftsdóttir 2009c).

Simultaneously, one also sees a reproduction of racist images in Iceland in books and media. The nursery rhyme “Ten Little Negros” which bases on colonial image and texts was, for example, republished in 2007 after having originally being published in Iceland in 1922.  The republication caused a huge debate in Icelandic society where some native Icelanders protested the racism intrinsic to the book and its images questioning why it would be republished today. Others expressed that the book was not racist in any sense, some even positioning it within Icelandic heritage discussion (Loftsdóttir 2011). Another example of racist images is the symbol for a coffee house in down town Reykjavík named Svarta Kaffi, which literally translates as ‘Black coffee’. The name could refer to the black color of the house if it was not for the symbol of the coffee house: a caricature of a black man (big red lips, unintelligent grin). According for some of those I interviewed, the owner of the coffee shop had been asked to remove this racist symbol due to its offensive nature, but had refused to do so. Colonial and racist images are thus not to be necessarily contested by all within present day Iceland, in spite of more plural image of the African continent and African people existing as well.

According to information from Statistics Iceland (Hagstofa Íslands) statistical data about people of African origin in Iceland was only first collected in 1973 (see graph 1).  Prior to that time there is no information about the number of individuals of African origin living in Iceland. Only in 1998 statistic became collected in regard to country of origin of these individuals.[1]  To some extent the increasing numbers of individuals from Africa coincides with growing number of immigrants in Iceland during the last two decades, leading to foreign nationals rising from 1.8 % in 1996 to 8,1 % of the national population in 2011 (Statistical Series, 2009; Statistical Series 2011).


[1] Some individuals registering in the statistic could be children of missionaries or other Icelanders stationed in various African states for one reason or another

In 2011 there were 782 individuals from Africa living in Iceland. The number of individuals has grown somewhat steadily but between 1977-1978 there was no increase and between 1991-1992 decrease (41 persons) and again in 1992-1993 (11 persons), and then once again between 2009-2010 (6 persons).  Also, following more immigration to Iceland in general from other countries, it is likely that people from other continents that are identified with the African diaspora have also moved to Iceland. The gender distribution is relatively equal or 51% men and 49% women.  These individuals come from 42 countries and the largest group or 19% are from Morocco. Looking at gender distribution from nationality shows that it is quite uneven. For example, 64% of Moroccans are males but only 38% of South Africans (also relatively large group in Iceland). Within other nationalities where there are fewer individuals living in Iceland, the gender distribution is even more skewed.  For example, 77% of the 26 individuals from Egypt are males.

Iceland became a part of the Schengen area on March 25th, 2001, meaning that all African nationals must apply for a visa before travelling to Iceland, unless having a valid Schengen visa.  The inhabitants of the islands Mauritius and Seychelle Islands are exempted from visa requirement. Nationals of countries that are not part of the European Economic Area (EEA) need work permits to come and work in Iceland, meaning that African nationals cannot come to Iceland and work unless granted work permit. Also, according to the Icelandic laws, work permits are only given to residence of non-EEA countries after the employer has first sought someone local workforce and from the EEA area.  After change in the legal framework in August 1st, 2008, there are more types of residential permits, some of which do not grant the basis for permanent residential permit. Prior to that time there were only two types of residential permits both of whom gave the possibility of permanent residential permit, if certain conditions were granted. In that respect, the laws have been made even stricter for those interested in permanent residency.  It is interesting to observe how the laws distinguish between desirable and undesirable permanent residence, by permitting those coming in as “qualified professionals” to have the possibility of permanent residency but not those who are given residency permission due to ‘temporary shortage of labourers” [1]

The permits are also not granted to the workers themselves but to the employer and usually for only 12 months, even though they can be extended.  This has been strongly criticized by ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance), then especially on the premises that it puts the worker into a ‘vulnerable situation.’  It can be difficult for the worker to complain about bad or unfear treatment treatment of the employee due to fear of loosing the work permit. As ECRI notes, this has been criticizes by members of civil society and immigrant organization (ECRI 2007:25).


[1] see information on the homepage of the The Directorate of Immigration:

Hate crimes are not specified especially within Icelandic laws but the sections 180 and 233a address discrimination, including discrimination basing on ‘race’ or ‘color’ (Ríkislögreglustjórinn 2008:7). Section 180 of the criminal code makes it punishable to deny goods and services in business or service transaction, or access to any public place intended for public use, for example due to someone’s color or race.  Section 233a states that person that ‘attacks another person by personally ridiculing, slandering, insulting, threatening them’ on the basis of various identifications including race and skin color (ECRI 2007:9).

There are, however, very few cases where racist discrimination is reported by the victims to the authorities. According to information from the office of the  National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police (Ríkislögreglustjóri) very few cases have been filed under these sections of the law.  During the years 2006 till 2010 no cases falling under section 180 have been reported and only 13 under section 233a, 7 of those 13 were in 2006 and no case in 2009 (information from the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police). In their reports on Iceland, ECRI has stressed the importance of investigate better the ‘apparent unwillingness of victims to report cases’ (2007:9). In 2008, the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police issued a report on hate-crimes in Iceland, where it is stressed how serious hate-crimes are within a European context and the importance of investigating it further in Iceland.  They also state that it is difficult to say much about the situation in Iceland but estimate that it is worse than the official statistics indicates (Ríkislögreglustjórinn 2008:17).

No research exists on structural racial discrimination in Iceland (ECRI 2007:14), and in my interviews it is difficult to distinguish whether discrimination in relation to housing or jobs is related to skin color or prejudice against foreigners in general.  Foreigners have experienced discrimination in the work place, such as in term of lower salaries and difficulties of upward mobility in the workplace when compared with native Icelanders (The Icelandic Red Cross 2006, Guðjónsdóttir and Loftsdóttir 2009). In my interviews with Africans living in Iceland some mentioned that that they believed that they were paid lower amount than an Icelander but to a large part ascribing it as a result of their status as foreigners, not to their skin color.

When asking in interviews individuals of African origin about their experiences in relation to prejudice, majority expressed that it was difficult to be seen as anything else than a foreigner in Icelandic society. When asked about racism in that regard, most people said that did not generally see it as a large problem in Iceland.  When the question was persuaded some said they had experienced racism in the form of verbal abuse and they had certainly meet Icelanders that were racist but generally did not experience much racism in Iceland. Fantu, who has lived in Iceland for 20 years refers, for example to his experience as a foreigner when asked about prejudice and racism, but not to his skin color. When asked more closely in regard to racism he says: “But about racism or discrimination based on race, look, we in Iceland are in many ways really lucky, if I can phrase it like that.” He concludes by stating that no one has succeeded in implanting what he calls ‘Nazi mentality’ in Iceland, because most people find that distasteful.

The jump between racism and xenophobia is clear in Daniel’s comment who is not able to distinguish these two phenomena clearly in an Icelandic contex:

“[…] there are people that are racist here, yeah, there is xenophobia. I think we have to separate a little bit beasue I mean, racism is one thing and xenophobia is another thing, so I think that in most cases it would not be about the color of the skin, but it’s the fact of the language. I think it is more xenophobia”

Some even mentioned unquestioned that the most racism in Icelandic society was directed at Polish people thus echoing the statements that I have often heard made by native Icelanders in regard to racism in iceland. My position as a white, ethnic Icelander could of course be at play in people downplaying the effects of racism, due to attempts to be polite towards me. Many of those I interviewed had also lived in other European countries, and had there encountered more violence in relation to racism, occasionally comparing their experiences directly with their experience elsewhere.


Icelandic nationalism has placed a strong division between Icelanders and foreigners; the Icelandic language and the heritage of medieval literature were essential for claims of independence. Language purity was conceptualized in terms of life in relative isolation from foreign influences and similar claims were also exhibited in relation to the Icelanders themselves stressing their isolation from foreign influences (Pálsson and Durrenberger 1992; Simpson 2000). When interviewing people from Africa living in Iceland, it is difficult to distinguish between the racism that they encounter as socially categorized as ‘black’ Africans and the prejudices that are expressed in general against foreigner in Iceland. Most individuals of African origin highlight the prejudices that they face as foreigners, still acknowledging that that some racism exists in Icelandic context. As highlighted in the ECRI report and in the report by the Ríkislögregluembættið it is important to look more closely at racism and prejudice in an Icelandic context.

ECRI.  2007    Third Report on Iceland. European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Stratsbourg, European Commission against Racism and Intolerance

Helgason, Þorsteinn (2004). Ein grjóthrúga í hafinu: Kennslubók í sögu.  Reykjavík: Námsgagnastofnun.

Statistical Series (2011) Population  Development 2010.  96(18):1-24. Hagstofa Íslands. Downloaded, July 7th , 2011 from:

Statistical Series (2009) Immigrants and Persons with Foreign Background 1996-2008.  Statistical Series, 9(4):1-24. Downloaded June 20th from

Simpson, Bob

2000    Imagined Genetic Communities: Ethnicity and Essentialism in the Twenty-First Century. Anthropology Today 16(3):3-6.

Ingimundarson, Valur

2004    Immunizing against the American Other: Racism, Nationalism, and Gender in U.S.- Icelandic Military Relations during the Cold War. Journal of Cold War Studies 6(4 ):65-88.

Kristín Loftsdóttir, “Margbreytileiki og fjölmenningarlegt samfélag í námsbókum: Sýn aðalnámskrár grunnskóla og gátlista Námsgagnastofnunar,” Uppeldi og menntun 18, 2 (2009c): 35-51.

— Pure manliness’: The Colonial Project and Africa’s Image in 19th Century Iceland.  2009a. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 16: 271-293.

—- The Diversified Iceland:  Identity and Multicultural Societies in Icelandic Schoolbooks.  2009b. Nordic Identities under Change, (ed.) Staffan Selander. Oslo: Novus Press (pp. 239-260).

—- Racist Caricatures in Iceland in the 19th and the 20th century. 2011.  Iceland and Images of the North. Sumarliði R. Ísleifsson (ed.) (p. 187-204).  Québec: Prologue Inc

—- In press. Imaging Blackness at the Margins: Historical Construction of Race and Africa in Iceland. Forthcoming 2011. Afro-Nordic Landscapes. Michael McEachrane (ed.).  University of Illinois Press.

Nordal, Guðrún, Sverrir Tómasson and Vésteinn Ólason. Íslensk bókmenntasaga. (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 1992).

Guðbjört Guðjónsdóttir og Kristín Loftsdóttir. 2009. Íslendingar þrífa ekki herbergi: Skörun kyns og uppruna í störfum á hóteli.  Rannsóknir í Félagsvísindum X. (ritstj.) Gunnar Þór Jóhannesson og Helga Björnsdóttir.  Reykjavík: Félagsvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands (bls. 447-453).

Ríkislögreglustjóri (2008).  Hatursglæpir: Áfangaskýrsla um stöðu og þróun hatursglæpa á Íslandi og innan aðildaríkja Öryggis- og samvinnustofnun Evrópu (ÖSE).  Skýrsla frá júlí 2008, gefin út af Ríkislögreglustjóra, Reykjavík.

The Icelandic Red Cross. 2006.  Vegvísir til aðlögunar innflytjenda að íslensku samfélagi.  Unpublished report from the Icelandic Redcross. Downloaded July 5th, 2011, from

Pálsson, Gísli and Paul Durrenberger (1992) Individual Differences in Indigenous Discourse.  Journal of Anthropological Research, 48(4):301-316.