The tweet that sparked a debate over racism in Norway

  • 22 November 2013
A screengrab of the Twitter profile of Warsan Ismail

A simple tweet from a university student of Somali origin in Norway has triggered a big debate in the country over racism.

It started with a tweet. On Sunday evening, medical student Warsan Ismail began to list a series of everyday examples of racism she and her family have experienced in Norway. She began with the story of how, when she was just five, her neighbours set a pair of dogs after her mother. In 140 characters, she continued with anecdote after anecdote - each one tagged with the hashtag #norskrasisme, or "Norwegian racism".

Within minutes, many others tweeted similar stories. By the end of the evening, it was one of the top trending terms on Twitter in Norway. Ismail was soon interviewed by major newspapers and on Norwegian TV. To date, there have been more than 6,000 tweets using the hashtag - and it's still on the up.

"I love my country, I wouldn't live anywhere else but Norway - but still this is an issue we need to debate," says Lubna Jaffery, a former Norwegian politician of Pakistani descent, who also joined the Twitter discussion. An example she gave was when a woman called her and her three-year-old daughter "disgusting" as they were getting off a bus. There are laws in Norway against racism in the workplace, she says, but "on a bus or in the street you don't have any chance to defend yourself".

"We have a self-image that we are post-racist, or above racism in Norway," says Gunnar Helliesen, an IT specialist who has tweeted 22 times using the hashtag. Helliesen feels particularly attuned to the subject as his wife is Caribbean-American. Norway is not necessarily more racist than a country like the US, he says - but when there is racist abuse in public, Americans will pipe up, while Norwegians tend to look the other way.

Some of the tweets using the hashtag have been from white Norwegians, expressing concern about the level of immigration. A few have been quite inflammatory. Ismail told the BBC that she is delighted the issue of racism is being debated, but for now, she wants to step out the limelight.

Reporting by Cordelia Hebblethwaite