Image: Landspítali, FB

Revision to Racial Terminology a ‘Step in the Right Direction’

 In News, Society

An Icelandic woman of color says that there has been “a step in the right direction,” after receiving a formal apology from the Directorate of Health regarding an offensive racial term that was used on her medical chart. RÚV reports that Eva Þóra Hartmannsdóttir spoke to the Directorate’s project manager on the phone on Friday and discussed the incident, and the government’s response, in detail.

“You just get so used to things like this”

Eva Þóra, who is pregnant, went for a 25-week health check on July 2 when she noticed that the word “negríti” had been used to describe her on her medical chart. The word is by no means commonly used in Iceland and carries with it distinctly racist undertones. Although she’d never heard the word used before, “it’s no secret that it comes from the word ‘negri’ [‘negro’],” she explained in an interview with Morgunblaðið.

“I was really shocked when I saw that word,” Eva Þóra said, but when she asked about it, “…was told it had just always been used for my race.” She noted, however, that similarly charged racial terms such as ‘kákasíti’ (an inappropriate approximation of the word ‘caucasian’) would never be used when talking about white people.

Eva Þóra said that at the time of the incident, she received no explanation for why patients were being categorized by race, but that if there were a valid reason, then it should be easy to find a “more professional” word. “I’m a nursing student and I know that there is a new electronic system for the antenatal care department and I’m asking myself why people are being defined this way in a brand-new system.” She noted, for instance, that it would have been easy to use an origin-based term, such as ‘person of African descent,’ as is the convention on Icelandic passports.

It wasn’t until she talked about the incident with her sister that Eva Þóra decided to make it public. “You just get so used to things like this,” she said. “It is such a common part of life that you stop flinching at such things.”

Explanations and an apology

The incident was widely discussed in the Icelandic media and after having been contacted by several papers for interviews, Eva Þóra posted on Facebook that she’d received a phone call from the Directorate of Health on Friday.

“[T]hree days later, so much has happened. All kinds of support, negative comments, interviews with Fréttablaðið, Vísir, Morgunblaðið, and Channel 2 later…Then the Directorate of Health called me this morning and during a 25-minute conversation I not only receive an apology, but am even thanked for having started the conversation. I get a courteous explanation about everything, plenty of time to ask the questions I had, and at the end of the conversation, she wants to be certain that I’m satisfied, which I was.”

Eva Þóra went on to explain that the reason that there is a racial identifier on her medical chart is that she needed to take a glucose tolerance test, as women of color have an increased likeliness to develop gestational diabetes.

Nevertheless, there is not even a historical precedent for the Icelandic word ‘negríti,’ to be used as a racial identifier—Eva Þóra said she was told it had entered the Icelandic dictionary in the 80s. The term had been transferred over to the new electronic antenatal system from an old informational registry with inappropriate terminology. Although there had been a complaint about the term being used in a different situation back in December, not all health centres (including Eva Þóra’s) had been updated with the necessary changes. But the new system has now been revised at all health centres, so that Eva Þóra is now identified as being “of African origin” on her medical chart. She was also invited to take part in a trial group that allows pregnant women to access their full pregnancy records, including test results, sonograms, and more.

“I’m extremely glad to have said something on behalf of a minority here in Iceland and, among other things, to prevent my children, and of course, others of African and Asian descent, from having to see such a thing in their medical records,” Eva Þóra wrote.

“So glad to have gotten such a big response and apology on behalf of the government,” she concluded. “A step in the right direction.”

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