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Implicit Racism among Norwegian Missionaries: A Case Study on the Description of Africans by Olav Guttorm Myklebust

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Researchers into the history of missions who have studied Norwegian missionaries in Zululand from the 1850’s onward claim that, in contrast to the racism of their contemporaries, there is no trace of racism to be found among the missionaries. A case study on the description of the Africans by Olav Guttorm Myklebust, a missionary in South Africa who later became a well-known missiologist and a founding member of the International Association for Mission Studies, this article draws attention to some problems entailed in this position and nuance the issue. Although his intention is to give a friendly and balanced portrait of the Africans, Myklebust largely ends up reproducing and confirming traditional stereotypes. Examples include the understanding that Africans are governed by emotions, that they have little aptitude for logical and rational thinking, and that they are like children. These stereotypes formed part of a colonial ideology that legitimated the idea that the Africans were mentally, socially, and culturally inferior to the Europeans.

Should Myklebusts’ description of the Africans, be called racist? He clearly breaks with biological and essentialist theories of race. If however, we take our starting point in broader and more recent definitions of racism, which emphasize the function of a discourse, of processes, and of behavioral patterns with regard to establishing and maintaining asymmetrical relationships of power, the conclusion is that his representation of the Africans contains elements that should be classified as racist.

Affiliations: 1: Professor of Church- and Mission History The School of Mission and Theology Stavanger, Norway, Email:


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