Dear Readers, today I want to explore the issue of racism, a topic so large and complex that it could easily be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis. And yet. I am thinking about it because of a woman’s blog which I have been reading, called Adventures and Japes.wordpress.com. She is a Brit, living in Denmark for the past three years or so, and has a lot to say about Danes and their ostensibly “racist” views and policies concerning foreigners. For some unknown reason, she inundated my inbox with about 20 old blog posts suddenly a few days ago. Today I spent some time reading her thoughts about her experiences here. Adventure & Japes (I will call her AJ for short) has not really had such a good time living in Denmark, it seems. She has kept abreast of the most appalling and outrageous unfairness bestowed upon the unfortunate ‘udlaendinger’ or foreigners who have had the great misfortune, apparently, to have come to Denmark to live, such as those from Arabic lands, African countries, and many others whose skin is not white nor hair so fair. Most are refugees, sent to Denmark as their part of their EU quota. No matter what atrocities and horrors they may have endured in their homelands, somehow the indignities imposed upon these unfortunates in Denmark have been nearly as bad or possibly worse. She also includes plenty of scathing remarks about her own treatment by the racist Danes. Obviously hers is, as she herself states, a ‘personal view’ of Denmark.
Having lived here myself for the past two years, and gone through some of the same experiences, namely being in language school and learning of the horrors of the Danish government’s tightening of immigration laws and read of yes, quite ‘racist’ tactics by some in the parliament to keep the foreigners out, I cannot really write off AJ as just a bitter young woman whose dream of some kind of idyllic society in Scandinavia was tragically burst. There certainly is truth in what she has written of the dark side of Danish thinking towards those who are different from them and their Scandinavian cousins. But her blog has made me ponder the bigger picture and deeper questions it brings up; namely those of fear and loathing from one human or a collective group of humans towards another, based upon vague, hard-to-define factors such as differences of physicality, language, and customs.
What is at the heart of being a racist? Is it not a common state of being for most humans to naturally understand and appreciate those among whom you were born and raised, who speak the same mother tongue as you do, eat the same kind of food, share a similar sense of humor, who embody similar values as you do simply through the virtue of which land you were born and raised? Let’s be honest, our world is a vastly complex place in the year 2012. People are born and raised in lands which are halfway around the world from where their parents or grandparents were born.
Since I am a foreigner living in Denmark, I shall use the Danes as my example here. The Danish people have been living upon this little spit of land at the top of Europe for well over a thousand years as a people. Back then they were called Vikings. Those who lived in Norway and Sweden were their cousins, with whom they quarreled, battled, took over and were at times taken over by, at least a little bit. Denmark was once considerably larger than it is now; wars with Germany and Sweden eroded their country over the course of time. Back a thousand years ago, the Vikings-cum- Danes had power in the big island just to the west, what we now think of as England. The Vikings were sailors and conquerors who travelled down the coast of Europe, taking what they basically wanted and could get a hold of, leaving their mark as far down as the Mediterranean. But that is another story.
Now, in 2012, Denmark is a little land, as the Danes like to say of themselves. With a population of about 5 million, the whole country is smaller than the greater Seattle area’s population. For hundreds of years they were mostly farmers and sailors, ruled by a king and other noblemen in the typical European tradition. The stuff of fairy tales, and over the last millennium, Denmark became a quite peaceful place. When the French Revolution happened, Denmark’s nobility took notice, decided to find another way to give the people more say in their own lives without having to lose their own heads, and the modern version of democracy was born here about a hundred and sixty years ago, with a vast improvement to their famous ‘grundlov’ or constitution in the 1930s. From that point on, the ‘Scandinavian model’ of Social Democracy flourished up until about the late 1990s, when Capitalistic thinking began to make serious inroads into and erosion of it.
What has all this history have to do with the idea of racism in Denmark, you might ask, if you have read this far? Quite a lot, I think, because for all this time, up until around the 1960s or so, foreigners were essentially not a part of Denmark’s world. Except for the occasional errant human who made their way here for one reason or another, the Danes remained essentially a pure race of people, who married and had babies with one another as they had done for the last millennium. Danes understood each other, they knew they were from this piece of land and had been ever since anybody could recall. Danes have a huge sense of roots, of history, of secure knowledge of exactly who they are. You can see it in the way they carry themselves, their level of confidence and ease with one another. They are, more or less, one big family: similar names, similar voices and mannerisms, sense of humor, habits, likes and dislikes, ways of thinking about each other and the rest of the world. Of course there are hundreds of variations, particularly in political matters. They love to argue with one another about what is happening in Denmark and what ought and ought not to happen in the political arena. But the bottom line is, Danes are Danish, through and through. There can be no argument about this fact. They are proud of their lineage, their heritage, their royalty, their land, and their history. They love the fact they are Danish and no one else is. That some of the cleverest thinkers in history have come from Denmark. That the Vikings were their ancient ancestors. That nobody has every conquered Denmark, no other flag has ever flown here, no other language ever became the national tongue.
Now to the heart of this piece. During the past, say, twenty years, but especially the past ten, more and more foreigners have infiltrated Denmark. Yes, they have had foreigners here, like the Turks and also refugees like the Vietnamese after the Vietnam war, for many years. But now, with larger numbers of people coming here as refugees from the Middle East and Africa, as well as Asians, particularly women, through marriage to Danish men, the Danes are quite nervous. Their country is pretty small, after all. They worked hard to accomplish a working social democratic system for their people, so that no one would have to be hungry and living on the streets anymore; the system was created to care for all the members of Danish society, across all social classes. And for quite a while, it worked pretty well. But now, with more capitalistic thinking ruling the government in Denmark as well as most of the EU, things aren’t quite so free anymore. Then these foreigners come, using their welfare system, having too many children, and getting all the money and benefits which were supposed to be for Danes in Denmark. No wonder some of them are a bit upset about the whole thing! Perfectly understandable, wouldn’t you agree?
And yet. Remember, this is a complicated issue, as I already have said. It’s one thing to feel unhappy with the influx of foreign people into your small, cozy country as they eat up all the resources which were supposed to be for you and your countrymen (and women) but it’s quite another to be stupid and ignorant of other human beings, to have no manners, no basic human kindness or thoughts of another, in one’s soul. And it is mostly this behaviour, I think, which is what AJ complains of in her blog about the rudeness and ‘racism’ of Danes. She writes,
If I were an anthropologist or a cognitive neurologist, I would be all over the rude people of Denmark. Their brains must be fascinating. I want to know, when it comes to social standards, is it a case of “can’t” or “won’t”? For instance, I have a recurring theme of standing to one side to let a disabled or old person get past and then a Dane behind me overtakes me and steps into the space, stopping the disabled person from moving and also getting in my way. I have seen this happen when there is zero space for them to overtake into (like at a door entrance), so they shove me aside to do it. I want people to put electrodes on these brains and measure electrical activity. *Can* Danes see what is happening, are they aware of it on any level? Had they not understood what was expected of them or what would be kind or what would be selfless?
And also this:
As I have said before and will say again. Most Danes are okay. BUT the government and the culture, right here right now, not 10 years ago… not in the future… but NOW, is of closed-mindedness, uptightedness and intolerance not seen in many other similar nations.Sweden isn’t like this, Scotland isn’t like this… Denmark has broken the mold for being a little socialist paradise which decided to elect the sort of people you would avoid in social situations and allowed them to change everything. My quality of life is really great and the fly in my ointment (currently), is how vile some people can be about dark-skinned immigrants, especially ones with different cultural or religious traditions. The (Danish) system is proposing that we treat people differently according to where their parents are from. That certain people should act differently from others. That certain people have permission to behave badly. And all based on something as crude as when their families got here. Children constantly grow up, look around and start changing things. They see what they do not like about their culture and they act on it. To say that only some of those children are allowed to be part of that process, that the others are being ungrateful or un-integrated when they do the same thing as their counterparts… that is horrifying. http://adventuresandjapes.wordpress.com/
Dear Readers, I have written many thoughts here and still feel no closer to any kind of conclusions about racism and how to understand it. But I do know that understand it we must, if we are ever able to go beyond it, to another way of seeing ‘the other,’ the human being who is different from us. We have all had experiences of meeting a person from a different culture, and talking with them, learning something about them and where they come from. There is no threat in a situation like this, and it usually will turn out fine, friendly and a kind of learning. But. Once we begin to see other groups of humans as a kind of threat, as I have tried to show in this long post today, then and there is where fear begins, and from there, racism (the thought that me and my people are somehow superior to you and yours) takes root, along with all of its ugly implications and consequences.
I am fortunate to be an American living in Denmark. The Danes are fascinated with us, with our fast, ultra-modern culture, our toys and gadgets, our stupid television programs, our music and our flashiness. When I tell someone here that I am American, they usually smile, they can relax, I don’t threaten them. They are amused by us ‘silly and funny Americans.’ I am one of the lucky ones, I guess.
Adventures and Japes woman, apparently, hasn’t been so fortunate. She has wanted to change things here to be more fair to foreigners, and has met with hostility and, in her words, xenophobia. Her latest blogs tell that she has finally had enough and is looking for a way to leave, to go back to England.
Sometimes the battles we wage in life are simply too big for us, we have no real chance of winning. Sometimes we have to raise the white flag. I empathize with her; she wished to make a positive difference among the Danes, and was mostly unable to do so. But the larger question of racism, fear of ‘the other’ remains. As always, your thoughts and comments are very welcome.