Before coming to Denmark, I had heard of a country that cultivated tolerance and freedom, but it did not take me long to understand that, as Orwell puts it in ‘Animal Farm’: “all are equal, but some are more equal than others”. When Denmark started drifting towards right-wing populism, particularly during the last elections, I became increasingly worried about my position in the country: I do not want to live in a country that does not want me here. But I was swiftly reassured that I was one of the ‘good ones’. This backhanded compliment meant that I was among the privileged group of immigrants that are deemed appropriate for Danish society, i.e., I am white, European, and educated.
Integration has been a hot-topic in Denmark since the failure of the ‘gæstearbejder’ program in the 1970s and later, the then newly formed Dansk Folkeparti, under the premise of protecting the welfare state, made sure to put immigrants in the eye of the storm. With the Integration Act of 1999, the government tried to address these issues by conducting a program whose stated aim was to increase immigrants’ employability by integrating them into Danish society. Although the intention was good, the policies have always presented immigrants as the problem, constantly neglecting the structural issues in Danish society that have failed, and continue to fail, non-western migrants.
Given that the Danish welfare state was built under a premise of a two-fold equality – equal culture, equal rights – and that the country has historically been one of the more homogenous in the world, the Danish elite was not equipped to deal with difference and was not ready to strive for a multicultural society. What has happened was that integration has become synonymous with assimilation, meaning that if you come from a culture that is deemed “too different” you are to be acculturated first, and instructed into Danishness afterwards. In other words, if you want to live in Denmark, you have to become a Dane.
Denmark’s cultural chauvinism (the idea that Danish culture is superior to others) embedded in repressive liberalism (the idea that to be part of a liberal society you are obliged to share the same set of values of such society, such as secularism, individualism, and even food) has divided immigrants into two groups:
The good immigrants, coming from other liberal countries with similar values and culture to Denmark, i.e., who are easy to integrate; and the bad immigrants, who come from non-western countries and maintain their cultural and religious practices that differ and stand out from the norm.
Although my culture and customs are often seen as cute and quirky, even if through a condescending lens, I have never been seen as a dangerous threat to Danish society; Danes assume that I will be perfectly integrated and that I will quickly become another productive, effective piece in their developed society. And they are partly right: my integration has not been that hard, but that has mostly been because no one has ever demanded of me behavioral or cultural changes; I can live my life in peace almost the same way that I would in my country of origin. The same cannot be said about non-Westerners, who are constantly policed and scrutinized by politicians, Danes, and even other immigrants.
Islamophobia, i.e., bigotry towards Islam or Muslims, has been on the rise in Europe, and Denmark is no exception. The post-9/11 world has got everyone scared, which is understandable, but what is not acceptable is that government and the media have shamelessly used fear to successfully instigate a hate campaign on a whole group of diverse people solely based on their religion and/or skin color. Because of this, in a country as homogenous as Denmark, the Muslim and Arab community has become hyper-visible, i.e., they stand out from the crowd and have become easy targets for xenophobic practices.
With the war in Syria and what is commonly known as the ‘migrant crisis’, Denmark has received relatively large groups of Arabs who, due to fear and ignorance, are immediately qualified as bad immigrants. With the government publicly deeming them only as an economic liability, this kind of discourse has permeated Danish society as a kind of ‘rationalized racism’.
Consequently, this has widened the gap between good and bad immigrants because more often than not, white non-Danes living in Denmark, use their individualized white privilege to assert themselves as part of the Danish community due to their sameness, using non-Western migrants, as an antagonistic entity who is not worthy of equal rights due to their unwillingness to conform to mainstream. By saying things like “You’re so open-minded for a Muslim!” or “Hvor taler du flot dansk!” you are actually perpetuating racist stereotypes; think about it, you are complementing a person by saying that they are different from others in their social group. It does not sound so nice, does it?
Respectability politics is a concept that refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and reassert their values as being compatible with the mainstream. In this specific case, respectability politics is particularly harmful because it is often practiced by privileged migrant groups, whose testimonies are fed back into hegemonic (culturally dominant) discourse, which helps to set the ‘good immigrant bar’ higher and higher.
In Denmark, ‘good Muslims’ are often singled out by the media as examples of how the Arab and Muslim community should behave, with people from these communities perpetuating racist stereotypes. However, it is important to understand that respectability politics, particularly when you are inserted in a society that constantly pushes you towards sameness, is often a coping mechanism or even a survival tactic. For this reason, and because I am not part of the community – and thus, should not make assertions about it – I am specifically writing about the role that white non-Danes play in perpetuating a xenophobic narrative.
So if you are seen by Danish society as one of the ‘good ones’, here are some pointers:
- Do not use racist slurs to offend people: your freedom of speech should not interfere with other people’s freedom of existence, particularly where they are already ostracized
- Always talk to people from equal to equal: do not fall into the ‘white-savior’ complex trap, no one likes to be pitied up front
- Do not compare yourself/your integration process with other migrants: everyone’s experiences are different
- Inform yourself about other cultures: do not assist in perpetuating ignorant stereotypes about non-Westerners
- Listen to other migrants’ experiences: it is important to realize how different your experience in Denmark can be depending on where you come from
- Use your privileged space in a positive way: open up a dialogue about Danishness and toxic nationalism
- If you hear something, say something: call people out on their racist speech, this includes your friends, your colleagues, and your family