Danish diversity

Provocatively, Hassan Preissler is depicted dressed as Helen Bannermann's Little Black Sambo - the story of the Indian boy who cheats the tigers so they turn to butter and his mother, Mumbo, makes pancakes from the butter for Sambo and his father, Jumbo. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Provocatively, Hassan Preisler is depicted dressed as Helen Bannermann’s Little Black Sambo – the story of the Indian boy who cheats the tigers so they turn to butter and his mother, Mumbo, makes pancakes from the butter for Sambo and his father, Jumbo. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Since I have been back in Denmark I have noticed things about the Danes that I would probably not have had second thoughts about had I not lived half my life away from this small country. Some are great, like the love of the bicycle for transportation – which I simply took for granted during the first half of my life, but had to shelve in hilly Brisbane with its high density of bike-hating drivers. Some are less charming, like the absolute rudeness of cyclists to each other and to pedestrians – like not stopping for the red light to let a pedestrian cross, riding out right in front of the unaware pedestrian on the foot path or on the pedestrian crossing or blocking the footpath with rows and rows of parked bikes.

But what strikes me most is the lack of cultural diversity in Denmark and the express aversion against cultural diversity. The predominant narrative of popular media is about Denmark being overrun by other cultures with Danishness at risk of disappearing. You are almost left thinking that ethnic Danes are at risk of becoming a minority in this country. The truth is that nearly 90% of the Danish population are ethnic Danes while the rest are immigrants or their descendants – descendants are born to one or two immigrants and two thirds of those counted as descendants have Danish citizenship. Denmark remains a fairly homogenous nation and if Danishness is at risk, it (whatever it is) was quite weak to start with.

Yet the narrative also runs through the policies of many Danish political parties, including the Social Democrats, the Conservative Party and perhaps less surprising, the Danish People’s Party. Worryingly, one is sometimes left with the feeling that being a practicing muslim is conflated with being a terrorist and Islam with Islamism. For example, in the lead up to the election later this year, the Conservative Party have published a range of posters. This one, I think demonstrates this conflation.

IMG_0540While of course Islamism is to be condemned as unhealthy fundamentalism that seriously threatens the security of our world, just as Nazism should have been condemned in the late 1930s, the design of the poster is unfortunate because it seems to suggest that Nazi equals Islam.

I wonder if it is the homogenous and monocultural nature of Danish society that creates tension through such fiction?

I recently read Brun mands byrde (Brown Man’s Burden 2013) by Danish author Hassan Preisler. The title plays on Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden from 1899 in which he encourages colonising countries to send out the best of their breed to tame the wild, sullen people of the colonies – an approach that has had devastating effects on Indigneous peoples everywhere outside Europe. To illustrate the point, the cover carries a photo of Preisler dressed as Sambo of Helen Bannermann’s The Story of Little Black Sambo. The burden of the brown man is the projection Western society imposes.

Preisler is a Danish citizen by birth, born in Denmark to a Pakistani father and a Danish mother. He is an example of Danish diversity, but finds himself regarded as neither  Danish nor Pakistani. His book explores the identity issues that arise from residing in between cultures, in between clearly looking like one or the other. Outwardly adaptable, he roams Copenhagen, Berlin, Beirut and New York, careful to dress and look to fit in. He is also careful when flying to ensure he is not mistaken for another Hassan who might be a terrorist. He is successful within Danish society, frequently invited to conferences about integration and projects of inclusion. His livelihood is what he terms the Integration Industry, but he also condemns this industry because in its selfpreservation it seems only concerned with highlighting the issues, not identify HOW to address them. Self-loathing is the result.

In New York, his identity is challenged when he finds himself in a detention cell that gradually fills up with African Americans as the night goes on. A big fellow tells him that he will have his white arse and Preisler is compelled to advise the black man his arse is in fact coloured, not white, that where he comes from everyone looks like Goldie Hawn and he is coloured. In the other man’s eyes, from his African American perspective, there is no way Preisler is coloured – he is white and privileged.

Preisler’s writing is breathtaking, literally. Like he only had so many full stops to use in his entire writing career and was fearful of using them up too early, so he saved on the full stops in this book. His sentences read like long monologues without space to draw breath and a lot of conjunctions to connect the thoughts. This was frustrating at first, but as I settled into the rhythm of the writing, I quite enjoyed his style and his humour.

In the popular immigration debate that plays on the fear of diminishing Danish culture overwhelmed by Islamic tradition and counts identity through many generations of ethnic heritage outside Denmark, Preisler asks the question that I have asked before: how many generations of descendancy Danes can count and when you stop being a descendant of an immigrant and become a Dane. He receives an answer that one is Danish if ones children are Christened with a Danish name and one is in a cross-cultural marriage. In a secular country like Denmark, I find it strange that the definition of Danishness is connected with Lutheran Christian traditions like baptism and marriage. The Danes seem to follow unquestioningly so many Christian traditions that they are considered inalienable to Danish culture, rather than inherently religious.

As an ethnic Dane(!), I found it fascinating to read the perspective of otherness with such Danish irony and humour. Preisler’s perspective made me wonder about the felt identity of my own children, born in an intersection between Danish, English and Australian cultures. In Australia otherness is accepted on a wholly different level, though it is true to say that colonisation of Australia nearly wiped out its Indigenous cultures.

Get a grip Denmark, in comparison yours is still the dominant culture here.

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5 thoughts on “Danish diversity

  1. Morten

    One of the reasons for the fear of losing “Danishness” could be one or more of the parameters where Denmark is culturally/socially unique.

    One such parameter is the inherent “trust of strangers”. Danish people trust other (unknown) people inherently, witnessed by the unmanned roadside fruit- and vegetable stalls in the Danish countryside that operate on trust. Trust that customers will not steal produce or cash from the stall. This inherent trust will not survive if even a very small minority violates it.
    I know that owners of such stalls occasionally observe non-payers or thieves drive off, and frequently the license plates are non-Danish.

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  2. Sarah

    Thanks for your post, I found it really interesting. In the UK there has also been a rise in antagonism towards immigrants as a direct result of the recession. Even though that was caused by a global banking crisis, it seems that immigrants have become the scapegoats for this in many countries across Europe. Growing up in London, I’ve always considered multicultural diversity to be an enrichment to society, and have to admit that seeing such a rise in nationalism across Europe chills me to the bone as it so closely mirrors the political climate before the second World War.

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    1. lonebonekaffekone Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sarah. I wonder how we can stick with identity through nation states, when the world population is increasingly mobile, through choice or force. I agree that the nasty hatred of difference is scarily remiscent of the situation in the 1930s where governments in Europe largely supported Hitler’s social policies of ethnic cleansing and segregation. At least until Germany invaded Polen and threatened the European power balance. Are we willing to speak up against vilification and persecution of our fellow humans? Or do we watch in silent acquiescence while others are persecuted and risk one day ourselves being persecuted when there is no one left to stand up for us?

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