I am an Asian-American who lived in Denmark for two and a half years. The first time I heard people saying (in reaction to learning that I can speak Chinese): »ching chong, ching chong, etc…« to my face, I thought that I had been transported to the Twilight Zone or some distant elementary school playground.
Sadly, I was amongst so-called educated Danes. The excuse for the behaviour was to chalk it up to Danish humour and not racism. I chalked it up to ignorance. Never mind how disrespectful and demeaning it was to me. Danish humour, REALLY? I wasn’t laughing and neither was my husband. I was so stunned the first couple of times that it happened and vowed that the next time it inevitably did, I would say something.
Read also: An African-American's experience with racism in Denmark.
Fast forward a couple of months later. I’m buying something to eat at the SDU swimming pool kiosk with a friend of mine from China. The man behind the counter takes our money and then asks where we are from. My friend tells him she’s from China and within seconds we are treated to the offensive sounds of what he must think is Chinese.
Ask the minorities
I should have bowed and said: »OHHH, so sorry I don’t think I speak DUMBASS!«, but I didn’t. I understood that he is ignorant and needed a different response. I looked at him and said: »That’s really offensive,« Instead of apologising or inquiring about my response, he turned away from me and didn’t say anything at all. He wouldn’t even look at me.
Denmark’s minorities have not had a history of organising to speak out against unequal treatment or disrespect. There has not been a social movement, but watch out Denmark, it will come! I completely agree with another commentor on this site when he points out that »it doesn’t matter if THEY (Danes) find it offensive. What matters is that someone else does,«
The problem is that many Danes don’t seem to think so. This is a country where many Danes arrogantly declare that there is no racism because THEY don’t think there is. I am sure you will get a different answer if you were to ask the minorities.
Do Danes want a heterogeneous society?
I think that there are many layers to this onion, the biggest being ignorance and arrogance. In Denmark, some Danes think that their freedom to use a racial slur towards minorities supersedes that minority’s equal right to exercise their own freedom of speech in objecting to being treated that way. If Danes have the right to use offensive language, then minorities have the right to say it offends them. Both are exercising their freedom of speech, right?
When minorities speak up, we are often brushed off as being overly sensitive, not understanding Danish humour, or not respecting the democratic ideal of freedom of speech by being politically correct. Some of these are the same people who wave the banner of freedom of speech, which is a freedom of expression, while at the same time supporting the banning of head scarves, which is also a freedom of expression. Where is the outcry there? I smell double standard.
Anyway, Denmark is a total mess when it comes to race relations. They have not come to terms with what it means to live in an increasingly heterogeneous society. This homogenous society started letting people into the country before it had decided if it even wanted to become heterogeneous.
Hopes for a movement
To people in Denmark, I suspect that racial slurs are acceptable to say because most have never said them to someone who isn't a Dane, who isn't in on the 'joke'. These Danes become desensitized to the impact of their words because of their mostly homogenous social circles. How often do you see Danes with a truly diverse group of friends out and about?
Anyone remember Lars Von Trier's debacle at Cannes a few months ago? How many people do you know who said that people just didn't understand his Danish humor or Danish sarcasm? How many of those people who said that were Danish?
My hope is that as Denmark becomes more heterogenous, we will see an emergence of a movement. Minorities in Denmark will someday get past their own differences in order to organize and have a voice that speaks out against their treatment in society and the media. I would like to see more bridges and coalitions. Hopefully then will we also have more Danes that speak up on behalf of minorities as well.
Until then, minorities in Denmark need to stand up and define themselves or Denmark will try to do the defining for them. I hear the term 'politically correct' thrown around way too liberally in these types of discussions. I don't think many people in Denmark understand why or how the terms African-American, Asian-American, and Mexican-American actually came about. If they even care to know, these terms and others are a result of the desire to shed derogatory and colonial names given to them in the past by slave holders, imperialists, or what have you. Everyone should have the right to define themselves. Isn't that a freedom of expression?
To follow up on the debate on whether or not Danes are actually racist, you can read the study on Danish racism and xenophobia carried out by the two professors from the University of Copenhagen.
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