The perception of ethnic minorities in Denmark has gone through an evolution over the past few decades. According to Manu Sareen, a Copenhagen city councilman whose family integrated from India to Denmark when he was child, the general perception in the ’60s and ’70s was that the immigrants, most of whom moved to Denmark for economic reasons, would stay in the country briefly and then return to their countries of origin. “Nobody [none of the immigrants] wanted to stay here,” he said. “We believed it and the Danes, they believed it too.”
But in the ’90s, Danish society began to realize that many of the immigrants had made Denmark their home. At this time, the society’s attitude began to shift from unquestioned acceptance to skepticism of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
By 2001, as the liberal-conservative coalition took over the government, most of the political parties had either proposed or supported a shift towards a harsher, more conservative stance on immigration and integration. What followed this shift was a series of legislative measures designed to enforce more restrictive criteria for the integration of minorities into mainstream society.
“Nobody [none of the immigrants] wanted to stay here… We believed it and the Danes, they believed it too.”
According to a study on Danish Multiculturalism by Nils Holtug, two main factors influenced these restrictive policies: calculations that evaluate how costly immigrants are to the welfare state, and “a growing discontent in the Danish population” at what they perceived to be lenient policies on integration. The resulting rise in influence of the right-wing Danish People’s Party, and the general shift by all political parties signaled a larger shift in the cultural discourse on the immigrant’s role in society.
Creating a Problem: Media, Cultural Discourse, and Policies
The restrictive policies and cultural discourse thrust the minority into a marginal position in relation to the mainstream cultural identity. This breeds a sense of displacement in the individual and, in many cases, an individual cultural identity crisis. This is the central problem with which this article will seek to engage.
A cultural identity crisis, as we use it in this context, refers to a personal disorientation concerning one’s self, culture, and role in society. This crisis stems from a contradiction between the way society labels an individual and the way the individual desires to see him or herself. In the context of Denmark, we will analyze the media, cultural rhetoric, and formal policy as three factors that influence identity crises and lead to social exclusion and marginalization.
“‘Yeah, Denmark is not our country, they keep telling us that it is not.’”
First, the media coverage perpetuates negative views of the ethnic minority. Newspapers, TV broadcasts, and other media outlets overemphasize an image of the ethnic minority as drains on the welfare system and don’t portray positive images of the minorities that do contribute to society. Zaki, a young, hip-hop artist from Copenhagen, more specifically mentioned a speech by the Minister of Justice in 2009 that underlined the following sentiment: Denmark has the right to protect its citizens and borders from ‘foreigners’ that threaten to take over and destroy our living. As he pointed out, the media manipulated the context of the Minister’s speech, an episode of gang violence, to reflect a societal aversion to violence presumably contributed by “foreigners.” The media failed to investigate whether the perpetuators were indeed foreigners or Danish citizens, thereby fueling a perceived link between violence and the ethnic minority.
When the media constantly addresses minorities as problematic, Zaki notes that minorities often exclude themselves and feel rejected. Manu Sareen, who is a former social worker, pointed out that ethnic minority youth often internalize this social exclusion through statements like “‘yeah, Denmark is not our country, they keep telling us that it is not.’” As this feeling of exclusion meets the barrage of media messages telling these youth “you are a problem,” a feeling of displacement is bound to be followed by an identity crisis.
By labeling what is culturally different, one is inadvertently dictating the terms by which an individual is included in Danish society.
Secondly, the cultural discourse of society influences the identity crisis of ethnic minorities. In a 2000 article on youth and identity, Mette Andersson notes that the implicit and explicit reference of ethnicity, race or culture in explaining social or economic differences perpetuates the marginality of certain groups. As Zaki points out, culture, and not necessarily race, is most commonly used in referencing the distinction between Danish society and “the other.” In advocating for more stringent policies on integration, or in labeling the difference of the ethnic minority, individuals in Danish society continually reference cultural differences in a manner that alienates those perceived to be outside of the “norm.” By labeling what is culturally different, one is inadvertently dictating the terms by which an individual is included in Danish society. When inclusion is defined in such narrow terms it fuels the cultural identity problem.
Finally, formal policies play an influential role in shaping the identity crisis. Many of the policies introduced after 2001 focus on a more restrictive approach to immigration and integration. For instance, the family reunification rule outlines a list of strict requirements necessary to apply for a residence permit for a spouse or cohabiting partner. Amongst these is the 24-year rule, which limits reunification to spouses 24 years or older, and a requirement that the marriage is entirely voluntary. But of these guidelines arguably target the presumed arranged (or “forced”) marriages of non-Western applicants. In addition, citizenship applicants must possess extensive Danish language skills, educational background, a hefty security deposit, and other requirements that create a significantly high wall for prospective immigrants to climb.
These formal rules reflect an unstated policy stance designed to essentially keep immigrants at arm’s length. Inadvertently, it communicates a sentiment to ethnic minorities that cultural differences stand in conflict with the Danish society. These and other formal policies imply an expectation of ‘cultural sameness,’ not only for those immigrating into Danish society, but also for those already in Denmark.
Citizenship applicants must possess extensive Danish language skills, educational background, a hefty security deposit, and other requirements that create a significantly high wall for prospective immigrants to climb.
As these factors come together to influence the identity crisis, they create a prevailing “us” and “them” dynamic, in which, as Ali Sufi pointed out, “we are constantly forced to think about our ethnic background.” What emerges from this self-consciousness is that, as Manu Sareen pointed out, the ethnic minority often voices the sentiment that “we are not seen as citizens of the Danish society.” This constant reminder of one’s difference thus perpetuates these identity crises for those outside of the majority “Danish” identity.
The Danish Identity
In this analysis, we wish to make an important distinction between “Danish” in a national context (i.e the “Danish” government, or “Danish” policy) and “Danish” as it refers to the cultural identity of an individual or group (i.e “Danish” people). This analysis will operate with the second use of the term. How then is Danish identity defined? According to a 2009 report on marginalized youth from the ministry of integration, at least one of the parents of an individual must be a Danish citizen born in Denmark for the individual to be technically classified as Danish.
Colloquially, society defines the term in two ways. On one hand, the term presupposes a common identity based on exclusionary national or cultural characteristics. The term as it is commonly used implies that, as Soren Krarup, an MP for the Danish People’s Party, states, a Dane is “a child of Denmark’s history, of the Danish language of the Danish people’s life and life history” Laden with such term is too limiting to accommodate the differences that multiculturalism provide.
The Danish identity struggles as an umbrella term of broad inclusion largely because, at its core, it implies a certain archetype that furthers an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy.
On the other hand, to many ethnic minority individuals, it is much easier to define what being Danish is NOT than to define what being Danish is. Ali Sufi, Vice President of the New Danish Youth Council and prominent hip-hop artist, swiftly defined “Danishness” as “not being religious, not wearing religious symbols, or not having a different skin color.” It is problematic if those who are to be included in an identity do not understand its meaning or significance. Even worse, it is problematic when characteristics of ethnic minorities (such as religion for Muslim immigrants) are, by default, excluded from the definition of the Danish identity.
As a result, two sets of people continually perpetuate a myopic definition of this term: ethnic Danes, who defensively resist an oversimplification of their cultural identity, and ethnic minorities, who feel the term represents certain ideals or characteristics they do not possess. In its current use, the Danish identity struggles as an umbrella term of broad inclusion largely because, at its core, it implies a certain archetype that furthers an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy.
Is expanding the Danish identity the ideal solution to the cultural identity crisis?
To Be or Not to Be Danish…Is That the Question?
Studies on integration in Denmark both in the past and in present have argued for the expansion of the Danish identity as the solution to the cultural identity crisis, operating under the assumption that this was the solution most members of Danish society supported. Presumably, as society increasingly regarded ethnic minorities as Danish, they too would more easily define their role in Danish society.
In her article titled “Integration: Giving Voice to Ethnic Minorities in Denmark,” Marianne Sande describes the ideal solution to this cultural identity as “mutual integration.” In the manner she defines the term, mutual integration places the responsibility of integration partly on society to open up to make room for these minorities and on the minorities to “contribute to and participate actively in society.” In essence, mutual integration advocates for a similar point: broadening what is the status quo to accommodate marginalized groups.
But is expanding the Danish identity the ideal solution to the cultural identity crisis?
Contrary to existing presumptions, this idea poses significant challenges in Denmark. As conversations and cultural debates wage on, it is more obvious that the acceptance of this notion is far from universal. Both the perspectives of individuals and theoretical explanations highlight why such is the case.
As Denmark plays a more prominent global role, the consciousness of global events in Denmark will simultaneously grow.
First of all, many ethnic minorities halfheartedly buy into the idea of “Danishness.” Some ethnic minorities either reject the Danish identity or express skepticism at assuming this identity. When asked whether he sees himself as Danish, Zaki, born to Egyptian and Danish parents, swiftly answered replied with an emphatic “Nah!” opting to define himself in other ways.
Secondly, in an increasingly globalized world, singular, mono-ethnic national identities are becoming increasingly archaic. Relegated to a relative position of isolation and neutrality in the past, Denmark has, in recent times, assumed a greater global role. The cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad drawn by a Danish cartoonist as well as Denmark’s participation in two ongoing wars exemplify this point. As Denmark plays a more prominent global role, the consciousness of global events in Denmark will simultaneously grow. In regards to consciousness of these wars Ali Sufi states, “people that are 12 – 14 years know there is a war.” In referring to the democratizations movements in North Africa and the Middle East, Sufi continues, “these events will also reflect how minorities in this society think of themselves….they will create a more inclusive definition of what democracy should be.”
The nationalistic implications of the concept of “Danishness” or “Denmark for the Danes,” as Nils Holtug puts it, comes in conflict with this global consciousness. As ethnic minorities in Denmark move towards an inclusive democracy, in Sufi’s eyes, the narrow definition of the Danish identity will struggle to represent this new reality.
Rejection of Danishness
The unending series of alienating policies and negative rhetorical statements peg non-ethnic Danes as a social ill. Minorities are told they must assimilate if they want a place in mainstream Danish society. Without assimilation—without giving up their own culture for the sake of the Danish one—they are considered a “threat to social cohesion.”
It is impossible for minorities blend into this homogeneous ideal if they are constantly being pegged as “different” and “undesirable.”
But social cohesion rests on the idea of homogeneity. And it’s impossible for minorities blend into this homogeneous ideal if they are constantly being pegged as “different” and “undesirable.”
That, Simon Prahm thinks, contributes to a serious identity crisis, particularly among young people. “They [minorities] have a background that’s not wanted by the society so that’s a crisis right there. But also because the whole hyphenated-Danes identity where they’re part Turkish, part Danish…what do you have in your own life that you have a strong feeling about that’s half-half? Half-half is really nothing.” Kids, he says, need a more concrete identity. And that identity does not have to be tied to “Danishness” in order to be productive.
Prahm is the Co-Founder and Program Coordinator for GAM3, an organization that dismisses the need for an overall Danish identity, and instead uses basketball and street art to help young minorities improve their self-image.
GAM3 started in 2002; pronounced “game,” the organization uses a backwards “E” to allude to the 3-on-3 basketball tournaments on which the organization centers.
“We don’t [define Danish identity] and we never would. But I think that’s the beauty of the whole thing—that with…street sports, then you’re not Danish, you’re not Iraqi,…you’re a basketball player,”
Before he started GAM3, Prahm was the chairman of the biggest basketball club in Denmark. Basketball is small sport in Denmark so it was a club of only about 450 members. But still, something seemed to be missing. “We thought that basketball was a global sport with appeal to all minorities and ethnicities. But when we looked down in the gym we could see that pretty much everyone was white. It made it visible to us that there was a need to reach out to [minorities] groups instead of sitting down in the gym waiting for them to come to us.”
The aim of the organization is to empower marginalized minorities with a sense of belonging. To do so, GAM3 boldly rejects the need for a Danish identity. “We don’t [define Danish identity] and we never would. But I think that’s the beauty of the whole thing—that with…street sports, then you’re not Danish, you’re not Iraqi,…you’re a basketball player,” he said proudly. “A shot behind the arch counts 3-points no matter where you come from.”
In addition to basketball, street art rooted in the hip-hop culture of New York City is also a major part of GAM3’s atmosphere. Breakdancing competitions are held to give kids the chance to show off their moves, and attendees can take painting lessons from a New York street artist. The walls of the basketball courts have been graffitted with bright, bold lettering, and rap songs such as Tupac Shakur’s “Going Back to Cali” can be heard blasting as the players practice for their games.
Hip-hop has grown as a world-wide phenomenon since it emerged in the ’70s, but at its essence, it’s still a culture that prides itself on challenging the mainstream, rather than trying to fit into it.
Prahm thinks the global nature of hip-culture is crucial for the work GAM3 is trying to do. “It’s not something we invented but it’s something much broader and it’s something that they—by being part of—can feel that they are part of a bigger identity instead of narrow Danish identity,” he said.
The roots of hip-hop make it quite fitting for the young people with whom GAM3 works. Hip-hop emerged as the music of young, urban, black men who were rejected from mainstream U.S. society. They were able to make a space for themselves through music, dance, and art. Hip-hop has grown as a world-wide phenomenon since it emerged in the ’70s, but at its essence, it’s still a culture that prides itself on challenging the mainstream, rather than trying to fit into it. “One of the reasons why it is so easy to work with a subculture like hip-hop—is that it is, you could say, the oppressed people in the U.S. that started it in the streets of New York. And I think even though a lot of the 12 year olds are not aware of the roots of hip-hop, they know that it’s black or immigrant culture and it’s also a platform through the rap lyrics that you can be critical of the established society.”
That social critique is important if kids are to become active citizens, said Zaki, a rapper and writer that volunteers with GAM3. He stressed that “active citizenship” comes only as a result of being part of a group. “That’s what GAM3’s about—creating that sense of belonging.”
But having a national identity of Danishness is not a prerequisite to belonging. According to Zaki, “it’s not a problem that you don’t identify with the Danish identity. Groups and subgroups can still treat each other with respect. We will never come to a point where we will not identify ourselves according to a group, so we might as well accept it.”
Ethnic minorities have moved away from the national identity, and instead they have found new ways of expanding identity through hybrid identities such as a subculture, a city or a neighborhood.
Minorities with limited resources have difficulty navigating between several identities and will be better able to identify with their immediate environment.
Zaki can relate to the kids he works with at GAM3 because he too has struggled with what it means to be Danish. As pointed out earlier, he doesn’t identify as “Danish,” although he was raised in a Danish context. “I’m aware that I’m Danish in a lot of different aspects because I grew up here,” he said, but he still thinks the definition of Danish is too “narrow” to include him.
The solution for Zaki is an identity based more on immediate space than on nationality. For example, Zaki would consider himself a “Copenhagener” because he spent his entire life in the city. Saying he is Danish would be a political statement for him—if he were interested in challenging conservative notions of “Danishness”—but it wouldn’t be a genuine feeling.
Rapper Ali Sufi narrows the basis of identity even further, claiming that neighborhood-based identities might be the most empowering for the group of minorities with a low socio-economic status. Ali Sufi explains that the global and city based identities speak to middle and upper class ethnic minorities, because they identify with the more abstract identity. Minorities with limited resources have difficulty navigating between several identities and will be better able to identify with their immediate environment. “[Identity] is completely local—[it’s] not even at the city level,” he said, because the city is “too big.”
Hybrid identity and ethnic identity
In her 2000 paper, Mette Anderson posed the idea of a hybrid identity. She explained that hybrid youth cultures try to de- and reconstruct the meaning of ethnic identity. They select the best from Danish and their minority backgrounds, which leads to a construction of a new kind of identity that is not bound by nationality. Instead, identity is created in opposition to the “other” portrayed in media and social discourse.
The Danish identity as it is perceived today cannot include minorities’ ethnicities but with hybrid identities, ethnic diversity can be used as a positive factor.
Zaki, who has struggled with his bi-racial identity, seemed to draw on Anderson’s idea of a hybrid existence. “You accept that you’re this multifaceted identity—you don’t have to choose one thing over another,” he said.
The hybrid identity provides the ethnic minorities with self-confidence and enables them to participate in society on their own terms.
GAM3’s Simon Prahm stresses multiculturalism as a strength—at least when it comes to breakdancing: “If you can do some Turkish folk dancing in your one minute head-on-head battle you are probably gonna bring something new to the floor and new is good in this context because it’s all about creativity.”
An important quality of the new hybrid identities is that they are able to encompass other identities such as the ethnic identity. The Danish identity as it is perceived today cannot include minorities’ ethnicities but with hybrid identities, ethnic diversity can be used as a positive factor.
Challenging the Victim Mentality
In order for this empowerment to be successful, minorities must be responsible to each other. Zaki warns of a victim mentality amongst ethnic minorities and he believes it’s the responsibility of ethnic minorities with resources to try and combat this mentality.
Aware of his influence on young people, he uses his position as a rapper and GAM3 mentor to empower young people with a challenge: “There’s something wrong with our society,” he says to the teenagers, “but what are you gonna do about it?”
But he knows it’s not that simple. When the kids return to their normal environment outside of GAM3, it’s hard to change the discourse. There’s a strong social framework among minorities that pushes them to hold each other back. “When I was growing up none of us had ambitions. We were holding each other down.”
This change in perception brings with it a change of their role in society. As the pressure to conform to one notion of Danish identity dissipates, minorities are free to be themselves and take ownership of their environments.
Ethnic minorities are becoming increasingly more engaged in politics and social organizations.
By involving young minorities in such associations, the Council hopes to instill a sense of civic duty in young minorities.
Ali Sufi is Vice Chairman of the Danish-Ethnic Youth Council, which seeks to promote ethnic minority participation in politics through initiatives such as the upcoming voting campaign “Vores land, Vores valg,” or, “Our country, Our choice.”
The Council’s “Alternative Ghetto Commission” is a bridge between politicians and the people living in the ghettos. Ethnic minorities are encouraged to give input on how their communities should be improved.
And the council is also trying to involve ethnic minorities through volunteer youth associations. Religious, student, and cultural associations are a key aspect of social life for white, ethnic Danes. The Council thinks of these associations as a major tool for social engagement. By involving young minorities in such associations, the Council hopes to instill a sense of civic duty in young minorities.
By using a grassroots movement to inspire minority engagement, the Danish-Ethnic Youth Council is helping young people take ownership of the Danish society and be active citizens without having to fit the current narrow definition of Danishness.
In order to fully break through the narrow and dangerous confines of their collective identity crisis minorities need to deconstruct the stereotypes used to label them. It’s important for minorities to not just change how they see themselves, but to also change how others see them. Minorities need to show that they can contribute to society without squeezing into a suffocating box of “Danishness.” By framing the discourse around how minorities are perceived they can take steps to change their identity from outside in.
The portrayal of ethnic minorities through the political discourse and in the media has created a stereotypical image of ethnic minorities as one large group. This is not a correct portrayal though, since the ethnic minority group persist of many different nationalities with different socio-economic backgrounds, education etc.
Danish-Ethnic Youth Council has representatives that are young people with different ethnic and socio-economic background. The council seeks exposure through media and through their outreaching activities, challenging the stereotypical images of ethnic minorities.
The Danish identity today is too narrow to encompass ethnic identities, and this has created the need for other identities such as subcultural, city or neighborhood based identities.
GAM3 also tries to challenge the stereotypes through their work. Prahm sees huge potential in including ethnic Danes in the basketball tournaments. The white Danes are exposed to many stereotypical images of minorities, which are challenged when they meet each other on the court. In a similar way, volunteer associations are a great forum for creating relations between the ethnic minorities and the ethnic Danes.
A Future for the Danish Identity?
Ali Sufi and the Danish-Ethnic Youth Council are trying to influence the discourse on ethnic minorities and Danishness by coming up with a new definition of Danish identity: “Now-Dane” to encompass “all that are living in Denmark now.”
This term is very inclusive and it’s a new concept that is supposed to replace the old term of “New-Dane” which has been outworn and has been attached with a negative association. This is their vision of the future, new Danish identity that has room for both the ethnic identity and a Danish one.
The Danish identity today is too narrow to encompass ethnic identities, and this has created the need for other identities such as subcultural, city or neighborhood based identities. Actors such as the Danish-Ethnic Youth Council might be leading the way to a new understanding of Danish identity for future generations that will be able to embrace diverse identities within one person.
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Holtug, Nils. “Danish Multiculturalism: Where Art Thou?” (2011). Print.
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Sande, Marianne. “Integration: Giving Voice to Ethnic Minorities in Denmark.” (2001). Humanity in Action:Knowledge & Action. Humanity in Action. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/19-integration-giving-voice-to-ethnic-minorities-in-denmark>.
Sareen, Manu, Copenhagen City Councilman, Friday June 24th, 2011
Zaki, Hip-Hop Artist and Entrepeneur, Wednesday June 22nd, 2011
Sufi, Ali, Vice-President of the New Danish Youth Council, Saturday June 25th, 2011
Prahm, Simon, Co-Founder and Director of GAM3, Friday June 24th, 2011