Voices: Danish culture is not as progressive as you think – I would know

·4-min read

We’ve all seen those cute little books and articles like The Danish Way to Live Well and The Danish Way of Parenting. Glossy airport literature written for, by and about white middle class people. Our “culture” is packaged for consumption by journalists who make a good buck on book sales and keynote speeches on how the Nordic way can do this or that for your life. Denmark has become a polished brand, a fairy tale land that the world projects its shortcomings onto.

Every time a buzzword such as “hygge” becomes commercialised or “Borgen” goes viral in the anglophone world, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth as a minority Dane.

Denmark’s draconian immigration laws have done their part in injecting a dose of reality into the image of the country, with the most recent case being the much maligned anti-ghetto law which was introduced with the aim of reducing how many “non-westerners” live in what they deem to be vulnerable areas.

Yet, Denmark and the Nordic countries at large are still regularly portrayed as quasi-utopias that the rest of the world have much to learn from. In the process, the lived experience of minorities is glossed over, privileging a sanitised caricature that foreigners appear to be perversely in love with.

“Danishness” as it is understood abroad is essentially a lie. The Danish dream that is being sold and marketed is a bourgeois one. Take for example the famed bicycle habit of Danish people, an emblem of their eco-friendly, easy-going nature. The reality is that being able to cycle everywhere is a privilege for those who live in the inner city of Copenhagen – one of the most expensive cities in the world. The plebeians commute to the unglamorous suburbs after work just like everywhere else. Sadly, it seems mundane public transport commuting doesn’t make good material for lifestyle articles.

One of the Scandinavian capital’s dirtiest secrets is that with every stop going away from the city centre, the darker the skin of the passengers becomes. Stowed away in the suburbs, minorities are kept from blemishing the ‘hygge’ daily life of drinking single origin coffee on million-dollar fin-de-siècle balconies. My sense of inferiority was compounded on each of those train rides: the Scandinavian dream of riding bicycles, eating organic food and drinking white wine by the city’s rivers left firmly in the distance. That life never quite felt like it was for me.

The conflation between upper middle class life and Danish culture was perhaps clearest in Oprah’s visit to Denmark in 2009. She was chaperoned around Copenhagen by an architect – a representative for the white creative class who lord unchallenged over the country. The stroll concluded with Oprah visiting the architect’s minimalist chic home, which was presented as “typical” in Denmark. The fact that we were witnessing a luxurious apartment in one of the wealthiest districts of the city was conveniently ignored.

It’s no surprise that an elite segment defines the image of the country, when one considers the wider homogeneity of the domestic media. The editorial mastheads of the biggest publications are largely staffed by ethnic Danes. Fourteen per cent of the Danish population has a minority background, while the demographic only account for 3.5 per cent of sources in media. The disparity prompted protests outside prominent Danish media houses in April. But minorities are wheeled out on special occasions to discuss migration issues, sometimes facing racially charged verbal abuse from right wing figures on national TV.

Under the illusion of protecting universal welfare, any inbound migrants are viewed as potential freeloaders and culturally incompatible threats to the country’s little oasis of happiness.

Such myopia gives occasion to tasteless spectacles. Last year, a notable anti-immigration politician coolly explained to Aya, a teary-eyed 19-year-old Syrian refugee, that she had to be deported because Syrians are one of the most criminal demographic groups in Denmark.

A few weeks ago, popular Conservative politician Rasmus Jarlov tweeted: "Highly educated Norwegians are better than highly educated Somalians."

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This week, an opinion poll showed Inger Støjberg’s newly started project, the Denmark Democrats, storming into the parliament as one of the largest parties. This is the same character who only nine months ago was impeached and convicted to 60 days in prison for illegally separating asylum-seeking couples in her position as minister of immigration. Støjberg has in the past garnered international attention for celebrating 50 tightening immigration laws with jubilee cake

I’m not highlighting these instances due to their unique and shocking qualities. Rather, what strikes me is their banality. They remind me of the daily environment I became accustomed to living in Denmark. Because this is the real Denmark in its proudly unsophisticated, ignorant nakedness. This is the Danish culture that I know and recognize, far removed from the nonsense of bicycling, design and “hygge”. This is the chauvinistic, smug attitude that arises from perennially being ranked first in sustainability and happiness indexes.