Denmark’s Racist Backlash

- On Battle Fatigue Across Borders

Sometimes I need to lie down mid writing. Photo: tara_lst on instagram

When you work with racism, racialization, discrimination, inequalities and representation sometimes you are overcome with tiredness. According to some research, even more so, when you fall victim to micro-aggressions, discrimination and racism yourself. For this blog-post I wanted to write about film policy, reality-television or music videos, because I genuinely love working with analysis of those forms of media (and systems). But instead I am going to take a pause from content-analysis and talk about battle-fatigue.

“The accumulative stress from racial microaggressions produces racial battle fatigue. The stress of unavoidable front-line racial battles in historically white spaces leads to people of color feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically drained.” — Smith et. al. 2011

Bad News

In my field of research (representation, racialization, discrimination and more) I am confronted with a lot of disheartening, saddening or tough information. Thanks to my entire immediate family and my partner all working with similar challenges, I have a support-system. I recognize that enormous privilege and understand that most people working on these issues are not as fortunate. I also recognize the emotional and affective labour this requires on their part, and on mine as I try to support others. My good friend Jane recently wrote an excellent piece on emotional labour in Tech, and I definitely recognize a lot of her experiences.

Sometimes, in spite of my immense support, I, too, get tired. Today was one of those days. Because of course I could not escape the bad news:

A leak today evidenced that the Danish Minister for Children and Social Affairs, Mai Mercado, and the right-wing government she is a part of, are actually discussing mandatory napless kindergarden/day-care for small children (down to one-year-olds). The suggestion is part of a large-scale political plan, currently under negotiation in the government, called “the ghetto plan” in daily Danish speak, because it proposes rules and regulations only specific to those living in “socially vulnerable areas” (or, public housing and low-income areas with high density of people of non-Danish descent).

As such, the napless kindergardens, along with a series of similar initiatives, are only meant to count for a specific “socially vulnerable” subset of the Danish population. This set of regulations will financially punish parents, if they do not comply with, for instance placing their children in these obligatory day-care facilities, that are intended to indoctrinate children (again, remember down to one-year-olds) with Christian holidays and “Danish traditions”. In other words, the suggestion actually makes clear, that children will be expected to attend the facilities 25 hours a week and will not be allowed to sleep, but will be tasked instead with developing their “Danish language, general learning capabilities and knowledge of Danish traditions”. While the institutions will not charge tuition, they will charge parents for “diapers, lunch and fruit”.

The news made me tired. This type of segregated apartheid-mimicking special rules that will clearly only affect, and was clearly only intended to affect, the most vulnerable, works to scapegoat and punish minorities for the integration-challenges Denmark faces, while freeing the majority from any real responsibility.

*For an interesting piece on use of GIFs read this article in Teen Vogue.

Of course the news made me tired because it is unfair and discriminatory to legislate so harshly about such a small group of Danes, and because pedagogical evidence points toward one-year-olds not increasing their learning capabilities when being deprived of sleep. But it also made me tired because sometimes working in academia on racial issues in Denmark can seem like a Sisyphean task. Regardless of the clarity with which you present your critique, you can expect that your words will be misquoted, placed out of context or used to further a racist or discriminatory agenda.

More Bad News

Take for example the play I attended on my first night home during my last trip to Denmark. A play called White N*****/Black Madonna (except the theatre, called Sort/Hvid, or Black/White, didn’t censor the N-word).

The poster for the play (right), which featured the N-word and a character in black-face was covered up by Copenhagen activists. Photo: Afro Empowerment Center’s Facebook

You can hear my colleague Michael Wilson address the challenges in this interview on BBC radio (starts at 35.18).

I went and saw the play in support of a colleague, who had been invited to be a panelist for a subsequent seminar about it. I should have probably guessed from the black-face poster and the title, that it was going to be absurdly racist — but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. Unsurprisingly the play was not only extremely racially violent, but as a former co-editor of decolonial journal Marronage (which featured as a key theme in the play), I sat first row as my words were quoted out of context, and as a minstrel blackface figure threw a banana-peel directly at me (an unfortunate place to throw it given that I was one of only 3 non-white audience members in the room).

I was not tired or angry after the play. I was not demotivated by the play even coming into existence. The presence of such a play seemed to me an automatic backlash against all of the fantastic anti-racist and decolonial research, activism and art that has spread throughout Denmark, especially in 2017, which marked the centennial for the sale of the now US Virgin Islands (previously known as Danish West Indies). I am not naïve. I know that in Denmark there are scared people who do not have language or tools to negotiate or even understand racism or racial violence, and who would respond to anti-racist strategies through such extreme expressions of new racial violence. I was not surprised when a few of them, thinking that they were being progressive, critical and provocative, set up a play that was hegemonic, essentialistic and expressed the most basic and simplistic understandings of race. I am not surprised that a play like this seems exciting in Denmark, when it would have probably seemed exciting in the US about a century ago.

What surprised me and made me tired was not the play, but that a play like this could receive extensive financial support from the Danish state. What surprised me was not that the theatre S/H could set up yet another race-essentializing and overly simplified piece on difference, which pleases majority and critiques minority, but that the room I entered was full of prominent Danish professors and art-connoisseurs, who laughed and clapped and sent me angry expressions at my refusal to do the same.

What surprised me was not that the play had clearly strategized around marketing themselves as having their freedom of expression limited, in order to profit off of minority-pain while increasing white fear. What surprised me was that universities and critics fell straight into this trap, by penalizing students and faculty who removed the posters from Copenhagen University’s campus and by reviewing the play as provocative or calling the authors “enfant terrible[s]”.

What surprised me was that Copenhagen University’s top management would rather have kept such posters (with explicit use of N-word and black-face) than take their responsibility towards students and faculty of color, to protect them from racial violence or discrimination in their work-place or place of education.

What gave me battle fatigue was not that racial violence occurs repeatedly in Denmark, or even that it sometimes looks to be increasing. What made me tired and frustrated is the sense that the Danish institutions of arts, media and education actively partake in reproduction of these occurences. Danish activists have shown great restraint in the matter of this play. Perhaps because it is so transparent that the marketers were baiting them for conflict to boost sales. Nonetheless, this marketing strategy left people like me in an exhausting catch 22:

If we said something, we would feed sales and acknowledge the play as remotely interesting (which it is not — what few layers it tries to portray are gruesomely simplistic and show an extremely limited academic and artistic insight in the field of race-critical art — at least from my vantage-point of research in arts, race-theory and critical theory). If we said nothing, so many of the audiences (and perhaps in particular youths) might be led to believe that there was nothing wrong with the play, or worse, that the people supporting the play were right about critics like us having just “misunderstood” all of the complexities.

Fighting Battle Fatigue

I am tired. I love my work and my topic of research but sometimes the battle-fatigue gets overpowering. For me it has helped to be in New York. Not that New York doesn’t tire me out as well. Stories about budget cuts to the homeless or that “2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than service members” in the US remind me of the many challenges of the country I now call home.

One of the most frequent comments I get when returning to Denmark is that I can hardly justify critiquing Danish race-relations in comparison to the US. This false dilemma serves to further a premise, which was frequently featured in the play as well; that race-issues are more extreme in the US and that the American history of racial violence can be understood as some sort of origin-story of racial inequality. However, my claims that Danish racial violence or European violence needs to be taken very seriously and that Danish institutions hosting such violence should fulfill their responsibilities to handle adverse impacts on the right to non-discrimination, are not based on a formal fallacy of affirming a disjunct. In other words, I do not believe that by living in the US and critiquing Danish racist practices in my research, I am arguing that race is less of an issue in the US.

However, in trying to produce compelling and thorough research while juggling the battle fatigue and stresses related to my work it has been a relief not to have to worry about posters of blackface and the n-word in my workplace.

Among the activists and scholars I have talked to, those who face battle fatigue tend to take breaks from the work and rely on some form of self-care or another to get by. This might mean more sleeping, meditating, exercising or eating — or it might mean surrounding themselves for a period of time with people they trust not to perform racial (or other discriminatory) violence toward them.

For me, I have found immense relief in writing about it, even if just for my own use. However, a frequent side-effect of the privileged position I benefit from, is that I can rarely take a pause from, or write about, these forms of discrimination without feeling a sting of guilt. Having the ability to escape into academic environments or family-contexts where I can feel (somewhat) safe from discrimination is a privilege. Developing and acquiring the language and theory to address it eases my fatigue. As such, the very relief I seek often works to bounce me right back into the fire (or snow).

Sources:

Smith, William A. “Black faculty coping with racial battle fatigue: The campus racial climate in a post-civil rights era.” A long way to go: Conversations about race by African American faculty and graduate students 14 (2004): 171–190.

Smith, William A., Tara J. Yosso, and Daniel G. Solórzano. “Challenging racial battle fatigue on historically White campuses: A critical race examination of race-related stress.” Covert racism. Brill, 2011. 211–238.