Racial Terminology & Cultural Context: The Power of Discussion & Reflection

Posted: November 17, 2010 in Categorized
Tags: , , ,

Coming to Denmark has been both an inspirational and sometimes challenging experience. When applying to come to Denmark, I wrote my personal statement on my philosophical analysis of racial dynamics in my life, something I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about. It was necessary, seeing as my research project is focusing on the ethnic identity of Muslim immigrants (Denmark’s minority) as it pertains to the healthcare sector. My belief is that we are only as different as we make ourselves. It’s my own personal way of trying to avoid the excuse of “you’ll never understand unless you are in my shoes”, when it comes to cross-cultural or cross-racial interactions. I think sometimes culture is used as an excuse, which then halts successful and productive cross-cultural or cross-racial communication.

A couple of days ago, Danish person called me a nigger to describe me to another person and the message was then told to me on this Sunday by a Danish friend. Upon hearing that I was called a nigger, I literally went numb. It’s like this feeling where you have a massive emotional response but you’re trying to figure out how to express it. You don’t want to come off as being overly-sensitive but at the same time I’ve been socialized in such a way that I know the term is so pejorative. It’s this feeling of being offended but wanting to vocalize your hurt in a rational manner that doesn’t cause you to be completely driven by your emotions. I kept thinking maybe this was a way to laugh about the term because Danish humor is very dry and full of sarcasm. At the same time I felt like, well maybe I could just brush it off and act like nothing happened. But then looking back at the U.S. and how so many Blacks use the term to describe each other but get offended when a white person uses it, creates a very interesting paradox or politically correct quandary. Once what the Danish person had said about me was described, one of my Danish friends said that it wasn’t that bad and that the Danish person probably didn’t mean it in a negative way. While I know my Danish friend probably tried to make me feel better, I must admit it felt like throwing salt on a fresh wound.

Although, Danish people don’t have the same Trans-Atlantic slavery history as the North-Western European Whites in the States, is it still justifiable for them to use the term? Can you take such a term and in a different cultural context,and let it lose all of its pejorative or negative connotations? A couple of years ago, I made up in my mind to never immediately jump to conclusions and instantly label the perpetrator a bigot of any kind, unless I have at least some understanding of their background. I think that really no one wants to be labeled a racist, a being of hatred and possibly ignorance. At the same time no one really wants to be called nigger, a term that labels them as a disenfranchised or inferior person. However, with the increase of politically correctness in the U.S., people are so quick to label someone a bigot (i.e. – racist) without any real reflection of what it truly means. People are also really quick to allow being offended to put up a barrier that could possibly be the perfect chance to maybe discuss or rationalize one’s emotional response to bigotry based terms.

At first, I really wanted to remain silent and I kept thinking maybe this will all blow over but then again one can’t help how one feels. Sometimes people say bigotry based terms out or mere ignorance, not realizing the impact the term or phrase might have. Also, Danes pride themselves on their almost absolute forms of democratic ideals, especially freedom of speech. So I felt that I might be infringing on their democratic ideals. However, freedoms are only free until they infringe on someone else’s freedoms.

I chose to withdraw myself for a bit and formulate how I would describe my feelings about the term being used to describe me. So after a couple of hours, I decided to approach my Danish friends and explain to them that even though “nigger” has a less pejorative meaning in Denmark, it’s a term that still to a degree offends me. I must point out I wasn’t offended by one of my Danish friends telling me that another Danish person used the term to describe me, I was more so shocked that the term was used to describe me, in Denmark! I also wanted to address the issue of what happens when a term that is offensive in the U.S. isn’t that offensive in Denmark. The question was how do we discuss this incident in such a way that adds my own cultural perspective to the term within the framework of Danish cultural interpretations of the term. I think my friends might have been a bit alarmed that I might perceive of Danish culture as culturally insensitive or even racist. However, I explained to them that this incident of what the person said wouldn’t shade my whole view of Danish culture because I try my best to critically analyze bigotry based terms and to never place blame on one group without some sort of meaningful reflection.

We entered into a dialogue about the differences in cultural meanings of the term nigger. Apparently in Denmark, I learned that the term “nigger”, which is neger (nee-er) in Danish is sometimes used to describe black people. It is also used by younger kids, but with the intent of ONLY describing the person as a black person and not the pejorative sense of the term. However, they still sort of shy away at saying the term when they are older, which might possibly be the fact that although they intend to use it as a means of ONLY describing a black person, there is still some awareness of the pejorative aspect of the term. It could also be the largely homogenous population of Danes that mostly interacts with African immigrants and rarely African-American immigrants which might affect their overall impact of the term. Who knows?

It was definitely a powerful discussion because no one pointed the finger at each other and we all conducted ourselves in a manner that we have this offensive term, why is it offensive and how can we make sense of this term coming from our different cultural backgrounds?  Better yet, I think we reached a better understanding of the impact of using the term “nigger” or maybe even other racially infused terms.  We are all socialized differently based on our cultural, maybe racial or whatever differences and often times these differences in social background make it easy to put up a barrier or easy for one to say, “You’ll never understand unless you were in my shoes…” But then, we never get to the point of actually rationalizing our reactions to bigotry based terms.

Moral of this experience:
This experience helped me not only reaffirm my personal philosophy described above but to understand the power of discussion. I know that because something works for one person it might not work for everyone or for every situation. However, if more discussions were to occur between racial and cultural groups, we might be able to understand how racial or cultural tensions are perceived by ourselves and the person accused of being a bigot. Not all race based remarks are maliciously inclined. The way in which we perceive ourselves affects our interactions in society and the way we perceive of our identity in comparison to people of other identities affects the way we begin to use terms such as “racist”. Bigoted thinking does exist but not all of it is intentional. I might never know if the Danish person that called me a nigger used it in a pejorative manner or just said it out of his own ignorance about what the term means. I could choose to call him a racist, but in the end what will I have really accomplished? What will I have really learned? I am here to gain a deeper understanding of Danish culture, even if I don’t agree with everything. I don’t have to agree with every cultural practices or beliefs but I do believe in respecting them. I must NOTE that I am not condoning the Danish person’s use of the term but I am focusing on how I choose to express my reaction to bigotry. It’s okay to feel angry or hurt, but I learned a long time ago not to stay in that state of emotions.

I do know that with the casual usage of bigoted terms, deciphering what is mere ignorance or actual bigoted thinking has become a very difficult process. Through a highly critical approach to notions of bigotry, maybe we can break down or understand racial or cultural dynamics, without placing blame on one particular group. I know it sounds so mentally exhausting but if people are to ever transcend notions of racism or any form of bigotry, we must be willing to introspect on our own biases. Discussing racism or bigotry is very difficult because of the personal feelings attached but fighting through those emotional responses to bigotry are even more important. Overall, it will require a collective effort to understand that we are only as different as we make ourselves.

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Comments
  1. Izzy says:

    I came across your blog in a happenstance manner (in fact, while searching for appropriate terminology on what is known as ‘implicit racial bias’ in cognitive neuroscience – which has nothing to do with p.c. terms).

    Anyhow, I happen to be born and raised in Denmark and so I obviously had to read your blog post.

    First of all, I am sorry to hear that this happened to you – how could you not be affected upon learning that pejoratives were used for describing you?

    At the same time, obviously without knowing the first thing about the person or persons using those derogative words, I wish to offer my humble opinion about what is going on with the Danes when they opt for using terms like ‘neger’.

    Let me just say that from the first time you wrote that a Dane had described you as a ‘nigger’, I pretty much guessed that the Danish word used was ‘neger’. I say this while at the same time withholding, that one does not translate to the other (even though they both obviously stem from the same latin word). ‘Neger’ is a hopelessly outdated term, that no one should use since it has no place in modern Danish (not, at least, without bringing with it a negative connotation). The reason, I think, why people (who are not 80 years old) still use it in today’s Denmark, is – frankly – because Danes are very confused when it comes to the p.c. terms (they cannot use ‘afro-american’ either).

    Danes are a very homogenous people – for that reason, there is not the same attention to p.c. terms (in Danish) that you would find in e.g. the States. Though, I’m fairly sure most Danes would know what is p.c. and what is not in English.

    So, I hope that was the absolute last person in Denmark using that pejorative term and that it has henceforth died. It is seldom used with malice – but it has no place in the language in any case. Hopefully we can find a way to communicate properly without hurting each other’s feelings by stereotyping people unnecessarily, racially or otherwise.

    May your time in Denmark be insightful!

    • brunsonw says:

      Thank you very much for your reply. I must say that I am fully aware of the term ‘neger’ being directly translated into ‘negro’, which is suposedly a more neutralized version of the term, ‘nigger’ in the U.S. With my knowledge and study of U.S history, nigger has went through several forms (nigger–> negro –> colored–> black —> African-American). Although not so linear as many of these terms existed around the same time span, these ‘evolutions’ of terminology were used to find a way to describe Trans-Atlantic slaves in the U.S. without the pejorative connotation of ‘nigger’, hence the creation of African-American used today.

      However, my post was not about political correctedness, as I have a problem with being p.c. It was mostly about my experience with facing the term nigger within Danish culture, which doesn’t have the same socio-historical framework or background as the U.S. I am fully aware that bigotry-based terms are not always used with malicious intent and I always challenge that mode of thinking, that it is always said with malicious intent.

      In the instances, described in my blog post, I would prefer people to vocalize how they feel or think but to do so with respect and courtesy not because it has been politically sanctioned or for fear of being labeled a racist or bigot. Because of p.c., many people have become insidious in their beliefs about other social groups, be it racial, cultural or maybe even gender-based. Also, in the states there seems to be a degree of exclusion for who p.c. is allowed/supposed to ‘protect’, where minority groups are able to almost speak more ‘freely’ than the white majority in racial matters (i.e.– Blacks being able to use nigger but not so much, whites.)

      Even though ‘neger’ in Danish might not have the same sting as ‘nigger’ in the U.S. to the masses in Denmark, one has to question: “Why do some Danes still cringe at the use of the term?” I think people have the assumption that with knowledge, there is an eradication of knowledge. However, knowledge doesn’t eradicate social ignorance unless an understanding is achieved.

      So for me it’s so much more about reaching a point where we can achieve a mutual understanding of terms like ‘nigger’ or ‘neger’ that doesn’t just end with ‘You can’t just that term’, without any real reflection, discussion, or explanation of why?

      I have been greatly enjoying the experience of living in Denmark and it has definitely provided me with much insight.

      Again, thanks for reading my blog and for your insightful perspective! I will definitely keep what you have said in mind! 😀

  2. Izzy says:

    With the risk of intruding on your blogspace, let me give a not-so-short reply (sorry about that).

    I do realise what the scope of your post was, and for what it’s worth, I absolutely agree. This is actually one of the major drawbacks of the research on implicit racial bias; because changes in brain processing are present in contraracial situations (unconscious, visual processes) the conclusion drawn is that we are all – basically – racists. Now, of course, this an obvious case of equivocation, but the wider consequence of research like this being publicised and discussed is that people become a lot more focussed on political correctness than informed interaction and understanding.

    I cringe upon hearing people use words like ‘neger’ because you cannot escape the factor that unless people know that the person uttering the word does not use it pejoratively, it has a negative connotation. And that factor can be enough to tinge further (positive) interaction (meaning; if I believe someone is being deliberately racist, my subsequent interaction with this person is negatively pervaded.)

    I’m all for understanding by interaction and for giving people a chance to explain themselves – but (perhaps in virtue of being a Dane) I can be very aware that I might hurt someone with my choice of possibly loaded terminology (as you might know by now, Danes can be quite non-confrontational).

    Sorry for the lengthy reply – and happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to discussing and reflecting!

    • brunsonw says:

      “…but the wider consequence of research like this being publicised and discussed is that people become a lot more focused on political correctness than informed interaction and understanding. “I couldn’t have said it better. No need to apologize for the reply, it wasn’t lengthy at all! I love learning different perspectives on this type of stuff. So you have definitely provided me with valuable insight that I will keep in mind.

      Yes, I have noticed that Danes are non-confrontational! 😀 Interestingly enough, I went out with some Danish friends last night and they just wanted to know about my experience of being an African-American in Denmark! I am seriously loving these discussions because they teach me how to push aside my biases (both implicit and conscious) formed from growing up in the U.S. and to look at how Danish culture has totally different interactions with “black” people.

      Have a Great Night! Thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes.

  3. hi, read the blog and glad to know what is said dont dictate beings my answer is let your minor be education your major be JESUS for when thestorms of life starts to roll in you have a hiding place i have seen men in suits trying to get janitors job for food on ihe table education in the stomach donot work think on what PILATE said BEHOLD THE MAN, CHRIST our redeemer who suffered needlessly we can endure small things ONE WHO IS LISTENING AND HEARING

  4. Kathy says:

    I, too, came upon your blog by happenstance (it was the first thing that came up on Google when I put in the key words “perspective on american history context understanding bigotry.” I very much appreciate your thoughtful reflections.
    My reason for my search is that I am helping my 83-year old mother edit a series of letters that her great-grandfather wrote to his sister during the American Civil War. The sentiments and words he uses in defense of his pacifist, anti-war stance reek of bigotry — certainly in the context of this day and age. In trying to grapple with how appalled I am when I read of his derogatory reference to “the niggers” I thought I should try to understand the cultural context and norms for his times (1862). It is very hard to do, since in my mind, bigotry is an attitude and state of mind. The question is, is the use of the word “nigger” in the 1860s the same as the use of that term today?
    I appreciate your perspective.

    • brunsonw says:

      Hello,

      Thanks so much for reading my blog post. I think you pose a very good question and it’s something I’ve actually researched at one point in an anthropology class. I think there is still some continuity but as my blog hopefully points out, is that it’s difficult figuring out the intent. Historically speaking, the term has went through several changes, (i.e.-nigger->negro/colored–>African-American/black), I know it’s not that linear and most term changes are diachronic but each change was usually with the intent of “neutralizing” the meaning of the term as many politically correct terms attempt to do. But what’s even happening now is that many African-Americans use the slang of “nigga” as a way to remove the negativity from the word, which there is a question of if that is even possible.

      There are many words that take on historical shifts in meaning. Take for example, hag which was initially meant to refer to a holy woman but has become to mean an old, ugly woman within a contemporary sense. With that being said, I think what you are doing is important, looking at the term within it’s specific time period. I think initially the term “nigger” was used to make a distinction between African slaves and North-Western European Whites but because of multiple reasons which I am sure you are aware of and Eurocentrism, an us vs them paradigm at the expense of the oppression and degradation of one group was created. Whereas the term was maybe initially used to describe phenotypical characteristics it also began to be used to explain ontological characteristics, a state of existence that says you are inferior by your mere existence. In the minds of many that the term is used I think that is what resonates so strongly, this notion of disenfranchisement, inferiority, etc. However, an important shift from the 1800s to now is that it was more explicit (or maybe even more socially acceptable) back then than it is now. Now, the use of the term has become very insidious and when said it still carries the emotional baggage. Lastly, another very important shift has happened that connects with this notion of being politically correct which really annoys me. Now, I think nigger has taken on a race-based meaning that if anyone not black, usually white says the term the meaning from the 1800’s becomes translated through it. Looking back at your question I think these are some of the social shifts that affects the meaning of the term today. I hope this was clear for you. 😀

  5. am says:

    Hi,

    Actually, Denmark has quite a lot in common with the US in terms of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Denmark actively bought, sold and traded slaves until it was outlawed in 1846 (or was it ’48?). Their involvement in the trade of human beings follows the typical triangular pattern of that time: trade goods to Africa, slaves to plantations and slave markets in the New World (the US Virgin Islands were former Danish colonies, sold to the US in 1913) and finally various New World trade items like tobacco, cotton, etc. to Europe.

    Repeat.

    Apparently Denmark was the 6th largest slave trading nation of that time. Unlike the US, however, few slaves were brought to Denmark itself.

    I think these facts say a lot about Denmark, and perhaps goes some way to explaining common perceptions of outsiders in this country in modern times.

    • brunsonw says:

      Hi,

      I am still really skeptical about saying Denmark has quite a lot in common with the U.S. terms of the trans-Atlantic slave trade b/c then we would have to look at the current demographics and Denmark is still relatively homogeneous. As you pointed out, “few slaves were brought to Denmark itself”, that is the huge difference. The U.S. still has descendants of African slaves living within the country enough to be quite aware of the race/colorism divide unlike Denmark where sameness and values of looking and appearing Danish creates a different atmosphere. So although historically there might be some overlaps, how it affects the general consciousness of the society today between both countries are still vastly different.

      Thanks for your reply! 🙂

      • am says:

        Hi again,

        Prejudice takes a lot of forms, I think you’ll find on closer inspection that Denmark does very much discriminate on the basis of not appearing Danish. The categories are ones that are unrecognizable in the US, but here certain features such as dark eyes and hair firmly puts you in the position of the other. Discrimination and prejudice follow closely behind.
        My point is that Denmark and Danes have no excuses, they have been and are just as much a part of European colonialism and exploitation, which includes the TA slave trade, as anyone else and all the excuses made for coarse, xenophobic and racist behaviour are just that: excuses.
        Anyway, it’s a fascinating place to observe prejudice and racism. Being here has really given me a better understanding of the tensions that led to so many wars on this continent. I know I’ve learned things about prejudice etc. that I could not have possibly learned anywhere else.
        Good luck with your research.

  6. am says:

    Hi again,

    Prejudice takes a lot of forms, I think you’ll find on closer inspection that Denmark does very much discriminate on the basis of not appearing Danish. The categories are ones that are unrecognizable in the US, but here certain features such as dark eyes and hair firmly puts you in the position of the other. Discrimination and prejudice follow closely behind.
    My point is that Denmark and Danes have no excuses, they have been and are just as much a part of European colonialism and exploitation, which includes the TA slave trade, as anyone else and all the excuses made for coarse, xenophobic and racist behaviour are just that: excuses.
    Anyway, it’s a fascinating place to observe prejudice and racism. Being here has really given me a better understanding of the tensions that led to all the wars on this continent. I know I’ve learned things about prejudice etc. that I could not have possibly learned anywhere else.
    Good luck with your research.

  7. am says:

    sorry about the duplicate postings … I blamethe lousy keyboard,

    • brunsonw says:

      Ahh, your comment makes perfect sense now. I must point out that I never said that Denmark doesn’t discriminate based on color, I wrote this blog post as a walk through of my own mental process of how I’ve chosen to handle such moments of bigotry based on past experiences. I wrote this coming from my background of the U.S. politically correctness which does not have the same impact in Denmark (based on my personal experiences).

      Nevertheless, I will definitely take into consideration the eloquent point that you’ve made. 🙂

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