“Cultural Sensitivity” and Freedom of Speech: Dilemma?

Posted: January 9, 2011 in Categorized
Tags: , , ,

Recently, I had a discussion with some Danes about distinct cultural differences between Denmark and the U.S. Our discussion ranged from political differences to overall socio-cultural differences in how each society divides or refers to itself. In the U.S., there is a much stronger focus on race/ethnicity and gender whereas, the Danes thought that in Denmark it’s a matter of religion and culture between Danes and Muslims. First, we discussed how it would be virtually impossible for an atheist/agnostic person to become President of the U.S despite Church and State being separate. Then we talked about if Denmark would ever have a Muslim Prime Minister and they said no because there were vast religious and cultural differences. So I wanted to dig deeper into this distinction and they said that in comparing Denmark to the U.S, the U.S. lacks a huge difference between blacks and whites (the largest racial minority and majority group). In addition, they said the U.S. doesn’t have cultural differences between all of its different groups of people because in the U.S. we are all still Christian and American, compared to Denmark where it’s a Christian vs. Muslim paradigm.

Curious to learn more, I decided to push this discussion a bit further and ask what they meant about why they thought that there isn’t a huge cultural difference among American people compared to Danes and Muslims in the states. Well the response was NOT what I expected. The Danish person said they didn’t want to talk about it any further because they feel like I am sensitive about these topics! *LONG PAUSE*  Immediately my mind went back to the first real time I confronted them about their cultural biases, which was when I was called a “nigger.”  Even then, it wasn’t like I went around calling the Danes racist people, I simply bit the bullet and learned what the term means here.

I felt my mind rushing with all the things I wanted to say. I wanted to be as diplomatic and understanding as possible, but this time they didn’t even want to discuss it any further! What felt like minutes, was probably only a couple of seconds, I eventually managed to say, that I’ve been misunderstood and it’s not that I’m sensitive.  However, I just like to question the reasoning behind one’s opinions, especially if it’s such a huge generalization as the one previously stated. But the Danish person went on to explain that they didn’t want to keep talking because they felt like they couldn’t say what they really wanted to say.

Now let’s put this into perspective. I’ve had some very enlightening discussions with Danes but what I sometimes discover is that freedom of speech is a very highly honored right, but it doesn’t leave room for much discussion or even confrontation if you’ve either been offended by a comment or maybe just want to learn more about the reasoning behind thoughts. So every time I question or even explain that I’ve been “offended” or shocked by such a comment, which I usually do in a very relaxed and non-patronizing way, it can sometimes be perceived as being sensitive. It’s like you are supposed to take what has been said and leave it at that because everyone has the right to speak their mind as freely and open, without much regard for consequences. Looking at this from the U.S. perspective, the Danes don’t have a push for being “politically correct” that often clashes with freedom of speech as we do in the states. Now, I am not saying this is a bad or good thing b/c I have many issues with being politically correct. I would rather people say what they mean but really be willing to explain the reasoning behind their statements. But I guess that’s much too rational-minded of me.

On the other hand, if I were to say something completely “rash” or generalized about Danish culture I would automatically be corrected. However, it seems that sometimes reciprocity in this respect is lacking. I don’t profess to be a master or the guru of “American” culture but from my studies I have learned to negotiate between personal and/or academic standpoints. Just as me being here for only 4 months, and not professing to know it all about Danish culture, I would like the same respect from some Danish people. Most of the times, Danes formulate their opinions about American culture though TV shows, movies, and/or the media. At the New Year’s Eve Party this guy kept asking me to do the moonwalk because he’s seen movies and that in these movies black people have incredible dance moves. If I were to challenge his very stereotypical viewpoint, does that make me a sensitive person? Am I supposed to just sit back and allow TV shows, movies and/or the media to dictate how I am perceived? I just took the comment with a grain of salt and laughed it off.

Looking at this from a Danish perspective, ~90% of the people living in Denmark are ethnic Danes, by default of being in Denmark, one is automatically assumed to be Danish. This is portrayed through many factors such as people speaking Danish to you even though you don’t “look” Danish, but still that doesn’t mean you are fully Danish, in the stereotypical and ethnic/cultural sense. This means that even though one might not look Danish; there is this automatic perception that if you are here, you most likely speak the language among other things. However, I can understand that in Denmark you would never have such distinguishing ethnic labels attached to your name, you are Danish and that’s the end of it. There are NOT any differentiations of the Danish identity as there are in the American identity. One would never say Muslim Danish or Black Danish, you are JUST Danish. Interestingly enough, I’ve even noticed that many are aware of cultural differences within the U.S. but some view it as nothing compared to the Danes and Muslims. The U.S. is made of many different cultures and though nationalistically we all have American attached to our names; we are in some ways similar and in some ways distinguished/differentiated, whether you are an African American, Chinese American, or whatever.

Overall, I don’t want to over-generalize and stereotype the Danes as very insular people, that is not my point. The point is that, from my experiences so far, sometimes many Danes have not been okay with an outsider either “correcting” or directly questioning them and in doing so you have the risk of being perceived as either too sensitive or infringing on the almost absolute form of freedom of speech that is so cherished here.

  1. stone says:

    Winnon, this is quite thought-provoking. As I read this, I couldn’t help but imagine a similar situation in Korea, which is also highly homogenous, and its citizens tend to be quite nationalistic. In such a context, the very idea of “multiple cultural identities within one nation” is almost non-existent (among other identities that are not even perceived as “identities”, such as sexual orientation or gender). You are Korean, or not Korean, and that’s that. Classifying males with a masculine identity and females with feminine identity is automatic and implied, and perhaps even seen as some sort of a wisdom (“men are from mars, women are from venus” dichotomy). I sometimes wonder what possible conversations one can have in such a context – but then, I take a step back, and I wonder if this framework of Korean blood, Korean pride, and one, confucious-influenced way of life is, itself, a cultural identity – does that mean that an attempt to challenge such frameworks in our current, “postmodern” world is an attempt to abolish Korean heritage? But then how will we ever have gender equality? Or how will foreigners ever be accepted in Korea?

  2. Frederik says:

    Being Danish and accepting the fact that I didn’t witness or participate in any of the discussions described in the post, I might have this wrong…

    Anyway I want to make a clear point that some of the described danish persons (whom I think I know), don’t have the strongest english vocabulary, and therefore sometimes say things even I get extremely surprised hearing! I know vocabulary shouldn’t be an excuse, but in some of the “misunderstanding situations” I think that is exactly the case.. Cause when I hear it, and I feel knocked out of course from whatever standpoint I hear, others will probably perceive it in the same way.. But when I in my surprised state of mind try to talk with the danish person afterwards (in danish) it all makes sense to me, and I see why both sides fail to understand each other..
    Dont think race is such a big thing here.. Religion mayb… but not race.. and I think a lot of danish people get surprised being confronted with the fact that these things mean so much to others.. Most things said, especially at parties are not always that serious and really should be taken with a smile – as should so many other things in life…

    Hope it makes sense 🙂

    • brunsonw says:

      No one said anything about race at all, that wasn’t even in the line of thinking of this article. This article is basically a comparative analysis between the U.S. and Denmark in terms of how we discuss certain issues differently. It wasn’t to paint a negative picture of either, just a humble analysis, that’s all. I hope it wasn’t taken that way at all. But, race was definitely not a factor that was even thought of in writing this article. As far as the New Years incident, if you check I said I smiled and brushed it off, it didn’t bother me. The example was just used to show how certain stereotypes are talked about differently, that’s all. Although, I mentioned just one incident that refers to what this blog post is about, I have experienced this on SEVERAL occasions and it isn’t just my perspective. I’ve also discussed this with other people who are non-ethnic Danes. I hope that clears it up. 😀

      • Frederik says:

        I know it isn’t a single case, and I know u probably discussed it with others, and I agree!

        I’m just saying that some of the situations I have seen, in my opinion has been something said from one party with no regard of judging or meassuring in any way.. In such a case I dont believe people would normally mind being “corrected” or asked deeper.. It’s only when people realize that they might actually unpurposely have insulted someone with a comment, that they sometime will feel that it is wrong to be corrected? Because instead they feel misunderstood and will rather end the discssion right there.. Kind of like a child, not wanting to accept the reality, plugging a finger in the ear, starting to sing.. A reaction that is so anoying when all u really want is just to talk.. This is at least how I see a lot of situations end up.. If it makes sense?

        And I know u wrote u smiled – I know u always do!! 🙂

        As I said – I wheren’t there so I wont involve my self more..
        Sorry about the “misunderstanding” ( 😉 ) with the race thing.. I probably spoke before reading it all properly (it’s to late in the evening) Just thought some of the cases mentioned, referred to race-discussion cases…

        And I totally get your analysis.. Yehhh

  3. brunsonw says:

    Thanks for your reply. I always try to specify when I refer to the Danes in my blog post with “some” or “many”. I know that some Danes would normally not mind being corrected but there are DEFINITELY some (and in my experience, quite a few) who don’t like it and this is what this blog post was trying to flush out/ make sense of/explain. Thank you for your insight and it was well appreciated. 🙂

  4. the writer says:

    “There are NOT any differentiations of the Danish identity as there are in the American identity. One would never say Muslim Danish or Black Danish, you are JUST Danish.”

    I’d say that’s where you are wrong. If you care to interview dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed Danish citizens, they would tell you that they would never ever be considered as Danish. Definition of Danishness unfortunately limits to people with fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyed. People who were born here, who had never seen their parents’ country, they were still be called immigrant. That’s perhaps the term you were looking for but couldn’t find:

    “andensgenerationsindvandrer” (second generation immigrant).

    I was told by American friend in Norway that in US, when you’re born in the US, you’re American, that’s it but here they will always label you with your roots – being the immigrant kind despite you’ve lived here all your life.

    There’s this article published recently in Politiken where a Korean adopted Danish woman experienced racism in daily basis and the scariest thing was – she wrote that nobody reprimanded the racists / people who made the racist remarks and pretended like it was business as usual. You could read the article here (in Danish)


    If you care to browse the comments, you’d see many similar experiences told by adopted people or other Danes with other skin colours. It’s a sad development that I have seen with my own eyes in the last 5.5 years I have lived here.

    • brunsonw says:

      Thank you so much for your insightful reply.

      Having studied anthropology, I distinguish between legal and social identities. Socially, in Denmark you might still label yourself based on your own personal definition but from what I’ve gathered (legally) you’d hardly ever find terminology such as Muslim Danish or Black Danish as you would in the U.S. with Muslim American or Black American. As a part of my Fulbright project, I also interviewed “dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed Danish citizens” and we have discussed this issue. Also, I’ve noticed you (yourself) have even referred to them as “Danish” citizens. 🙂 That’s my focal point.

      From my interviews, I am well aware of the different labels placed on “immigrants” as the core of my research was focused on exploring the many biases of Danish society in regards to “immigrants”. This post, was written at the very early stage of my research before I really dived into the many distinctions that I have discovered, one being the “andensgenerationsindvandrer” that you have pointed out. What’s even more interesting is how “immigrant” even tends to be used almost exclusively for immigrants from “non-Western countries” among Danes. That to me, really shows an us vs them paradigm that has pervaded Danish society.

      In the U.S., true you are born American as you would technically be born Danish if born in Denmark but people still choose to refer to themselves (socially and legally) as African American or Chinese American. I hardly ever hear that both socially and legally as I would in the U.S. Generally, in the US, we have an individual society, whereas in Nordic/Scandinavian societies, there is more of a collective society, based on the idea of sameness in almost every regard. Thus, making it challenging for those who don’t look stereotypically Danish to fit in. This isn’t to say that it is entirely true for everyone just that on a broad scale this is what you might find. But even in the U.S., being referred to as an American doesn’t always mean you will always be perceived as an American. Just to give you a personal example, all of my family are American and have been here ever since we were brought over during the Transatlantic slavery times of the U.S., but all my life, I have almost always been perceived as someone from Africa and not as an American. Most of the times, the first questions I get: “So are you an American citizen?” or when I go to a place that needs personal identification, sometimes they ask for my passport as though it has already been assumed that I don’t have a personal ID from the U.S. I’m not saying this to get on my soap box or to emote, because now I just laugh at it but it does help unveil preconceived notions.

      I do understand (and have read) the stories of “Danes with other skin colours” having lived in Denmark and who haven’t been accepted into Danish society. Although, there aren’t really differentiations of the Danish identity (more so legally), doesn’t mean that DK is more accepting. Please don’t get that impression as I myself am a “dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed ” person and spent the whole year trying to “fit in or integrate myself” and even in my year, I have definitely become aware of the challenges that exist.

      But your reply has definitely added to my knowledge base about Danish society, so thank you very much. 🙂

      • Eva says:

        The year after I moved to Denmark from the U.S. to be with my Danish husband, Denmark tried to deport 2 teenagers who were born in Denmark and of Palestinian descent. As heinous as their crime was, they were subjected to a sentencing that no other ethnic Dane would have endured. I thought to myself how ridiculous it was to deport these kids to a place they had no ties to. I mean, they were born in Denmark!

        Although there was some public outcry, it wasn’t enough. There was a missed opportunity here to explore the concept of citizenship and it’s impact on Danes and immigrants alike. I have always felt that citizenship by birth was a vital right in creating a country with people who felt that they had a stake in society. Without citizenship, you are always relegated to the status of “other” and “foreigner”. This is not ideal if you want a society where everyone can co-exist peacefully and be productive.

        This incident prompted me to look further into the concept of Danish citizenship. I asked around and found that many of the Danes who I asked about citizenship were not very clear about the laws. What I found was so foreign to me! My own husband, who has a Ph.D, didn’t even realize that when we had children, that even if they were born in Denmark, they would only have conditional citizenship until they turned 18! At that point, they would be forced to choose. Our children would be second class citizens! How awful. In a country like Denmark, where the ideals of egalitarianism are valued to the extent of conformity, they have created a system that is very contradictory.

        In elementary school, I remember the kids teasing me about being Chinese. I was lucky that I was a loudmouth. When the kids tried to shut me up for defending myself, I would gleefully respond that I could say what I wanted because I was an American. It was a free country. I was born here, that I couldn’t just get back on a boat back to China because I wasn’t from there. It was so empowering to know that I was American. There was no way that those kids on the playground could take it away from me. I belonged there on that playground just as much as anyone else. I wonder what it is like for immigrant children who live in Denmark.

        Calling myself Asian American has always been empowering because it says that I am an American who is also Asian. We have a history, a story that binds us to the American fabric. I think that it’s beautiful that people in America can identify themselves as “___-American” and I understand that some people find the identification as divisive, but if you choose to look at it another way, I think that you will find something wonderful. These terms label us ALL American, while at the same time recognizing all the different places we have come from. We all have something special to bring to the table and we are allowed to celebrate it. Calling myself Asian American is a declaration that I have a stake in American society, something that is equalizing across the board. It’s a constitutional right that no one can take away from me, even racist insults. I am still American and I am an important part of society.

        But then this brings me to another issue: integration vs. assimilation. There are vast differences between the U.S. and Denmark in this area. I think that if Denmark wants to make itself more attractive to foreigners, it needs to adopt more positive attitudes towards different ways of doing things. I’m sure you have noticed that conformity is a virtue in Denmark.

        Of course we can’t superimpose our ideas about everything American onto Denmark, but I don’t think that these ideas are necessarily solely American. To call it that is just an excuse to dismiss another opportunity to discuss how to build the new Denmark. Denmark is on the cusp of a new era. The question is, what do Danes want Denmark to look like? I think that it would be helpful for Danes to look into their perceptions of citizenship and living in a multicultural society and think about if it’s working for Denmark as a whole. From what I gather, there are many Danes who would like Denmark to be more of a global player and like the idea of Denmark being an open society, but I think that there are a lot of roadblocks and contradictions.

      • brunsonw says:

        Dear Eva,

        I feel the same way about referring to myself as an African American. I’ve had several discussions in trying to explain to Danes with why I refer to myself as an African American as many view it as wanting to separate myself. I can only understand this in light of Danish conformity.

        After living in Denmark for the past year, it was truly both a challenge and an eye-opener to aspects of the American life that I either took for granted or was not aware fully aware of. I totally agree that Denmark is on the cusp of a new era. However, if there is to be true change or if Denmark wants to uphold its progressive identity, both minority populations and Danes will have to start speaking out and not being afraid to face the possibility of a more culturally diverse Denmark. On the other hand, it’s difficult when minority populations begin to speak out b/c they are viewed as complaining too much or faced with comments such as if you don’t like it, then go back to your own country. It always fascinates me how people in a democratic society love to say that they have freedom of speech but as soon as someone begins to exercise that fundamental right, they are told to remain silent.

        I would love to see Denmark a bit more open to foreigners, because when my plans to stay in Denmark did not work out (and I spent all my time calling around and trying to utilize everyone in my network only to hear, this isn’t my area or I can’t help you), I seriously felt like the country that I was named a Youth Ambassador to promote to the global world about how awesome a place it is to work, live, visit, and/or study had failed me. But every country has it flaws and I still love Denmark as a country and will hopefully return in the near future for a much longer time as that is my heart’s true desire.

        Once again you’ve eloquently discussed an important issue! I am honored that you would stop by and read my blog!

        I hope we cross paths some day! I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about.

  5. Thank you for your explanation. Good to hear that you did interview these people and got insightful stories from them.

    Like you have pointed out, the word “indvandrer” itself is derogatory in Danish language. Just like the word “tosprogede” which basically translates to bilingual. However, the word tosprogede – that only means good thing in other countries, is used to describe children of immigrants who speak other languages than Danish. I find this extremely sad.

    I totally understand you on the part that you don’t see people refer themselves as Muslim Danes or Black Danes, but I think the major difference is that in US – people do differentiate themselves by calling Asian American etc etc. (Sorry again for generalizing, but that’s the kind of impression that I get from my American friends who have different ancestry than Europeans) However in Denmark, it’s the Danes who label these and categorize them into “not-Danish”.

    Second generation immigrants here who have Danish citizenship, born here, grew up here would like to be seen and accepted as Danish and that’s that, but the locals (the blond haired blue eyed ones) would hardly accept them as being as Danish as they are, hence the never-ending debate about Danishness here in the country (although it seems that nobody could ever come up with concrete answer than just potatoes and bøgetræer (sorry I don’t know what’s the English word for that kind of tree)

    I call these people Danish citizens, simply because I’m also seeing them from the eye of an immigrant. I see them as Danish, that’s it, but other Danes would most likely not have the same perception as I do. They’d see these people as immigrants, hence the labelled name “andensgenerationsindvandrere” or a softer term used in TV news (danskere af anden etnisk herkomst – Danes with other ethnic background –> just to point out that they don’t mean the white kind).

    Sadly this problem spreads to many other social problems just like the difficulty of finding a job if you don’t have classic Danish names etc and in the end the government would blame immigrants for not contributing enough to the society (because they can’t pay tax since they can’t get any job – quite a vicious circle).

    But anyway, this has been a sensitive issue for me and for other immigrants in the country in the last couple of years, so pardon my all-too-exciting rambling in your comment column 😉

    • brunsonw says:

      I really appreciate such comments as yours! I’m always open to learning about this type of stuff as it is a very relevant topic and the more discussion the better. Yes, you are right about Americans differentiating themselves in such ways.

      But I seriously learned even more from your comments, so no rambling at all! Coming from a different background and looking at such social relations has really fascinated me, as terminology and social issues such as the ones discussed are also a sensitive topic for me.

      So thanks again for your comment! 🙂

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