Discrimination vs. acceptance and humanist racists.

Before Ramadan, I attended a few charity events. This way you get to meet and greet people. You get to see how non-profits/charities operate at the social level. In my case, I got to observe the significance of relationship building in an organizational context. They were interesting outings and I met some keen travellers to share my travel anecdotes with.

At one of the dinners I met 2 jovial fellows. One of them, a British Bangladeshi, works with a small investment firm in London and plans to do a Ph.D. in economic history. The other, a Muslim Indian, basically from UAE, but residing in England for the past 10 years. Following our introductions and sharing travel stories, the Bangladeshi-British asked me a very interesting question, which is the inspiration for this entry. He asked me, a few words more or less added or subtracted, but the essence of his question being this:

Being born and bred in Denmark, knowing how racist Danes and Scandinavians in general are. This is, keeping in mind the Muhammad cartoons and just in general race relations in Europe. How would you say ethnic minorities are being allowed to progress professionally and socially? He also asked me, but it being more of an assumption than a question that my family and I, whether we were assimilated.

Anyone knowing me and my family will ascertain that although active members of our neighbourhood community, we were far from assimilated, but very much integrated, and actually an accepted part of the community we lived in–the lovely, verdant Virum, a suburb north of Copenhagen. Mind you, the people we grew up amongst were not very tolerant or accepting towards ethnic minorities.

It was an interestesting question, and frankly I was a bit taken aback by his frankness, albeit, pleasantly. I appreciated the question because it challenged my interpretation skills and forced me to apply my knowledge of cultural processes. I took in his question. At first I had no idea what to say. Simultanously, his question deserved a good answer. I’m just glad the right words came out.

This was my answer, a few words added or subtracted. I agree with you, Danes are known for being racist, xenophobic, biased and prejudiced against ethnic minorities and Muslims. I’m not saying it didn’t’ affect us, while growing up. It did and there was not much we could do other than work hard and try to be good citizens. The area we grew up in, our childhood friends all belonged to the upper middle income groups and neither they, nor their parents were accepting towards foreigners. However, when my parents migrated, or rather, were invited to Denmark, they were very young and curious. Most importantly, they were educated and belonged to an educated, urban background. The first thing they did when they arrived there, was to learn the language. Nevertheless, during their early days in Denmark, the people they interacted with were young like them, equally curious and from educated backgrounds. Their friends were children of engineers, doctors, factory owners, entrepeneurs. Many of their friends were university students. My mother often says, “there was no time for me to miss Pakistan, my parents, my family because we became so absorbed with our life in Denmark.”

During those days people would often come up to them and befriend them. So, the communication problem being a non-issue, integration was easy peasy. Moreover, Because our parents were hard working taxpayers, living in their own house as owners, the only thing separating us from the rest was our skin colour, funny sounding names and unknown religious following. The people who knew us would talk about us to their friends and they would say if it hadn’t been for their skin colour, surnames and religion, they are just like us. The reason I know this was being said about us is because when we met the friends of our friends, they would say, “ohh so you’re the one. We’ve heard so much about you, nice to meet you”.

Of course we were different. It was hard and frustrating to often be singled out just because you were different, and the only thing going in your favour being working harder, keeping your head down and getting on with it. I must admit being an immigrant in Denmark was tough. However, one thing I will emphasize is, irrespective of the difficulties associated with living in a country you consider your own, but don’t belong to, Denmark did allow us to get ahead with our lives in a way the people of a country which is my own but didn’t accept me as its own, did everything to deny me. I did add that at the end of the day it depends on you as a citizen. You can’t live in isolation of your surroundings.

On a final note, a few days later when I discussed this conversation with a friend, how people seem to fail to fathom that Denmark allowed us to get ahead, while Pakistanis forced us to the lowest ranks of social non-existence. Moreover that racist can have a streak of humanism in them. She gave me a good answer. She said: “basically people who know about Scandinavia know they are very closed societies. They generally don’t like people too different from them and the fact that your parents were able to break through the barrier and be accepted as part of such a closed society is very unique and special. People don’t understand because they know how Scandinavians are and it’s not normal behavior for them, so your parents must be very unique and you should be proud of what they managed to achieve being Asian and Muslim in such a closed society.”