Borders in the Classroom: Denmark and Minority-Ethnic Youth
At the age of 11, my parents decided to transfer me to the sister school to the one I was attending. They had long work days, so the sister school's distance from our home was appealing. It only took five minutes on the bus, in contrast to the one I was attending that took me over an hour on the bus and metro. However, when they tried to enrol me, they were informed by the school administrator that there was no spot for me. As part of an integration programme established by the school with the intention of avoiding a ‘problematic’ school environment, they only took one ‘immigrant child’ per three Danish children, and at the time, the numbers did not add up to allow me to attend the school. Though not established by the state, the school’s alleged ‘integration programme’ is symptomatic of a state-wide and often state-led discourse that singles out ethnic minorities as problematic unless diffuse.
Is it not an oxymoron to attempt to integrate someone into the only society they have ever known?
At such a young age, it was strange to be forced to accommodate this discourse, one that did and does still politicise and problematise my own existence relative to my majority-ethnic friends and classmates. But what was even more difficult to conceptualise at this age was the demarcation of myself as somehow lacking ‘Danishness’, despite the fact that I and many other minority-ethnic children were born here. Is it not an oxymoron to attempt to integrate someone into the only society they have ever known?
Yet, this ethnonationalist discourse underwrites the modern Danish state: in 2017, a small majority in the Danish parliament symbolically voted that one can only be considered a ‘Dane’ when both one’s parents come from a ‘Western’ country. As such, Danishness has been consolidated as an ethnically exclusionary category, inextricably connected to the ‘whiteness’ of the West. Of course, concern over the ethnic composition of a nation is by no means unique to Denmark. Indeed, it is representative of the personalisation and inward movement of borders that constitute ‘Fortress Europe’. In ‘Fortress Europe’, borders have ceased to solely denote physical barriers surrounding a city or a country. Instead, borders have become soft, abstract, and personal.
The discourse feeding these kinds of policies created a hierarchy between the students, where belonging to one group rendered you problematic and belonging to the other rendered you exemplary.
Minority-ethnic children in Denmark continue to represent this inward movement and personalisation of borders. What is unique, however, is that this is the case in spite of us holding Danish passports and being born within Danish borders. Denmark, rather than at least nominally treating all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, the same, has opted to formally distinguish between (and respond differently to) majority-ethnic and minority-ethnic citizens. Though often these formalities are presented as a strategy to enhance integration, an effort for genuine integration between the youth of different socio-economic classes and ethnicities cannot be built upon the supposition that descendants of ‘non-Western’ migrants grow increasingly problematic in high numbers. As legal expert, Anika Seeman highlights, the policies have had the very opposite effect from what was intended, resulting in the spatialisation and ethnicisation of social citizenship.
My experience in Danish education confirms this view. I attended a ‘free school’ (one that combines the Danish curriculum with other forms of pedagogy) which overwhelming taught working class and minority-ethnic students. The discourse feeding these kinds of policies created a hierarchy between the students, where belonging to one group rendered you problematic and belonging to the other rendered you exemplary. This discourse permeated not just the students, but, of course, also the state and school administration, causing the perpetuation and recycling of the same dangerous logic. Being a free school, it was routinely inspected by someone approved by the Danish Ministry of Education to ensure that it followed the Danish curriculum. Examining these reports for this article, I was struck by the emphasis the inspector places on the ethnic backgrounds of the students. He blatantly admits that in his conversations with some of the teenage-students, he “attempted to provoke with questions about refugees, foreigners, and integration [sic]” and that he was surprised that the students “do not at all consider themselves ‘victims’, but [instead] discuss [the questions] pragmatically and with maturity.”
The second report I opened is, similarly, centred around racist presuppositions and stereotypes that reflect the inspector’s view of minority-ethnic youth as representative of the thin border between ‘Danishness’ and the ‘Other’. The same inspector exclaims, that in contrast to his anticipations, “the students approached [the subjects] Danish and Social Studies analytically, rather than: judgemental-victims-hurt.” In other words, the inspector assumed that the students were incapable of objectivity and pragmatism, and instead judged others’ opinions, victimized themselves, and felt hurt, in subjects dominated by debate.
The views of this inspector are in no way unique. Nevertheless, they are necessary to dissect, as they present good examples of how minority-ethnic children’s very existence is politicised in the psyche of individuals. In particular, the inspector’s attempt at provoking minority-ethnic teenagers by presenting them with potentially emotionally jarring topics, and expecting them to respond pragmatically, well-knowing that their parents may have fled war-torn countries, highlights how minority-ethnic youth in Denmark are held to very different standards than their majority ethnic counterparts.
In fact, the school policy I encountered as a child seems on the brink of state-wide institution.
Integrationalist policies are only set to become more widespread. In 2021 a majority in the Danish parliament voted for a new system to allocate high school students in the larger of the Danish cities. The new system starts in 2023 and separates students into three categories based on their parents’ income: low income, middle income, and high income. A specific number of students from each bracket will be accepted into a given high school. The system, developed by the current left-wing coalition government, is intended to ensure a more representative socioeconomic distribution in schools so that social classes do not ossify, but more significantly, it has been consistently presented in parliament and media as a method to ensure a more representative ethnic distribution. The presentation of it as necessary to combat the establishment of ‘ghetto high schools’ and the alleged Islamization of high schools in big cities raises questions about the intentions behind the new allocation system. It appears to be yet another addition to the public discourse framing minority-ethnic Danish youth as problematic. And yet another policy portraying minority-ethnic Danish youth as the barrier between civilized ‘Danishness’ and the ‘Other.’ In fact, the school policy I encountered as a child seems on the brink of state-wide institution.