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Denmark isn’t all it's cracked up to be

This past semester, I lived in Copenhagen for four months, studying the expansive welfare state I had heard so much about. It only made sense; I am a progressive and a public policy major. Bernie Sanders’ invocation of Denmark as the model for American liberalism throughout the 2016 Democratic primary fascinated me. I read The Huffington Post in 2013 as Sanders explained that Denmark had “developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all—including the children, the elderly and the disabled.” Sanders reiterated this point in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, when he pointed to Denmark—and its Nordic neighbors—as a prime example of good governance.

Sanders was the revolutionary figure I had been waiting for to shake up the Democratic Party. I trusted his opinion. 

Then I spent four months in Denmark.

I arrived in the country with the wide eyes of a policy wonk entering a liberal utopia. I looked around with wonder as Danes whizzed by, biking on their way to work to do their part for the environment. My jaw nearly hit the floor my second week in the country, when I returned from class and ripped open one of my first pieces of mail only to find the contact information for Doctor Grubert, who I could see, free of cost, through Denmark’s universal healthcare system. And, when my class visited a local secondary school, native Danes took us from open classroom to open classroom, showcasing the country’s holistic and pupil-centered philosophy of education along the way.

But Denmark is not the utopia it’s cracked up to be.

Through my classes, I started to uncover the darker undertones of Danish society. I witnessed the hegemonic expressions my Danish teachers used with regularity. I heard the racist slurs my Danish teammates, playing by my side on the soccer field, used to taunt opponents. I read the sensationalized stories pedaled by politicians in order to promote a xenophobic, exclusionary agenda.

After four months in the country, I understood that the same Danes who heralded the remarkable lack of income inequality would propose Trumpian immigration policies meant to limit the influx of refugees and at-risk migrants. One afternoon, as I failed to find my bike, I mentioned my predicament to Morten, my Danish friend. Without taking a breath, he explained, “A Romanian probably stole it.” And what about the contraction of the welfare state over the past two decades? That’s because the Danes cannot trust the immigrants flooding into the country, Christina, my Danish Language professor, was quick to disclose.

I expected Denmark, with all of the discussion in liberal circles praising its all-encompassing welfare state, to be free of the -isms that plague American culture. When my plane touched down on the tarmac at Copenhagen Airport, I expected to exit customs into a society unfettered by sexism, nationalism, and racism. In hindsight, of course that hope was misplaced. Denmark, a country where men, women and children largely look alike, had not yet learned to trust those who did not resemble their stereotypical selves.

But the lesson that homogeneity can instill close-mindedness does not stop at the Danish border. In fact, the wealthy and largely white demographics of the Danes ultimately reminded me of my hometown in suburban Ohio. Nearly every day on my playground growing up, I heard racial and homophobic slurs. I learned the derogatory nature of the term “Oreo” when my classmates used it to describe my friend Caleb, who heard hushed whispers that he “wasn’t really black.” Joseph Hu would see his classmates, whom he considered to be his closest friends, squint in his direction in order to make “Asian eyes” to get a cheap laugh.  And when I had a particularly hard day in the third grade, I ran to the bathroom, eventually emerging with a red nose and wet cheeks.  Almost immediately upon emerging from the stall, my classmate Bobby turned around to call me “gay.”  In my suburban elementary school, these slurs were the norm, not the exception. And after 18 years spent living in this largely white, middle-class community, I came to understand that its singular makeup was often the root cause of the community’s prejudice.

This conclusion should not exist as a negative, discrediting dreams of a liberal bastion that exists in a far-off land or dismissing white American suburbs. Instead, my experiences speak to the value diversity can bring to a community.

At Duke, we are forced to confront our own privilege through campaigns like You Don’t Say and What I Be. We regularly hold conversations with peers from around the country and the globe. Although more can always be done, we have the Mary Lou Center, the Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity and the Women’s Center to support diversity on Duke’s campus. By simply existing within a community of scholars of every creed and color, sexual and gender identity, we understand our peers not through simplistic caricatures, but through the complex interactions that define what it means to be human. By taking part in a diverse community, we confront the perverse logic of racism, sexism, and every other form of discrimination. In interacting with those who look, sound and act differently from ourselves, we are forced to understand that our experience is not the universal experience.

After four months in Denmark, I know that we need to stop idolizing this homogenous, liberal country. We should celebrate our own diversity and acknowledge both the challenges and successes it brings. We don’t spend enough on financial aid, our housing model isolates some students, and we don’t do enough to connect with the greater Durham community. However, our true character shows in how we respond to this adversity. At the end of the day, I would rather progress with the diversity of my classmates than bask in a culture of homogeneity.

Steve Hassey is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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