Voices of nationalism as everyday entertainment among youth: Long-lasting effects of ethnocentric discourse

4 minutes to read
Column
Janus Spindler Møller
21/09/2017

“You know what - you are a bunch of ugly pakis!” The words are shouted out during a break in a 9th grade classroom in a Copenhagen school. They are translated from Danish and the word paki is a rough translation of the Danish expression perker. This term is stereotypically used to refer to people with a Middle-eastern background. In this particular class, around 80% of the students’ families migrated to Denmark. The girl quoted here (let’s call her Israh) describes her parents’ background as Jordanian-Lebanese. Most of the students immediately stop what they are doing and direct their attention to Israh. One of her classmates objects to the insult. Then Israh states in a giggling voice that she is pretending to be “Pia Kjærsgård” – a well-known member of the “Danish People’s Party”.

This sets the scene for a role-playing game instead. Mock insults are thrown back and forth. One student (with Lebanese family background) keeps saying “we contribute, we contribute”. Another student claims that without “us immigrants” there would be no one to drive the buses in Denmark. Many of the verbal contributions are accompanied with applauses and laughter. All in all the students seem to have a great time. A team of linguistic ethnographers are following the class during this period. The present field worker describes the exchange as “absolutely without malice” and on the recording he is heard giggling along with the students’ laughter.

During this episode in class, mainly students with a minority background took part. Yet, during a similar episode audio recorded the following day, we can hear how Israh encourages a classmate with a Danish majority background to play Pia Kjærsgård. The boy accepts the challenge. With a nice parody of the voice of a “soap box” politician he proclaims that “we, here in the Danish society must stand together against you stupid immigrants!” Again, this results in laughter and shouting.

These incidents reflect the wave of an ethnocentric nationalist discourse in the media and in the political debate in Denmark. The first thing that comes to my mind is that many of the parodies carried out by the students are strikingly precise. In a quote typical for the Danish People’s party, Pia Kjærsgård states that “if the Danish welfare society shall last economically, socially and without a risk of breaking down because of massive crime the key is that we make demands and have the courage to continue to make demands of immigrants and their descendants” (my translation). Here we find the construction of the category “immigrants and their descendants” which poses a threat to society because of their criminal tendencies. This category is opposed to an abstract “we” who knows the right way and need to “help” the “immigrants and their descendants” to find it.

Obviously, there is a very important difference in the statements made by politicians and the versions acted out by the adolescents. Where statements by politicians are devoid of any humor and meant to be taken at face value, the adolescents put a great effort into showing the interlocutors that the voices are not their own but parodic versions of voices representing somebody else. In this sense, the parodic activity in question can be seen as a way of handling the structural discrimination build into the nationalist discourses. The adolescents, so to speak, fight out the battle against racism on their communicative home turf genres of performance and dissing contests - not by counter-arguments, but by ridicule. Another observation which supports this is that while the students in the class may have conflicts quite often, these almost never contain ethnic elements in spite of (or maybe because of) the high level of different cultural (and linguistic) backgrounds among the students.   

While the parodies of nationalist discourses can be seen as a healthy input and as a life-enhancing way of handling an ethnocentric discourse in the everyday of super-diversity, they also point to an underlying fact with far-reaching consequences: No matter their color or cultural background, the students know the nationalist discourses by heart. They can in a flash perform mock statements about “the real Danes” and “the subversive immigrants”. The ease by which they jump in and out of roles linked to the stereotype of “the good, contributing immigrant” of course display their performative skills, but it also reveals the degree of familiarity with a discourse that recognizes some of the students as good enough in themselves and others as in need to change before they can be recognized as “contributing citizens”.

How the activities described here interrelate with the identity constructions of the adolescents is of course a large and complex question. I will, however, mention one pattern: Sometimes a fieldworker from our research team would ask the students who were born in Denmark and whose parents were migrants if they considered themselves to be Danes. This question often led to some confusion as if the participants were surprised that this could be an option. Then, after a moment of reflection, some of the participants would state that when they were outside Denmark they would actually identify as Danes when talking to others. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that the option of identifying as Dane in Denmark is ruled out by the ethnocentric nationalist discourse.

The data I used as case here are collected 6 years ago and since then the ethnocentric discourse in politics has grown stronger. The case shows that when stake holders publicly divide citizens and stigmatize certain groups, this has long-lasting influence on children and adolescents, who embody the knowledge about the stereotypes in their everyday life. Sometimes they employ this knowledge in cheerful roleplaying, other times they are simply cut off from possibilities of identification by the discursive power regimes of nationalism.

 

References

Møller, J. S. (2016). Discursive reactions to nationalism among adolescents in Copenhagen. I L. M. Madsen, M. S. Karrebæk, & J. S. Møller (red.), Everyday Languaging: Collaborative research on the language use of children and youth. (s. 219-242). Berlin/Boston: Mouton de Gruyter.

Nassri, Lamies (forthcoming): ”Os” og ”Dem” – Et studie af de dominerende offentlige diskursers påvirkning på nutidige københavnske unges situationelle konstruktion og forhandling af identitet. To appear in: Copenhagen Studies of Bilingualism