I am reading Lena Sundström’s book Världens lyckligaste folk (Eng: The world’s happiest people). It gives a brilliant insight into the development of xeno- and islamophobia (with a big focus on Denmark) for anyone who reads Swedish. Sundström makes countless interviews to find the roots of this fear of the foreign. In one of these interviews she speaks to a taxi driver, Shakil, born just north of Copenhagen who says “My father came here in 1967, so my whole family lives here in Denmark. We will never become Danish, but we feel Danish” (my translation).
This summer I heard a radio show with the Swedish stand-up comedian Soran Ismail. He talked about his time as an exchange student in the US, and about how he was fascinated about Americans always assuming that you’re American, until proved different. If you are an American citizen, you are American – you might be Italian-American, Kurdish-American or Finnish-American, but you’re always American, and whatever identities you have, they can exists simultaneously, without competing with each other. He contrasted this to Sweden (and I argue that this goes for not only Sweden, but for most if not all of Europe) where he, having Kurdish roots, are always seen as foreign, as immigrants – whether you’re second, third or fourth generation immigrant, you’re still an immigrant, still asked where you really are from.
This can easily be related to the discussion in the Dutch-speaking part of Europe on the use of the very Dutch word allochtoon. Allochtoon literally means “originating from another country” and it is the opposite of autochtoon which means “originating from this country”. The distinction between comes from the world of statistics, where people were categorized so that social progress in different groups could be measured. The problem is that allochtoon is used for not only immigrants, but for second, third, fourth and so on generation of immigrants, thus absurdly, your grandparents can be born in the Netherlands, but you are still not considered from here. And as Wouter Verschelden, the editor-in –chief of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen said when explaining why the paper recently decided to stop using allochtoon: “it is a very excluding term, it is even a binary way of labeling people: you are always one of the two, but never both. You cannot be a bit allochtoon…” (my translation). The European aspect is important here: in the use of allochtoon in Dutch, a distinction is made between Western and non-Western allochtonen – people that are like us, and people that are not – people that are European and people that are not (never mind where Eastern Europe fits in to all this). Inclusion and exclusion.
So where do I want to go with all this? I am trying to make an argument for the need for a broader definition of what it means to be Danish, Swedish, Dutch, or European for that matter. I am arguing that the current discourse is a result of while at the same time recreating exclusion. The language we use and the questions we ask are creating reality as we know it. I want to see a new reality in the shape of a blurred and inclusive definition of what it means to be European, where we all are allowed our multiple identities and where self-definition is the only limit to anyone, including Shakil, being European.
Matilda Flemming is a first generation immigrant to the Netherlands. From Finland. Speaking Swedish. Living in English.