Original article written for The Local, available here.
This 2012 headline in a local newspaper led to a national debate over the word ‘neger’. Four years later, nothing has changed. Photo: Justin Cremer
‘Negro Steals Car From 80 Year Old’. This charming article appeared in local newspaper Roskilde Dagbladet not in the 1950s, but in 2012 when it quickly went viral thanks to its opinion-dividing headline that drew attention for its sheer audacity.
At the time, I recall being struck by a wave of discombobulating emotions. Frankly, I could not believe my eyes – the sight seemed farcical, no less. But of course the use of the word neger – which at its best translates as ‘Negro’ and at its worst is the Danish equivalent of the more deragotary ‘nigger’ – is nothing new in our world.
It has been vilifying people of colour and perpetuating stereotypes since the slave age and has enjoyed a lengthy shelf life ever since thanks to a handful of primitive idiots who keep in alive and kicking.
The word remains a link between the progressive ideals of our time and the slave-owning, colonialist empires of yesteryear. It is an utterance that takes us back to the America of the last century, a time of racial divides that endowed those born with lighter skin with better access to human rights and the opportunities for a decent life whilst relegating those born with a darker skin shade to a life of Third Estate poverty.
Then again, approximately 37 percent of all inmates in the states are African-Americans and the same groups has the highest poverty rate (27.4 percent) so have things really changed that much?
Well, slavery has been abolished, apartheid no longer exists and many might contend that Martin Luther King’s dream of a world in which people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” has become reality.
We may thankfully be at a different time and age, but as the continued use of the word neger shows, the world continues to stagger from its hangover from the colonialist, white-dominated masquerade ball that has dominated the narrative of history for centuries. And Denmark (at least the Denmark that the Danish People’s Party lays claim to in its ‘Our Denmark’ campaign), continues to stagger with it.
Imagine a scenario in which a politician in the UK or the US went on national television and decreed the following:
“Personally, I’m colour blind so I don’t even know what colour they [the people featured in the campaign] are. […] We could have inserted a neger [into the campaign], and so what? What would that change? I think in general, people should get into a summer mood!”
Even in a society that remains as backwards in its race relations as the US, such a statement would cause a furore of endemic proportions. Yet that was Danish People’s Party (DF) spokesman Søren Espersen’s response to the criticism over his party’s ‘Our Denmark’ campaign.
Upon hearing Espersen’s unbecoming remarks about his party’s daft campaign, which epitomizes the level of incredulity that has come to define Danish politics in recent times, a part of me was irked. However, unlike when I read that newspaper headline, I was far from surprised.
In the spirit of free speech, I have come to embrace the fact that one is entitled to call people by whatever names they deem fit, so you will of course pardon me when I tell you that Espersen and his horde of fear mongering gits are an inbred, self-loathing, bunch who fail to see the bigger picture.
Espersen, as bold as he is bald and hapless, does actually have a lot in common with many of the neger he would much rather not share a restaurant with, let alone his country.
Like Espersen, today’s hip-hop and R&B greats are caught up in an identity struggle, albeit one of a very different nature. They too, for different reasons altogether, believe that the use of the n-word belongs to the diction of our century rather than the last. The self-proclaimed God himself, Kanye West, tosses it about with reckless abandon amidst his self-glorifying lyricism that only serves to cement popular stereotypes and preserve the status quo.
So the burning question remains. Is it ok to use the word neger or ‘paki’ or ‘half-breed’ or any such-like words at a time when we are constantly told how globalised our society is? Should such rhetoric be censored from literature and media as it was in the infamous case of Pippi Longstocking? And who decides who gets to say such words and who doesn’t?
That politicians, rappers and others continue to appropriate it with reckless abandon shows how far the world still has to come before we can talk of racial equality. Sadly, in the case of Espersen, it is hard to imagine such a situation not arising again.
His defiant claim that the word “lies deep in my vocabulary” because he is “an old man and that word is very comprehensive” was surely said with more integrity than his half-hearted Twitter apology saying he didn’t intend to offend.
Danes often have a good laugh at their ‘politically correct’ neighbours the Swedes, and perhaps with good reason. But Sweden showed earlier this year that rather than waiting for all of the “old men” who prefer racist terms to die off, a society can collectively push itself in the right direction.
After all, as the rise of the new far-right shows, use of such words is not, as Espersen and his defenders would like to contend, a generational thing. It is simply a refusal to consign all forms of the n-word to its place in the unjust history of the world.