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Villains and victims – ethnic-minority men and women struggle to cast off of their stereotyped image

Ethnic-minority men are often portrayed as good-for-nothing villains, whereas ethnic-minority women are viewed as victims. Now, the new book ‘Stemmer fra en bydel. Etnicitet, køn og klasse i Aalborg Øst’ (‘Voices from an Inner-City Neighbourhood: Ethnicity, Gender and Class in Aalborg East’), written by Professor Ann-Dorte Christensen and Associate Professor Sune Qvotrup Jensen paints a very different picture. KVINFO’s web magazine has spoken with the researchers, both from Aalborg University, about the Aalborg East (an inner-city area in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city located in the Northern part of Jutland) and about the blind spots of Danish society, with particularly focus on adult men with ethnic-minority backgrounds.
Aalborg Øst, or Aalborg East in English, is often nicknamed ’Bangladesh’. A product of the 1960s and 1970s, this inner-city area, (which has the 9220 post code) finds itself at the very bottom of the symbolic league table, and it stands in marked contrast to another Aalborg neighbourhood, the far more well-to-do suburb of Hasseris.

Researchers from Aalborg University, led by Professor Ann-Dorte Christensen and Associate Professor Sune Qvotrup Jensen, have now studied daily life and social relations in Aalborg East. 

“The concept of intersectionality was just becoming central amongst Danish researchers when we started the project five years ago, so we set ourselves the objective of intensively studying everyday life, looking at gender, class and ethnicity in the area. Areas such as Aalborg East, which is the most multi-cultural area in North Jutland, represent some of the new challenges facing the Danish welfare system and the Danish model on the whole,” explain the researchers.

Ethnicity is key

By working with gender, ethnicity and class simultaneously, it has been empirically possible to see the diversity in daily life. Of the three categories, ethnicity appears to be the most dominant factor,” tells Ann-Dorte Christensen, Professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Aalborg University. She continues:

“Ethnicity is a key factor in determining how people talk about Aalborg East and for the area’s social mechanisms. The neighbourhood is characterised by a high level of ethnification. In other words, people talk and think about the area as if it was heavily dominated by ethnic minorities living there, despite the fact that ethnic minorities constitute less than 20% of the Aalborg East population. Subsequently, this influences how we understand both class and gender. By working with all three categories at the same time, we can acquire a more nuanced picture of gender and class, so the concept of class again becomes relevant.”

Moving up and down the social ladder

Previously, it was said that moving from one class to another was something often associated with women in relation to education. When migrants come to Denmark, the ethnic minorities often end up living with completely different people in terms of class position compared to those they are used to being around in their home countries. So for many, it’s an issue of moving down the class ladder. Often, these people come from a different and higher social position - a position which is difficult to maintain in Denmark. Just as there is among many ethnic Danes, there is among ethnic-minority groups a great deal of focus on working one’s way up through one’s children and a desire to be upwardly socially mobile or re-establish a lost social position,” explains Ann-Dorte Christensen.

One of the most significant findings in this study is the fact that it appears that men find the migration situation significantly harder to deal with than women. One reason for this could be that on moving here, the male roleI is lost. Previously, the man may have been the one who accounted for and defined the family, being its most indispensable member. But after moving to Denmark, the man is unable to re-establish himself in the same class or gender position. In addition majority society often define ethnic minority men as problematic, so on top of this comes a double stereotyping of ethnic women and ethnic men,” adds Sune Qvotrup Jensen , Asscociate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Aalborg University, continuing:

Whereas ethnic minority women are stereotyped as victims, men are often stereotyped as good-for-nothing villains. And when women are victims, they’re the victims of their husbands. At the same time, the Danish welfare state views ethnic minority men and ethnic minority women differently; here, the primary focus has been on helping the women. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, but no thought has been given to the fact that men have problems as well. To some extent or another, it’s been thought that the men will be able manage on their own because, after all, they are men. By definition, ethnic women are worthy of assistance; men, on the other hand, don’t attract much sympathy. As a result, it seems that men are more threatened by marginalization than women. But none of this is to say that help to women should be stopped or that women don’t have any problems,” emphasises Sune Qvotrup Jensen, he continues:

“The young ethnic-minority men are stigmatised, and they are typically perceived as troublemakers and criminals. Ethnic-minority men who are slightly older – the adults – face the flipside of the Danish debate about gender equality and how integration is being dealt with; problems with gender equality is commonly considered an issue that other people have, not an issue that is considered relevant to ethnic Danish people. And when the others have problems with gender equality and integration then that must also mean that ethnic minority men are patriarchal. Perhaps some are, but obviously not all. Nevertheless, all ethnic minority men risk being positioned as ‘problematic’, and that’s not a particularly comfortable position to find yourself in.

”At the same time, compared to the women, the men have far less opportunity for creating meaning out of the new situation trough investing time and energy in the home and in caring for the family.

‘Association Denmark’ more open to women

Empowered, pro-active and visible ethnic-minority women counterbalance the increasing number of ethnic-minority men who are more vulnerable and more under threat of becoming marginalised. This is one of the surprising main findings of the book and it gives a very different picture than the one painted by the media.

The young ethnic-minority-background men from Aalborg East are in one way or another stereotyped in the media, where they are stigmatised and categorised as dangerous and maladjusted. At the same time, it appears that ‘Association Denmark’, (the un-marginalised Denmark of associations, social activities and joint-interest organisations where the majority of the population are active), appeals more and more to ethnic-minority-background women. Ethnic-minority-background men are however not as attracted to this facet of Danish social society, despite the fact that participation in associations and social activities in particular attracts a great deal of political attention as it is seen as being a powerful integration tool.

There’s a preconception that we need to integrate through projects, and this is something that is most often targeted towards women. This is because we perceive women to be oppressed, and they are the ones we want to help,” explains Sune Qvotrup Jensen, who at the same time stresses that there are also many large and small cultural associations with ethnic minority men, but of which little is known.

Racism-free affiliation with Aalborg East

The book also shows that the ethnic-minorities in general feel a strong sense of belonging and to and affiliation with the neighbourhood, just as the ethnic Danes do, whereas their belonging to Denmark as a nation is less strong.

There is a schism here between feelings of local and national belonging. Here, many of the ethnic minorities feel discriminated by the national state and are offended by the patronising debates in the media, such as those about Muslims. On a day-to-day basis, it seems that relations with neighbours pass off peacefully, and inhabitants interact with one another without conflict, even though there’s little contact to begin with. In fact, we’ve almost never heard any stories about everyday racism, even though it’s a theme we’ve probed in depth. On the other hand, it’s clear that the people there are happy to live there and to meet each other side by side. There’s a very cordial tone and people are friendly to one another. However, many would like to have more contact with other residents because they don’t get much contact inside their private homes. But in relation to the public domain, everything functions peacefully,” tells Ann-Dorte Christensen, continuing:

This took us somewhat by surprise because we were under the impression that people were insulted and racially abused on a daily basis – that’s the reason that we asked so much about it. But people had to really delve deep into their memories to find anything they could think that bothered them or that they found unpleasant. Feelings of injustice were much more vented towards the overriding political discourses about ethnic minorities in Denmark.”

Many of the ethnic Danes see living in the multi-cultural Aalborg East as a positive thing, where, for example, schools and day-car facilities act as major integrating factors.

Roots must have wings

Much of what is written in ‘Stemmer fra en bydel, Etnicitet, køn og klasse I Aalborg Øst’ serves to dispel the myth that a person can only have roots in one specific place, showing clearly how it is possible to have roots in many different places.

I’m surprised at how quickly and how positively many have settled in – particularly the younger ones, who tell how traumatic it has been to leave their homeland, but who also tell how quickly they’ve settled in and made a life for themselves here in Aalborg East. And some of the young women in particular have found returning to their home countries very difficult; here, they have had their eyes opened to the gender relations that they grew up with and it’s difficult for them to return to the patriarchal family hierarchy. At the same time, for some, it’s also been difficult to accept that they have to support the family in the home country financially when, for example, one young woman tells how she experienced the women in there as lazy, whereas she herself had to work and send her hard-earned money home,” continues Ann-Dorte Christensen.

For the older generations, it’s particularly memories and perceptions of their former home countries that serve to uphold their sense of belonging, rather than the country itself as it is today; both the home country and the individual develop and change. But they have an emotional investment in what they remember – something that can exist alongside a sense of feeling at home in their new country. It’s not a matter of choosing either one or the other, and it’s the everyday life that has an effect on how settled they feel. And there’s certainly room here to keep a few memories,” Ann-Dorte Christensen points out.

Aalborg East – a good model for inner-city initiatives

Both researchers believe that Aalborg East represents a good model when it comes to working in the inner-cities as here people work both from ‘the bottom’ up (for example active residents) as well as from ‘the top’ down (for example, a responsive municipal wellfare system). In general, there has been much focus on giving the neighbourhood a lift by setting up associations, installing day-care facilities and establishing green areas. These things, combined the with passionate work of both professionals, volunteers and a broad cross-section of residents, are what have proven to be the great strength here, tells Sune Qvotrup Jensen, continuing:

They’ve had a lot of success with a local welfare state here in the municipality. Alongside their work here, this has done something for the area in collaboration with the local housing associations and in dialogue with those who live here. Local initiative-takers who are passionate about getting things done are given direct support, meaning that many problems can be avoided. Previously, the main focus was working with the area’s image, which resulted in upholding a feeling that people shouldn’t be ashamed to live there. And perhaps this is the reason that those who live in Aalborg East are happy to live there, because their pride and dignity for living in the area are supported. It’s of course a shame that this doesn’t extend outside the area, but perhaps that’s expecting too much,” explains Sune Qvotrup Jensen, who, following the divorce of his parents, himself lived in the area as a young student, studying the area in both his Master’s dissertation and his PhD thesis.

We’d very much like to conduct a follow-up study of the ethnic-minority men, for example, those who get divorced. There was too little focus on the adult men and too little focus on the issue of substance abuse – something that social workers are often blind to, particularly in the case of alcohol abuse. We can also see that there are blind spots in the social work when it comes to minority men who buckle under and drop out of society – we need to remain aware of the fact that we also can do things for the men. It’s absolutely possible do both,” emphasised Sune Qvotrup Jensen.

He, together with Ann-Dorte Christensen and the other researchers from Aalborg University are now going to hold dialogue meetings with the residents of Aalborg East, Local Aalborg councillors and social workers about the book and its research findings. And as the residents say:

We just have to hope that someone at a national level will learn from it.”
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Ann-Dorte Christensen is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Aalborg University. In particular, she works with gender research, citizenship and daily life.

Sune Qvotrup Jensen is a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Aalborg University, His work primarily focusses on gender research, sub-cultures and urban studies. 

In addition to the two principal authors, the book also includes contributions from lecturer Stine Thiedemann Faber and lecturer Jacob Skjøtt-Larsen. Lecturer Jan Brødslev Olesen has edited the books comprehensive pictorial material. 

In the book ‘Stemmer fra en bydel. Etnicitet, køn og klasse I Aalborg Øst’ (‘Voices from an Inner-City Neighbourhood: Ethnicity, Gender and Class in Aalborg East’), the researchers Ann-Dorte Christensen and Sune Qvotrup Jensen form Aalborg University have particularly been interested in the relationship between gender, ethnicity and class. The book, which was published by Aalborg University Press in August 2012, builds on the project ‘INTERLOC – Gender, Class and Ethnicity’, which was supported from 2007 to 2011by The Danish Council for Social and Commercial Affairs (Forskningsrådet for Samfund og Erhverv).

The analyses in the book are based upon comprehensive empirical material consisting of:
- personal interviews with 27 residents and six social workers
- a study of two associations in the area: Kvinders Vækst (Women’s Progress) and Borgerforum (Citizens’ Forum)
- a media analyses of newspaper articles on the area
- statistical information

The key findings of the book are summarised in the booklet ‘Aalborg Øst: Hverdag of Felleskab’ (‘Aalborg East: Daily Life and Community Spirit’), which has been published in Danish, Arabic, Somali and Turkish, and can be downloaded free from the website of Aalborg University Press here.

The book book ‘Stemmer fra en bydel. Etnicitet, køn og klasse i Aalborg Øst’ is available from the Aalborg university Press. It costs DKK 250,- and can be ordered online here.


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