‘Hygge Racism’ Behind Hate Crime Rise in Denmark, Say Some Minority Groups

A recent study from the Danish Human Rights Institute reports a worrying number of bigoted attacks since the start of the pandemic.
October 22, 2020, 4:43pm
Bakken Amusement Park in Copenhagen, Denmark
Photo: Oliver Förstner / Alamy Stock Photo

A new study from the Danish Human Rights Institute reports that the pandemic has led to a rise in hate crime against minority groups and the LGBTQ community in Denmark.

As part of the study, the institute sent surveys to different minority groups on social media. They received 2,000 responses and interviewed ten people about their experiences.

Respondents revealed that they had faced a wide range of bigoted attacks, including outbursts that ranged from strangers shouting “go home” to those of Asian decent of being called “disease spreaders”. Some participants even reported instances in which they had been spat on. Crucially, all of the participants said that these hate crimes were committed in public spaces – as they were walking, going shopping or taking public transport.

The study also found that due to the government restrictions put in place to stem the spread of coronavirus, Denmark’s minority groups reported being more self-conscious in public spaces. Many felt that they stood out in the smaller crowds created by COVID-19 lockdown measures.

The institute recommends that the Danish government implement action plans against hate crimes “that explicitly address the motives of race, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and disability.”

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Convincing the general public to adopt any changes might be difficult, however. Another recent study by Danish newspaper Politiken found that 51 percent of Danes disagreed that racism was a widespread problem in the country.

But to some of the respondents to the institute’s survey, the findings will be nothing new. A number revealed that they have never felt safe in Denmark’s public spaces – all the pandemic did was reinforce these fears.

Tinne Steffensen, who worked on the report, told VICE News that since publishing, the institute has seen attacks shift from primarily targeting those from Asian descent to minorities in general, with many cases going unreported.

Jamila Versi, a housing rights activist and filmmaker, says that the findings of the report are true to her personal experiences during the pandemic, and added that if anything racism has “risen exponentially.”

“It is extremely hard to legally define something as a hate crime in Denmark,” Versi says. “I know very few BIPOCS living in Denmark, particularly queer and trans people, who have not at some point been threatened [or been] victims of a hate crime growing up in Denmark.”

She continues: “I am not sure how much the number has risen over the past few months, but I know people who have had their Hijabs ripped off, I know East Asians who have felt scared to walk on the street without being accompanied by a white friend. I have seen a rise in police arrests and stop and searches of brown and Black youths.”

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Versi also points out that the recent murder of a young Black man in Bornholm by two white siblings – one of whom had a swastika tattoo – was not classed as a hate crime. The police claimed that there was no evidence of racial motivation.

So, why do 51 percent of Danes not the see the problem? Like many people in the study, Versi blames the discrepancy on “hygge racism.”

The term “hygge” has gained global popularity in recent years, representing a lifestyle that evokes comfort and cosiness. But to Danes, the term more often refers to a social atmosphere that is both stress-free and fun. To call something out as racist would disrupt the hygge in the room, making you an unwelcome agitator. This fear of ruining a vibe by complaining about racism is therefore known as hygge racism.

To given an example of hygge racism in action, Versi describes a film workshop that she attended recently, in which she was repeatedly referred to as “the coloured one”, and asked by other white attendees where she came from and what her immigration status was.

“All in a 30-minute conversation,” she says, “and nobody around the table batted an eyelid.”