Dear DR and readers of my first open letter,
Ok. First of all, this is not a complete retraction. Let me begin by saying that I am really surprised about the reaction I got from this first open letter. No, I haven’t heard back from DR, but I have heard from a lot of other people, and that’s a start. It means that a discussion is being had, and that discussion is important. It’s important for Danes of all ethnicity, age, religion and background. Really, talking honestly about race and stereotypes is important for everyone in the modern world.
Getting the discussion started was exactly what Collins intended to do by using these minstrel characters as the opening to Sort Arbejde. That’s right – it was Collins’ idea to use the “Mammy” and “Coon” images in the intro graphics to the show. I was again completely shocked to hear this from his own mouth when I stopped by A+ Perfect Service this morning. I went there, as I was advised to do last night in the wake of a fervent discussion that began on Facebook when I shared my open letter. I was greeted warmly by Collins and his wife Loveth, who are just as real in person as they appear on the show. They are wonderful people.
As Collins explained it to me, he felt that it was time to address the issues of race that he dealt with in Denmark by raising some eyebrows and getting everyone’s attention. He suggested that the show be opened with minstrel illustrations because “this is how many Danes see (him), but when they watch the show, they will have to see (him) for who (he) truly is.” Who he is I can assure you is a compassionate and intelligent man who wants to confront the prejudices and injustices that many foreigners in Denmark experience. He wanted to contrast these awful stereotypes with himself and his wife, who are hardworking educated people who are in charge of their own affairs and have agency in Danish society, despite any instances of racism or discrimination they face.
Take a minute to digest that. I did. So here’s is part 2 to my train of thought…
I have to say to DR openly, that I was wrong. As offensive as I still find these images to be in general, I cannot hold the network responsible for their use on “Sort Arbejde.” The intentional irony of juxtaposing stereotypes against real people has brilliant intentions – to force people to recognize the worst kinds of misjudgement that members of our society make to this day, and prove those misjudgements to be wrong with a real life example.
However, as is so obvious by own reaction, these minstrel images are so easily misunderstood. They are so charged and so powerful because of there historical use, that their usage in any context can be like playing with fire, even with the most Promethean of intentions. In part, I actually agree with Collins – sometimes you need a spark to start a fire. But nobody wants to burn down the whole house just to start a chat around the fireplace. As is evidenced by the recent case of Yahya Hassan, and my good friend Zaki’s response to his case, race is not a simple issue of right and wrong, of moral and immoral, or even of victim and oppressor. In a modern society, and I would argue especially in the Danish context, the layers of this issue are plentiful – and we have only just begun to pull back the peel.
We have a lot of deep digging to do yet – and I fear that in the case of Sort Arbejde, despite the honorable intentions of playing directly into controversy, there will inevitably be unintended consequences from this minstrel intro. As with Yahya, the devaluation or misinterpreting of the meaning of the texts at hand could actually give folks the wrong impression – that minstrels can be accepted into canon of ironic Danish satire, or worse, that some “racism” is actually justifiable. In that case, the irony intended by Collins is completely missed; the subtext here becomes that the symbols aren’t actually offensive at all. Judging by some of the comments I have already recieved, that seems to be the message that some folks have taken away. As one comment on my open letter put it, “Do not worry it`s called satire I have ” black ” friends who find it very funny ”
Well, I don’t think it’s funny. The great danger is what I like to refer to the “gaslighting effect,” where anyone who blows the whistle on racism has not only their credibility, but their sanity called into question.
I’m not crazy. I know my history. Stereotypes are unacceptable. But I will admit to jumping the gun with my first open letter to DR – if I had talked with the subjects of the show first, my take would have been completely different. However, that’s not a blanket endorsement of the use of minstrelsy, and my mistake doesn’t justify anyone else’s subsequent errors or insensitivity – or their ignorance for that matter.
Thank you Collins and Loveth so much for taking the time to speak with me, and for opening up the much needed debate about foreigners and racism in Denmark. I can only hope that fire started continues to keep us all huddled around the warmth long enough to have a meaningful conversation.
Brandon Lewis, aka Juse One