Niaan Pereboom holds a bachelor in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies and a master in Human Security. Niaan currently works in the role of a (qualitative) research manager for a global research company. Before, she lived in Denmark and worked here as an assistant for an organization that deals with the integration of refugees in Denmark. She helped new Danish residents with language training and a better understanding of the Danish culture. Whilst helping newcomers with their integration into Danish society, Niaan reflected on the perception of ‘us versus them’ dichotomy in the process of integration. For, Niaan wrote an article in which she looks at this perception by using the notion of identity – as used by Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence – and its meaning in integration processes.

Author: Niaan Pereboom

Integration can be difficult. I underwent the process of integration myself when I lived in Denmark. Even though Denmark is a country that is similar to my own – The Netherlands – I found integration can be a difficult process from time to time. You need to learn a new language, socializing and making new friends takes a lot of energy, and you need to get used to the local cultural customs and practises, and to your new surroundings. After two and a half years of living in Denmark, I started working as an assistant for an organization that deals with the integration of refugees in Denmark. My tasks were primarily linked to helping new Danish residents with a better understanding of the Danish culture, language, history, and important work-related matters. By showing my Danish language skills, I was a perfect example to show that Danish is – despite it being a difficult language – possible to learn. The people I worked with have a refugee background, and most of them live in Denmark for one or two years. 

I already realized soon that this project was not only about helping integrating others, I was integrating more into Danish society myself as well. By helping others to understand a language that is not my mother tongue (nor English) I was challenged to improve my own Danish language proficiency. Apart from knowing the translation, I tried to explain to others why certain words are as they are. Something which is already hard in one’s own language, let alone in another. In addition to this, I also assisted in teachings on Danish history and culture. During such sessions, we also discussed a wide range of topics. Topics like the function of the Danish welfare system, the differences in approaching gender roles in the respective societies, or appropriately using one’s own mobile phone at work. The focus during such discussions was – often – about the differences of what they were used to and how it was regulated in Danish society.

It was during one of these ‘sessions’ in which we had the privilege of using an interpreter. Some topics were of such importance, we wanted to be sure the message got across and using an interpreter seemed necessary. With the use of the interpreter we discussed important topics about cultural differences on another level. Such discussions were aimed at contributing to the understanding of the Danish lifestyle in a better way. It was – as an anthropologist – super interesting to me, and I enjoyed such discussions very much. I learned a lot of both the Danish society as well as the respective societies of our ‘students’. 

However, I realized that we might have been making a mistake in our approach of talking about topics of cultural differences, as the construction of these differences somehow reminded me of the book of Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence. In Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen argues that the world becomes increasingly divided along lines of culture and religion as the basis for one’s identity. In doing so, Sen argues, people ignore all the other aspects of identity in which people see themselves. Sen reflects on the fluidity of identity, and argues that identity consists of multiple aspects. Identity, therefore, contains many parts of which no one must be assumed to be more or less important than another. Sen argues that one person can be, for example, ‘a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God created Darwin to test the gullible’. Sen argues that a clearer understanding of our sheer diversity will contribute to mutual understanding and eventually harmony and peace.

The discussions in which we merely discussed cultural differences with the aim to simplify the understanding of the Danish culture. However, putting the emphasis on all the differences between cultures, we perhaps made it more difficult for these new Danish residents to adjust. Major issues and big themes were touched upon during our discussions. We talked about trust, the social welfare state, responsibility, ownership, and sexuality whilst emphasizing how it was different in Denmark compared to where they were from. Not one of the issues we discussed was touching upon similarities between the two cultures. However, by discussing differences we – perhaps – complicated the integration process. As Sen refers to throughout his book, focusing on differences creates division rather than it creates unity. For this reason, I question the effects of such discussions in overcoming integration difficulties of these new Danish residents. By focusing on differences, we also created a dividing line that creates a strong notion of ‘you and your culture’ versus ‘us and our culture’. How people feel recognized, included and becoming part of a new society if everything around them screams ‘you and your culture are different’? 

Integration and identity are closely linked, and when you move to another country you have to adapt to a wide range of new customs and beliefs of your new country and the new life you are about to start. You have to discover how you and your identity relate to the people and objects that surround you. I have experienced this process for three years. Even though the differences between Denmark and my home country are rather small, it has taken me quite some time to completely adapt to the Danish lifestyle, and a part of me is questioning whether if one ever will completely. 

The difference between me and people with a refugee background is that I willingly chose to undergo this process. When everything is new and you are dealing with a traumatizing past, focusing on the ‘otherness’ and (cultural) differences only makes it harder to adapt. If even I experienced this, then this must also be the case for those who have cultural background that are even more alienated from the Danish culture. Focusing on differences – therefore – might have a backlash effect in the integration process rather than it fosters the process of integration.  

For this reason, I believe that in future integration processes it is important to emphasize cultural similarities. If people feel there are similarities, it gives them the empowerment and self-esteem to believe they are already ‘halfway’. This will subsequently make their integration process easier. If we want to make integration processes more smooth and operated, I – therefore – believe that emphasizing the similarities between aspects of our cultures is an important and necessary step to take forward.