A large statue of a black queen

Liam – August 20, 2018

My wife and I aren’t parents. We plan to take that adventure someday, but right now, Kim and I are perfectly happy with our little two-person family and tidy Chicago apartment. Though I don’t have kids, I was, like so many others, moved to concern for the children and parents separated at the border earlier this summer. It got me thinking about race—racism, really.

America has struggled with race relations since before the ink dried on the Constitution. We continue to wrestle with them now, while also struggling to reconcile our past. The contentious debate over the removal or preservation of Confederate monuments in the South is evidence that we still have a long way to go.

An old, black and white drawing depicts the 1878 Fireburn labor riot in the Caribbean.

Mary Thomas led the 1878 Fireburn labor riot against colonial Danish rule in the Caribbean. A symbol of atonement and welcoming of all people, a 23-foot-tall statue of the black queen was erected in Copenhagen in March.

Looking at other countries, I was excited to learn that in late March, Denmark unveiled its first public monument to a black woman. Designed by two black female artists, the “I Am Queen Mary” statue depicts Mary Thomas, one of three women leaders who participated in the Fireburn labor riot of 1878 against colonial Danish rule in the Caribbean. The uprising occurred only 30 years after slavery was abolished on Denmark’s island colonies, St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas.

The rebellion was to fight against the injustice the natives experienced. The Three Queens, as the women came to be known, Mary, Agnes and Mathilda, were arrested, sent to Denmark, tried and jailed for their crime of participating in the uprising. Since then, the Three Queens have come to be symbols of colonial resistance. The statue is located in Copenhagen, a little more than a mile from where Queen Mary did her time.

Recognizing the rebels, whom history has shown us were on the side of good, took a while. Admitting your mistakes is not easy for a country to do. It’s nice to see Denmark moving in this direction. But kindness to those not of Danish descent is not exactly new.

In 2017, 86.9 percent of Denmark’s population was of Danish descent. The remaining 13.1 percent consists of immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants from, most commonly, Turkey, Poland, Germany, Iraq, Romania, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Balkan nations. Denmark’s population is approximately 5.8 million. Of that, 752,618 are considered immigrants. These numbers are tiny compared to the U.S. population. You may think that having fewer people of different races could be a reason Denmark does not live with racism in the same way we do here. But that’s not quite it.

A pie chart shows that nearly 90% of the population of Denmark is comprised of people of Danish origin.

Nearly 90 percent of Denmark’s population is comprised of people of Danish origin.

Denmark is a homogeneous nation, meaning it really only has one prominent culture—Danish. It is also a net immigration country, which means more people are moving in than moving out. The Danes have welcomed asylum seekers with open arms. The increase in population from approximately 5.1 million in 1990 to today’s 5.8 million is not because Danes are having more kids; it’s because of immigration.

Surely these people bring aspects of their own cultures with them, but there’s also a sense of belonging once they arrive. All Danes—those of Danish descent and immigrants—operate on the same level playing field due in part to Denmark being a welfare state. Everyone has universal healthcare, college is free, childcare is covered. Taxes are high but everyone receives a pension and social security when they retire. While things may never be perfect, Denmark’s quality of life is ranked second best in the world by U.S. News & World Report.

The Danish Home is also a welcoming place to those not of direct Danish descent. In the beginning, however, residents did have to be Danish and also were required to prove it. The Danish Home does benefit in a variety of ways because of its ties to Scandinavian culture. But like Denmark, the culture is readily available to be enjoyed by people of all heritages and backgrounds.

I take great solace in knowing that maybe the most important aspect of Danish culture—of my heritage—is how welcoming it is of all people.