The Epistemic Production of “Non-Western Immigrants” in Denmark

This post is the second in a short series exploring the weavings of structural and interpersonal racism in the Danish context. Following Somdeep Sen’s moving and enraging piece on racism in the Danish academy, Chenchen Zhang analyses the statistical and discursive invention of “non-Western immigrants” and considers how this contributes to the ordering of everyday life.

Successive governments in Denmark have introduced ever more restrictive immigration laws and integration policies in recent years. However, it is not all immigrants that are equally concerning to policy makers and the Danish public. What occupies the centre of policy debates and media discourse are the so-called “non-Western immigrants” (ikke-vestlige indvandrere). But what does this category mean exactly? According to the national statistical agency Statistics Denmark, Western countries refer to the member states of the EU (including the UK), Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, Vatican City, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Non-Western immigrants, then, refer to foreign-born residents from the rest of the world.

Source: Danmarks Statistik, created with

Furthermore, the category of “non-Western immigrants” in public debates on migration and integration almost always includes both (foreign-born) immigrants and their (Danish-born) descendants. A descendant, according to Statistics Denmark, refers to a person born in Denmark to non-Danish born parents (when neither of the parents is a Danish citizen born in Denmark).

The establishment and operation of these concepts by Statistics Denmark, which maintains a population register (the CPR register) that covers all residents of Denmark, has profound implications for the problematization and government of the population group known as non-Western immigrants. Social statistics, as Foucauldian scholars argue, is a fundamental technology of power of the modern state. The statistical knowledge produced about non-Western immigrants creates the group as such by describing its “own regularities” (Foucault, 2007): the rate of criminalisation of its members, their employment rate, income level, education level, and so forth. This knowledge enables politicians, media professionals, and social scientists to talk about non-Western immigrants – people from over 150 countries across the world – as a somewhat monolithic object of governmental intervention and social scientific inquiry.

The statistical production of non-Western immigrants, for example, is the precondition for Danish authorities to create of a list of “ghetto” neighbourhoods where controversial integration policies have been introduced. The plan includes, for instance, mandatory day care for children born in the “ghetto” areas from the age of one and doubled punishments for offences. A “ghetto” is officially defined as a neighbourhood in which over 50% of the residents are non-Western immigrants and descendants, while also meeting 2 out of 4 additional criteria about crime rate, employment rate, education, and income.

The absence of race and the ubiquitous presence of non-Western immigrants in the Danish debates on migration and integration is illustrative of how biological racism has in part morphed into different forms of culturalism – or culturalist racism – in post-1945 Europe. The distinction between the West and the non-West in Danish discourses and policies of immigration does not exactly correspond to the global colour line. It is rather based on a spatial imaginary of certain liberal democratic values and religious beliefs understood as qualities of “the West”. Those from “the Rest”, therefore, do not share the same values as “us” and pose a threat to “our way of life”. The substitution of race with culture, or assumptions about the incompatibility of different “cultures” and “traditions”, provides new iterations of racism with a “protective coloration” through “statistical tables” and “semantic camouflage” (Perry, 2007). The seemingly neutral and technical expression of “non-Western immigrants” is one of these semantic devices that obscures the racist underpinning of policies such as the “ghetto” plan.

A far-right party candidate’s promoted tweet that appeared in my Twitter feed: “In 1988 there were 95,025 non-Western in 1988. In 2018 there are 493,468.”

In reality, the non-Western immigrant as the ethnocultural other is more often than not a euphemism for Muslims. As Ferruh Yilmaz shows in How the Workers became Muslims, the culturalization of Muslim immigrants in the Danish discourse is a relatively recent historical development that began in the 1980s (as with elsewhere in Europe). When groups of immigrants from Muslim majority countries arrived in the 1960s, they were merely “foreign workers”. And for two decades, immigrants were rarely discussed as a problem of culture or values in newspapers. However, as the result of “the production of Muslim immigrants as a distinct ontology” from the 1980s onwards (Yilmaz, 2016), references to cultural difference are now used to explain all kinds of social problems related to (non-Western) immigration.

The culturalist, essentialist, and dichotomous assumptions about liberal, progressive Danish values versus authoritarian, reactionary “non-Western” values permeate every aspect of the daily life of a “non-Western” person living in Denmark. While I have also encountered more direct, phenotype-based racism on many occasions, it is this subtler form of culturalism as racism that I find most striking and difficult to reckon with – precisely because it has acquired a “protective coloration” as somewhat post-racial.

In an essay on learning Danish in Denmark, Sarah Casey writes about how cultural differences and hierarchies are produced within the context of Danish language classes. Some instructors are explicit in their responsibility not only to teach the language, but also to teach the Danish culture, which is supposedly fundamentally different and morally superior to the cultures of the students, and ultimately to teach “these young men how one should behave in Denmark” (Casey, 2014). She recalls this interesting (and typical) conversation between an instructor M and a student F, a female chemist from Tunisia, in a Danish class:

M: Do mothers work in your culture Fatima?

F: Yes. Of course!

M: But would your husband let you work if you were in Tunisia?

F: Of course I would work.

M: But would you have worked had you had children there? Mothers don’t work like they do in Denmark, do they? F: Yes, of course. I worked at my dream job in Tunisia and I would have kept working there! I loved it. (Casey, 2014)

Similar conversations took place in my Danish classes as well. However, a more uncomfortable occasion for me to hear the presentation of gender equality as a quintessentially Danish value in patronizing ways was at an academic conference. Once at a conference, I (a “non-Western immigrant woman”) found myself sitting on the same panel as my Danish colleagues who presented a paper that drew on their experiences with how to better educate non-Western immigrant women about gender equality. One example they mentioned was they would ask immigrant women to “tell their husband to do the cleaning today, because gender equality is our Danish value here”. To be sure, I should note that the orientalist imagination of gender equality as a characteristic of Westernness (or Danishness) and patriarchy as that of “the rest” is by no means unique to Denmark. When in Belgium, I received a media request for interview before International Women’s Day. The reporter told me straight away that she was going to write a story on how “the IWD signifies women’s liberation in the West and consumerism in the East”.

I would like to conclude this short reflection by returning to the role of social scientific research. As said earlier, the statistical infrastructure provides a wealth of data for social researchers who could then study the regularities, attitudes, and perceptions of “non-Western immigrants”. Admittedly, many of these studies play a role in challenging prevailing negative stereotypes. For instance, one research project finds out that the majority of “non-Western immigrants and descendants” actually identify with Danish values and feel proud to be Danish. Another widely reported study suggests that we should not forget that “97% of non-Western people are”, actually, “not criminals”. While these are welcome findings that remind us that non-Western people are people too, they do not seem to problematize the statistical and discursive construction of the category of “non-Western immigrants” as such. They do not ask, for example, why the Danishness of Western immigrants is never questioned. The “Western immigrants” is in fact a non-category, as it needs not to be knowable or governable as a group. Without discussing the Eurocentric culturalism implicated in the invention of “non-Western immigrants” as a problem itself, such research risks continuing to produce the “non-Western immigrant” as a naturalized object of scientific research and policy intervention with a set of inherent characteristics.


Casey, Sarah. 2014. Learning Danish(ness): Constructing cultural difference in Danish language classes in Denmark. Nordicum – Mediterraneum 9(1).

Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, territory, population: lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Springer.

Perry, Richard. 2007. “Race” and Racism: The Development of Modern Racism in America. Springer.

Yilmaz, Ferruh. 2016. How the workers became Muslims: Immigration, culture, and hegemonic transformation in Europe. University of Michigan Press.


2 thoughts on “The Epistemic Production of “Non-Western Immigrants” in Denmark

  1. Pingback: Danish Innocence, Muslim Guilt | The Disorder Of Things

  2. You know it is amazing to me how people divine Western as meaning European or countries of majority European Descent. They seem to clearly forget that Central and South America are in the west as well as people from the Caribbean. This article explains it well. I don’t know how migrants in Denmark actually feel, but I was a visitor to Denmark and I experienced racism. Most of the people who demonstrated racism toward me had no clue I was only in Denmark as a tourist or as a short term student. They were simply racism to me based on the colour of my skin. And it had nothing to do with my religion, as I am not Muslim. So simply based on the fact that I had a different skin colour they were racism toward me.


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