ECMI Minorities Blog. On Hyphenated Identities


Author: Garbi Schmidt  |

* Garbi Schmidt is a professor of Cultural Encounters at Roskilde University.  In her research, she has focused on a range of minority-related themes, from Muslim minorities in Western countries to the immigration to and minority history of Denmark. She is also a member of the ECMI Executive Board.


The concept of identity is a recurring theme in the studies of minorities, whether they focus on immigrants or national minorities. Identity is about who I am, but as much about who we are and what they are. As noted by Richard Jenkins in his book Social identity: “As a very basic starting point, identity is the human capacity – rooted in language – to know ‘who’s who’ (and hence ‘what’s what’).” Further and importantly, Jenkins adds that knowing who we and others are involves a “multi-dimensional classification or mapping of the human world and our places in it, as individuals and as members of collectivities …It is a process – identification – not a ‘thing.”

This multi-dimensional classification process seems to have become more complicated in an increasingly globalized world. While classification at its basis entails setting up either/or categories, we as humans tend to lead complex lives that weave our being into multiple types of identity, e.g. woman, white, German, mother, single, working nightshifts. When we encounter each other, we ‘read’ each other based on existing classifications. And, at least in the beginning of our encounter (or when we just encounter each other briefly, e.g. when sharing seats in a bus) we ‘read’ each other as unambiguously as possible. What is important for us to know in those few seconds – and what is not?

What we see as another person’s identity often changes when we get to know him or her better. There is often a (significant) contrast between, for example, identifying someone as representing a particular identity/group, and getting to know that person as Maria or Jürgen. One example from my own research, illustrating how deeper personal relations may modify the power of classification systems - in particular understandings of identity as linked to proximity or distance – was my investigation of the Thawtiuk family from Copenhagen, between approximately 1910-1955. Sen Thawtiuk, a sailor from China, arrived in Copenhagen in the early 20th century. He married a Danish woman, obtained Danish citizenship, but never became fluent in Danish. He stood out as “an other”, both based on his appearance and language. However, my first encounter with Thawtiuk in the archival data was in a memoire written by one of his daughter’s friends. The friend wrote about her childhood, where she and her family often interacted with the Thawtiuks and helped each other. She did not write a word about Sen Thawtiuk being an immigrant or Chinese. In other words, those aspects of his identity did not matter – or mattered less – in their encounters than other aspects. He might have been a stranger to others, but to her and her family, he was primarily a friend.

Social research has addressed the concept of identity as identities in many ways. Concepts such as “hybrid identity”, “creolization” and “syncretism” have been used. In all these instances, identity stands forth as linked to two or more cultural reference systems. However, these concepts are not particularly precise or necessarily in accordance with how people see themselves and the lives people lead. As noted by Birgitta Frello, one point of critique vis-à-vis the concept of hybridity is that “cultures were never pure and that the concept of hybridity therefore tells us nothing, since all of us are and always were cultural hybrids”.

It is not least on this background that the new book Danskerne findes i mange modeller – portrætter af 15 unge med bindestregsidentitet (Danes can be found in many models – portraits of 15 young people with hyphenated identities) is interesting. The book, written by Malene Fenger-Grøndahl, consists of fifteen interviews with young so-called cultural ambassadors for Grænseforeningen (the Danish Borderland Association). The volume also includes two shorter essays, of which I have written one on identity. While some of the interviewees were born and raised in the Danish-German borderlands, and identify with the old national minorities living in the region, others have migrant background (e.g. from Russia, France, or Syria). What these young people share is actively carving out who they are and what they want to be – regardless of how others identify them. What in this case play dominant roles are ethnic and national identities. On the one hand, because such identities are fundamental to the work of the Danish Borderland Association – on the other, because national and ethnic identities feature so prominently in current political and public debates about us and them - about who counts as minority and who counts as majority.

However, why is Grænseforeningen publishing an entire volume, in which the focus is not only on the borderland region, but on hybrid identities as such? One pragmatic answer is that the association’s corps of young cultural ambassadors does not only include young people who are born, raised or live in the Danish-German border region, but who also represent other ethnic minority communities. Second, the publication builds on an extensive understanding of what borders and borderlands are and how they are created. Borders can be found on maps, but they are also found in classrooms, among peers and where people interact in their daily lives. Both ethnic and national identities and identifications are strong components of such bordering.

When I initiated work on my piece for the book, my point of departure was the academic discussion that I (very) shortly introduced. “Hyphenated identity”, as I saw it, was one more concept in the row of identity-defining concepts that inaccurately pointed to aspects of transgression and mixing. I had carried out research on migration, culture, and religion for decades, and one thing that I had learned was that as much as identity can be empowering, it can equally be a source of stigmatization and exclusion. Essentialist and monolithic understandings of culture(s) inadequately relate to the lives and practices of real people. However, while working on my essay, reading the interviews with the young people, and talking to people at the Danish Borderland Association helped me broaden my understandings. Presenting themselves as carriers of hyphenated identities was an active choice of these young people. Although ‘Danish’, ‘German’, ‘Italian’ frames national identities in ways that are often interpreted as monolithic, the combinations of words gave the young people a vocabulary to tell who they were to their surroundings. Presenting oneself as hyphenated was thus in many cases both liberating and emancipating, but also challenging. As Ellaha, a young woman of Afghani descent living in Denmark, explains:

I have accepted that I am not 100% Danish. I am Danish-Afghan – I have a hyphenated identity, and I cannot choose one above the other. I have spent much time finding my own balance and how to navigate. I will work on this for many years ahead. I will never be accepted as 100 % Danish and will not try to. I am done trying to change myself to fit into [peoples’ expectations] (My translation)

My working with the 15 interviews (conducted by Marlene Fenger-Grøndahl) for my own contribution to the book taught me an important lesson: While I as a researcher should always critically engage with the concepts we as humans and academics use to describe culture and identity, I must also respect the fact that some (controversial) concepts, in all their inadequacy, allow people to come to terms with who they are. Being able to define yourself and your identity freely, regardless of the classification of others, can be a much-needed safe haven, not least for minorities.

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