We were sitting in a cafe in Copenhagen, eating traditional Danish pastries that we couldn’t pronounce. There was some loud talking in the background, something unusual for the quiet, happy peace of Denmark. At the counter there was a man arguing loudly with one of the employees. I rolled my eyes. People who create messes for service industry workers are my biggest pet peeve so I turned back to my pastry. Eventually the yelling got louder and my ears pricked up again. We couldn’t hear much, just snippets of anger and arguing but eventually pieced together that the cafe manager did not want him to stand at the counter, rather sit down and wait.
“I’m asking you to leave sir.”
“But why, what did I do wrong?”
“I’m asking you to leave.”
“I need you to leave.”
“But why? What did I do?”
Another boy at the counter tried to reason with him but still couldn’t tell the man why he was being asked to leave.
The man slams his fist on the counter. He’s bleeding.
Copenhagen is white. Almost all of Europe is white. The kind of whiteness you notice because you haven’t seen this kind of homogeneous pool since you lived in a small town in rural Ohio. The angry man was the first person of color I’d seen in days.
“Not all white people are racist! But you are being racist!”
People pick up their croissants and move away. No one says anything.
We sat waiting. Waiting for someone to pull out their smartphone to record what was happening. Waiting for police to come and calm everyone down. Waiting for the manager to explain what he’d done wrong. Waiting for someone to speak up.
We’d almost finished our pastries.
The man demanded to pay for his coffee, he would not take it for free he insisted. Finally, the manager complied and the customer stormed out the door. Police cars arrive and they run into the metro to find him. We wait still. Hoping there would be no handcuffs. Feeling guilty, uncomfortable, awestruck, angry, we should have said something, we should go home, why didn’t we say anything? One of the girls I’m traveling with is crying.
I’ve lived my whole life in a country with racial tensions, escalating in the past year or so. I’d always pictured Scandinavia as a utopia of socialism, equality and progressive values. But here in the 3rd happiest country in the world, I witnessed the most outwardly racist interaction I’d ever seen in my life.
It happens everywhere. Nowhere is safe from intolerance and injustice. I needed to see that.
Every society could improve. Every society has good things happening. It’s important to be aware of all this good and all this bad. We cheat ourselves when we act like everything is good. We cheat ourselves when we act like nothing is.
We can’t become apathetic but we can’t become so paralyzed by negativity that we stop pushing to improve.
And a lack of discussion of problems does not mean there are no problems and talking about our problems openly does not mean that’s all we have.
This incident was a wake up call to me on both fronts. It is easy to point fingers at the US and all of our protests, conflicts and debates on the news and call it bad. That’s what happens when you’re standing on stage. And it’s easy to live in the US and get caught up in all the “fixing” that we stop trying to fix things anymore because it’s just too overwhelming. I dreamed of a place like Denmark, the promised land of tolerance. And while it was overwhelmingly kind and beautiful and wonderful, there are still dark corners. Just like anywhere.
We saw the man later outside talking to the police officers. Everything seemed okay. They were not arguing, the officers seemed to be taking his side. I looked at the smiling Danes all around me, working on a better future, counting on a better future. And I breathed out and knew that’s exactly what it could be.