The memories of space invaders – Danish schooling in the 1970s from migrant children’s perspective

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In the last couple of decades, Denmark has seen a rising political focus on the schooling of migrant children and their school performance. However, the political and public discussions date back to the 1970s when policies directed towards this specific group of students started to be stipulated (Buchardt, 2016, 2018). Buchardt (2016) argues that – in the curriculum politics as read through the policy, media and pedagogical materials produced in the 1970s – these student bodies were ‘invented’ by the Danish schools as ‘foreign’, requiring extra effort. Whereas education policy research has to some extent covered the policy development of migrant education, less attention has been given to how such policies were perceived and experienced by the group of students that the policies targeted. The focus in this article is on a central recurring theme which all the former migrant students address in the oral history interviews about their experiences of social inclusion in schooling during the 1970s. They all mention “feeling strange” when entering the Danish schools as children from a foreign country. The narratives are grounded in one or more stories about how the former students felt strange and how these situations shape their ways of remembering their school time. These specific situations also play a significant role in their present lives, as the situations also become those in which they make sense of themselves as adults. Hence, this article examines how the emotions of ‘feeling strange’ have shaped migrants’ schooling experience in Denmark in the 1970s. In this article, we analyze the feeling of estrangement of migrant students through racialization processes as a central part of the subjectification process of their schooling. Theoretically, we are drawing on Sara Ahmed’s theorization of politics of emotionality that seeks to understand how the circulation of emotions such as “feeling strange” can become crucial in (dis)qualification of the students’ actions and governing the social practices and identity politics in school (Ahmed, 2004, 2014). Investigating the questions of the lived racialized affects of Danish schooling policies for migrant students historically has a double function, as it sheds light on both how the educational spaces become naturalized or normalized, and on what it means when they are disrupted (Puwar, 2004) by the ‘foreign/different bodies’ or in Puwar’s words “space invaders.” Hence the category of race and processes of racialization have become vital to understanding and grasping the experiences of the migrant students as space invaders when exploring how the institutional cultures become normative through the memories of the space invaders. The term racialization refers to how the category of race is created through a complex historical sedimentation process that categorizes and sets boundaries (Myong, 2007). Racialization is here understood as a constant process of “doing race” (Myong, 2007). It means that in our analytical work we look at how race is something that exists, not as a biological reality but as a social reality (Osanami Törngren, 2018). Here we analyze how visible differences such as skin and hair color become markers used to categorize individuals into socially constructed races. Furthermore, and as importantly, how the socially constructed races are shaped through emotions such as feeling strange and being space invaders. It means that in exploring the ‘doing’ of race we show how a constellation of the circulation of feelings in educational practices breathes life into the concept of race and summons it to life with severe effect (Nayak, 2010). Hence, for this article we are conceptually interested in linking racialization and affect in analyzing the experiences of schooling for migrant students. Methods section (400 words) The main methodology for this article is to approach the practiced policy of schooling of these groups of students through oral history interviews. Related to the broader macro- and meso history of education policy, our way of constructing this micro-level perspective on the history of education politics has been to search for and interview people who arrived in the Danish education system as children and who in the official policy were labeled foreign children, foreign workers’ children and foreign language students from the beginning of the 1970s, immigrant children and bicultural students from the 1980s and bilingual students in especially the 1990s, currently used overlapping with “Muslim students” (Buchardt, 2016). With the oral history interviews of students from that period, whom the policies were targeting, it is possible to explore social issues in depth by giving voice to those people (the migrant students) whose ‘ordinary’ experiences are not usually heard in standard histories (McLeod, 2016). The aim of our study is also to write these ordinary experiences of the migrants in history of education through a theoretical framework that links education to the formation of the nation-state and its citizenry (Li, 2018). It is a framework that understands education especially since the emergence of the modern nation-states as linked to the state and the production of its workforce and citizenry and thus of belonging to the national space (Buchardt et al., 2013; Popkewitz, 2000; Westberg et al., 2019). The study is based on 14 oral history interviews with people who arrived in the Danish school system as children of migrants in the 1970s and 1980s. It is primarily people who arrived in the 1970s, from Former Yugoslavia, Turkey and Pakistan. The interviews were conducted in Danish in 2019 by Jin Hui Li in the informants’ private homes or in public places such as a public library, at the participants’ discretion. The length of the interviews was one to two and a half hours. Sometimes photos of their school time were part of the interview, depending on whether the informant had photos or not. The informants went to school in different geographical areas of Denmark – both rural and urban areas. They were found through public posters in Nørrebro (an inner-city Copenhagen neighborhood, where a big part of the population has a migration history), postings on Facebook by our colleagues and by references from people who had already participated in the interviews. Expected Outcomes or Findings (300 words) This study of how the emotions of feeling strange have shaped migrants’ schooling experience in Denmark since the 1970s suggests that the identity politics of schooling in the 1970s in Denmark for newly arrived migrant students operated through racialized affective practices. The racialization of the affective practices operates through emotions linked to “being the first student of color” received by schools that did not know what to do with those students. Furthermore, the racialized affective practices of “feeling strange” happen across different geographical spaces – urban as well as rural areas – meaning that they also took place in urban areas with an extensive history of settling migrants. Rather than being connected only to “feeling new” and “unexpected”, the strangeness seems connected to broader affective hierarchies of racialization, namely those that are embedded in and processed through schooling. The invisible central point of reference (which is so often taken for granted) here is that the institutional space of schooling in Denmark in the early 1970s was dominated by white bodies of students. The “new” migrant students’ bodies were considered a disturbance – space invaders of that white space. Hence, these findings show that part of the interplay between policy and the experienced practices was a racialized hierarchy of inclusion. This points to how schooling is not just a neutral policy instrument for social inclusion of the whole population under the same school roof in line with the logic of Nordic welfare-state schooling but has racialized consequences for those children who went through this schooling. Schooling as welfare-state distribution ‒ a central function of the modern nation-state project ‒ forms citizenry, including its degrees of belonging and non-belonging with regard to the national space through affective hierarchies of racialization. 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Original languageEnglish
Publication dateJul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021
EventECER 2021 - Geneva, Switzerland
Duration: 6 Sep 202110 Sep 2021


ConferenceECER 2021

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