Race, Racism and Academia: A view from Denmark

Earlier in the year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began taking lives and livelihoods across the world, the backlash to a published article on racism at the roots of securitization studies was picked up by the Danish press. The resulting narratives and racist cartoons produced to illustrate the backlash were at once shocking and unsurprising, considering the cultivated racial innocence of the Danish context and the collective denial of racism within the country, especially among the cultured intellectuals within the university system. This short series of reflections emerges out of collective conversations around that time among scholars of colour with experiences of the Danish academy. Over the coming days, Somdeep Sen, Chenchen Zhang, and Mahvish Ahmad share testimonies which movingly illustrate how structural and interpersonal racism are experienced in everyday academic life in Denmark. These testimonies indirectly situate the racist backlash to critical IR scholarship in its broader context of structural and societal racism in spaces where such racism is innocently disavowed.

This first post is authored by Dr Somdeep Sen of Roskilde University and the series is edited by Lisa Tilley.


In late March 2015 I ran into a fellow PhD student in the hallway outside my office. I was looking for a pair of scissors and asked him if he had one I could borrow. He said, “I don’t, but I am sure you can find one at the [department’s] reception.” I had been working non-stop in order to submit my dissertation that day and was exhausted. So, I said, “The reception seems so far away. I’m too tired.” He responded, “You’re such a lazy n*****!”.

This wasn’t my first experience of racism in Denmark. In fact, my first encounter with everyday racism in the country happened the day after I arrived in Copenhagen to start my PhD. It was a Friday afternoon in late September 2011, and I was standing in front of a furniture store talking to the owner about buying a cupboard that was displayed outside. Suddenly an old woman hit me with her tote bag and began yelling at me in Danish, while pointing to her (white) skin. At the time, I knew that racism was an unavoidable feature of my everyday life in Europe. Still, I naively believed that I would be sheltered from such incidents on the elevated (intellectual) plateau where the academy seems to reside. “Educated people,” my (lower) middle class Indian upbringing assured me, “would never behave like that.”

Of course, through a slew of experiences of racism in the past nine years I have come to realize that the color lines are just as prominent “up here”. Here are a few examples: I was having drinks with a few colleagues on a Friday night at a bar in downtown Copenhagen. We were discussing the dating experiences of non-Danes, when one of them, a postdoc, said to me, “You are fine, but I think most Indian men smell bad”. On another occasion, I was discussing the skills and qualifications of incoming migrants in Denmark with a tenured professor at a conference and he said to me, “You’re Indian. I guess your skill is raping women”. At another university organized social event, a PhD student insisted on calling me a “black baby”. He was (drunkenly) concerned that if he was unable to have a child with his partner, they would have to adopt a “black baby”. While rubbing his hands on my head, he kept repeating, “what would I do with a black baby like this one?”. Once, when leaving my office on a Friday evening, a colleague noticed that I was carrying books in a plastic bag. He commented, “It will be funny to see how many people think you are a bottle collector”. More recently, when I asked a colleague how the previous semester had been in terms of his teaching load, the conversation quickly devolved into him proclaiming that the biggest challenge to Danish society and culture was the “trend” of Danes marrying foreigners. He knew well that I was married to a Dane.

To be sure, everyday racism in academia is not a uniquely Danish problem. In fact, my experiences are all but commonplace for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) scholars in largely white academic institutions in the Global North. This is evidenced not least by the experiences shared by black scholars on Twitter with the hashtag  #BlackInTheIvory and the treatment that has been meted out to Errol Henderson for authoring an op-ed titled “Being Black at Penn State”. Neither is any of this surprising.  Academic institutions are intimately involved in the making of the hierarchies that inform the international political order. Furthermore, as social scientists, we are well aware that the very foundations of our disciplines are racialized and deeply formed by an effort to marginalize indigenous and non-white perspectives on politics and society.

But, as is often the question, so what?

Undoubtably, these experiences were unpleasant and have left an indelible mark on my view of academia and academics. But, on a “productive” note, they have also underlined the importance of deliberating the moralities, ethics and values that shape the conduct of academics and, eventually, their intellectual endeavors. Of late, in view of several academic controversies and the transformation of Black Lives Matter into a global call for change, many academics have chimed in to argue for the need to address systemic/institutional racism. But can we address a problem at a systemic level when we are (often, willfully) unaware of its everyday manifestations? Systemic/institutional racism doesn’t just reside at the level of the “meta” and “macro”, disconnected from the minute dynamics of the everyday. Indeed, when I was called a “lazy n*****” and “black baby”, it wasn’t done in anger or with visible malice. In fact, the academics that used these racial slurs would otherwise consider themselves to be critical or progressive scholars. Yet, they were said with a sense of privilege that, granted by the systemic, entitles certain individuals to use racial slurs with impunity. My experiences were an outgrowth of the systemic. But it is only when such everyday realities faced by BAME scholars are addressed that one can graduate to an intellectual endeavor that aims to dismantle systemic/institutional racism.

Finally, I think it is also important to review the broader societal responsibilities of the social sciences. Evidently, the prestige associated with parroting the natural sciences, now colors our disciplinary priorities. Further, the stiff competition for research funding has led us to formulate simplistic and easily quantifiable research problems (and findings) that are palatable to funding bodies. The consequence is the relegation of discussions on race, gender, sexuality – issues that complicate the positivist, easily quantifiable image of politics and society – to the periphery. They are deemed to be topics with little value for formulating broad generalizations about the world. What is lost in all this is the understanding that for the social sciences, it is the social that is the science. Meaning, our task as social scientists is to account for the multiplicity of ways in which the political world around us is viewed and experienced. Here, discussions of race, gender or sexuality cannot be marginal to our academic gaze. They are (or should be) central to the discipline. And it is only when the social sciences allow for these marginalized viewpoints to come to the fore that it can claim to engage in an intellectual endeavor of worth.

4 thoughts on “Race, Racism and Academia: A view from Denmark

  1. Pingback: The Epistemic Production of “Non-Western Immigrants” in Denmark | The Disorder Of Things

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

  3. With your final reflections I couldn’t agree more. It is our responsibility. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with this book, but it was a delightful anthropological parody:
    Reddy, G. Prakash. Danes Are Like That! Perspectives of an Indian anthropologist on the Danish society. Mørke, Denmark: Grevas, 1993.

    Like

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