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 Ahmed 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?

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The tale of ‘good’ migrants and ‘dangerous’ refugees

The Yugoslawomen+ Collective is a group of six female scholars (Dženeta Karabegović, Slađana Lazić, Vjosa Musliu, Julija Sardelić, Elena B. Stavrevska, Jelena Obradović Wochnik) of and from the post-Yugoslav space, currently working in Global North academia. The Collective has been brought together through frustration with the pattern in the struggles over knowledge production we have all experienced and the love for knowledge, education, and the region we have called ‘home’.

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A Three-Card Throw

Snežana Žabić  is the author of the short story collection In a Lifetime (KOS, Serbia, 1996), the memoir Broken Records (punctum books, USA, 2016), and the poetry collection The Breath Capital (New Meridian Arts, USA, 2016). She co-authored, with Ivana Percl, the poetry collection Po(jest)zija/Po(eat)ry (SKC NS, Serbia, 2013).

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The Pandemic and Images from the Bygone World

Mirna Šolić currently lives in Glasgow and teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. She studied in Zagreb (B.A. Hons.) and Toronto (M.A.; Ph.D.). During the last twenty years she has lived and worked in a number of places, including Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Scotland, and Slovakia (in alphabetical order). At this point she feels settled in Scotland and wonders what comes next.

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On autonomies and anatomies of post-2015 migration to and from post-Yugoslavia

Danijela Majstorović is Professor of Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Banja Luka’s English department teaching Discourse Analysis and Cultural Studies. After completing her MA at Ohio University in 2003 and PhD at the University in Banja Luka in 2006, she was a visiting researcher at Lancaster University in 2006, a Fulbright fellow at UCLA in 2012-2013, a Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta in 2014 and a visiting researcher at the University of Indiana’s Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures department in 2016. Her research interests involve critical discourse analysis, critical theory, feminist theory, post- and decolonial theory, and post- socialist studies. Currently, she is a Humboldt Experienced Research Fellow studying discourses and affects of social protests and third wave migrations in post-2015 Western Balkans at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.[*]

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On The Armoire/Against Purity

Saida Hodžić is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. Her book, The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life after NGOs (University of California Press, 2017) has won the Michelle Rosaldo Book Prize by the Association for Feminist Anthropology and the Amaury Talbot Book Prize for African Anthropology. She is currently working on two book manuscripts, Affective Encounters: Humanitarian Afterlives of War and Violence and For Whom is Africa Rising? Unsettling Transnational Feminism. In non-COVID summers, she studies post-war industrial toxicity and civic environmental activism in Bosnia.

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Immigration, Identities, and the State of Exception

Mila Dragojević is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of the South. Her research and teaching are in the areas of political violence, identity politics, migration, as well as European and Latin American politics. She is the author of Amoral Communities: Collective Crimes in Time of War (Cornell 2019) and The Politics of Social Ties: Immigrants in an Ethnic Homeland (Ashgate 2014/Routledge 2016).

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The Balkans: Tragic Avant-Garde of Europe

Mitja Velikonja is Professor of Cultural Studies, head of Center for Cultural and Religious Studies at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Dr. Velikonja’s main areas of research include Central-European and Balkan political ideologies, subcultures and graffiti culture, collective memory and post-socialist nostalgia. His most recent publication is Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe (Routledge, 2020).  His contribution to the symposium is a webinar he gave earlier this year at the European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center, Yale University, where he was Visiting Professor.

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The Power of Speaking Macaronic

Native of Sarajevo, Amila Buturović is Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests span the intersections of religion and culture in the context of premodern Islamic societies, with a focus on Bosnia and the Balkans. She is the author of Stone Speaker: Medieval Tombstones, Landscape, and Bosnian Identity in the Poetry of Mak Dizdar (2002), translated into Bosnian/Croatian as Kameni govornik: stećci, prostor i identitet u poeziji Maka Dizdara (2019); co-editor with I. C. Schick of Women in the Ottoman Balkans (2007), translated into Turkish as Osmanlı Döneminde Balkan Kadınlar (2009); guest editor of Descant: Bosnia and Herzegovina, between Loss and Recovery (2012); and author of Carved in Stone, Etched in Memory: Death, Tombstones and Commemoration in Bosnian Islam (2016). She is currently working on a study about health culture tentatively entitled Herbs, Stars, Amulets: Cross-confessional Health and Healing in Ottoman Bosnia.

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