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?