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»I've had many a sleepless night over whether I should take on this struggle«

Flavio Saleh is part of the reason why UCPH management has banned a controversial intro week tradition at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. This is how he experienced the subsequent debate and the consequences of saying no.

At the beginning of March, Flavio Saleh found himself at the centre of a public debate.

A debate that started at the Department of Political Science, where he is writing his master’s thesis, and which quickly found its way on to Danish media.

Management at the Department of Political Science had decided this year to ban a tradition of dividing new students into groups with themes named as countries. The decision was based partly on a featured comment that Flavio Saleh authored back in 2018.

The University Post met up with Flavio Saleh at the old municipal hospital building, the home of his department. Here he talks about how he himself has experienced the recent weeks’ discussion about student culture at the University of Copenhagen.

The land of opportunity

»When I started at the Department of Political Science myself, I was young. Only 18 years old.

A couple of days before the deadline for university applications, I decided to study political science. When you study medicine, you become a doctor, and when you study law you become a lawyer. Political science was more like a land of opportunity. You could be anything, I thought.

I was born in Denmark from refugee parents. My father is Kurdish from Iraq, and my mother is from Romania, and she fled the communist regime. They met in Copenhagen, fell in love and moved to Tingbjerg.

I started at the Department of Political Science with the hope of becoming a part of the student community and enjoying myself. And that’s also how it was for the first couple of years. But I realised that this fun was at the expense of some of the students, and at the expense of a part of myself.

I was quickly given nicknames and heard from several people of colour on the study programme that it was not always such fun to be there.«

Lonely to have to say no

»I was ‘Scotland’ myself during the intro week game.

When I thought about it afterwards, I found it strange. But not during the intro week, because here you just do what has always been done, and which has been planned for you.

During my first year of study, I was called Saddam Hussein, a wog and an immigrant. I laughed at it, because I had to. It was my way of surviving. When you are a brand new student and would like to fit in, it is difficult to fight back. But this is not healthy in the long run, and all of a sudden you can find it too much. I found it too much in 2018.

The change happened when I started reading up on post-colonial theories during my studies. I learned what people of colour have encountered in terms of racism through history. This made me aware of where I came from.

I wrote a featured comment for the Danish media and subsequently became part of a working group to foster more diversity at the political science department. I started to say no.

I never advocated that the nation-themed games in intro week should be banned outright. It would be hilarious if we could portray all countries. Israel, Palestine, Somalia, Germany and China side by side.

But this requires that we truly investigate what these peoples traditionally, and really, wear, what they are known for, and what they are good at. This could be a tribute. It has just turned out to be difficult to administer it in a proper, sober manner.

When people dress up as ladyboys if Thailand is the theme, sing about eating dogs if they are in China, then things have gone too far.«

Sleepless nights

»I don’t like being on campus. I feel that people have some kind of assumption about what I am like and why.

I know many friends of brown skin-colour here on city campus that feel the same way. The feeling that you are met with some kind of prejudice. That people already have an idea about how diligent, skilled or bad you are at something. That you are not considered Danish or just me, Flavio, or whatever you are called.

But it’s difficult decision to say no, and I can understand that some people couldn’t be bothered.

After I wrote the featured comment, it was as if I was cold-shouldered out of all social life. I was not invited to parties any more, and I could feel that my fellow students pulled away from me.

I have had many a sleepless night, troubled after having taken on this struggle. It has made me lonely, and has meant that I am just not ‘in’ to my degree programme in the same way that I used to be. It’s hard to feel excluded.

I never wanted to be the face of this struggle.«

Lacks subtlety

»Political science students have many opinions, and we are good at discussing it.
It is healthy when arguments are countered with other arguments, but I find the debate quite unsophisticated.

Those who defend the nation-themed games are labelled as racists, and those who want to get rid of them are labelled as oversensitive extremists. But none of these designations are right. None of the people I know who defend the country themes at intro week are racists. They’re nice, decent people. Just like those who want to ban the games are not extremists just waiting to take offence over something.

But if there is an ethnic Danish majority who find that playing country-themed games is OK, should we not just say this is OK? What about new students who have Chinese or Algerian roots, who feel the pain of seeing their origins ridiculed?

A white, ethnic Dane cannot comprehend this pain. Once in a while, someone tells me that they are from Jutland, so they also feel prejudice. But honestly, it’s not the same at all.

If you have never felt racism on your own body, you have to listen to those who have felt it.«

Danish humour

»There is this idea, that it is somehow a quality to be thick-skinned, and to be able to cope with this particular Danish form of fun and ‘hygge’, where you tease each other a bit. I find that strange.

Are you aware of what brown and black people have to face in Danish society? There are prejudices everywhere. And there is nothing ‘fun’ about it.

READ ALSO: Fellow students: What would you prefer? Being called a wog or an immigrant?

Political science, and the university in general, should be a place where ethnic minorities can rise up the social ladder. A safe and secure place where there is space for everyone. But this is not the case when the first thing you meet when you start as a new student is ridicule.

If a decision from management can make it feel more safe and comfortable to start at university for minorities, then I think it’s okay that this decision has been made.«