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Comment: The University of Copenhagen needs to step up its commitment to minority students

Featured comment — The monumental Black Lives Matter movement has reached the University of Copenhagen. But serious anti-racism efforts in the university's privileged bubble are yet to be seen, writes Maria Heines.

This has been a time of reckoning for many. Especially, for those like myself, who come from privileged backgrounds. I grew up in a wealthy American suburb approximately 25 minutes outside inner-city Boston, Massachusetts. Here the grass is green. Classrooms are kitted out with the latest technology. And the people, for the most part, are very white.

While growing up I learned not to question the area’s wealth or whiteness. Wealth which funneled the fair skin of myself and peers into higher education. The same wealth which bought up plots of land to ‘protect’ my scenic town from low-income public housing.

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After the murder of George Floyd on May 25 2020, a visible shift occurred in this sheltered hometown of mine. Black Lives Matter signs were posted beside idyllic driveways. White moms fundraised on Facebook while high school alumni petitioned for anti-racism courses and a diversity committee.

These gestures from a few well-off white Democrats obviously does not mean that we have reached Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Promised Land’. Nor are we anywhere near close to reconciling America’s history of racial injustice. Income inequality still runs rampant in the Boston Greater Area with the average wealth of white households coming in at USD 247,500 while Black households have an average of USD 8. Boston remains notorious for its segregated school system. And white supremacy continues to work itself out of the woodwork even in the deeply blue state of Massachusetts.

Despite this, there are a few small ‘buts’ in the America I know today. Consciousness has grown. Even those who benefit from structural inequalities are waking up to their role in America’s tortured history. And representation of people of colour has grown substantially in Massachusetts media, commerce and governance.

Moving from one privileged bubble to the next, I was interested to see how the Black Lives Matter movement permeated into the similar context of a largely white and wealthy Denmark. At its onset, the movement produced prominent media coverage and well attended demonstrations. Including a protest, organized by Black Lives Matter Denmark, of approximately 16,000 people outside the US Embassy back in June 2020.

At a university level, this shift took the form of an open letter from two University of Copenhagen (UCPH) researchers. In this letter, which has been signed by about 150 staff members, Francois Questiaux and Sofie Mortensen asked the university to align themselves with the anti-racist movement and collect data on the experience of racial and ethnic minorities on campus.

READ ALSO: Researchers want University of Copenhagen to commit to anti-racism struggle

To date, the university’s response to this call for action has been lackluster. In terms of mobilization, I have seen a tepid statement from Rector Henrik C. Wegener that notes »the university will take a closer look at this,« and cites data collection challenges due to colourblind legislation.

Although this response is not particularly urgent, it is a step above the broader status of racial inequality in Denmark. Where media coverage of racial injustice has faded since the summer and many people, including prominent politicians, say that racism is a non-issue.

The circulation and persistence of this denial to racial inequality can partially be attributed to an evolving understanding of social cohesion in Denmark. Recently, there has been a rise in rhetorics positioning diversity as a threat to the country’s touted high levels of trust, happiness and success as a welfare state. This line of thinking has been used to bolster ‘Denmark for Danes’ assertions and anti-multiculturalism policies from both left and right leaning political parties according to Nils Holtug’s Danish Multiculturalism, Where Art Thou?

While mulling over the ins and outs of Danish nationalism, I talked after class with my friend, Lea Bro, who is a white Danish second-year Geography and Geoinformatics masters student at The University of Copenhagen. She suggested the profuse ‘idea that everyone is equal in Denmark and has equal possibilities’ allows many Danes to distance themselves from concerns over racism despite strong undertones in their politics, colonial history, education and day-to-day life.

The experience of being treated ‘småracistisk’ in Copenhagen

In an attempt to kickstart the research Francois and Sofie petitioned for, I sat down with students Brynton L. Johnson and Sabrina Benmessaoud to begin scratching the surface of what it means to be a minority in Denmark on and off campus.

For Johnson, a Black Bahamian pursuing a MSc in Environment and Development, »racism in Denmark is low-key.« He is more likely to experience micro aggressions such as »little things under the breath, the side eye or a side comment,« he says rather than confrontational acts.

Benmessaoud, a second year Danish Algerian Muslim bachelor student studying Food and Nutrition, wholeheartedly agreed with Brynton L. Johnson by explaining to me ‘småracistisk.’ A term used to describe those who are a »little bit racist« and »use racism as a joke or compliment.«

What is frustrating about this particular flavor of racism, according to Sabrina Benmessaoud, is that you never know where you stand. Whether someone, be it a stranger, professor or supposed friend, is with you or against you.

For instance, she recounted her attempt to buy shoes from a thrift store while two older store attendants repeatedly »looked at her as if she wasn’t speaking Danish« and kept asking ‘what?’ while speaking Danish to themselves. Since »they saw someone from outside and they wanted to hear something else,« Sabrina felt forced to leave without a purchase and brushed off the instance as »weird.«

Although some might write off Sabrina’s uncomfortable experience as a miscommunication, Oda-Kange Midtvåge Diallo’s piece At the Margins of Institutional Whiteness: Black Women in Danish Academia could bring to focus a less naive interpretation of events. Diallo’s research on Black women in academia shows that »the assumption a Black woman who speaks Danish fluently is adopted is another way of erasing Black citizens as an independent part of the Danish narrative.«

Extending this notion of erasure beyond Diallo’s context, it is clear the store attendants could not fathom a curly dark-haired young women within their notions of Denmark and Danes.

Brynton L. Johnson’s experiences reaffirm this differential treatment of those falling outside the expectations of white and blonde in Denmark. Neighbours have suspiciously watched him take out the trash and enter his building, he says. Similarly, he was typecasted when grabbing the metro on his early days in Denmark. Here he was fined while the white man sitting next to him, who also clearly rushed onto the train ticketless, remained of no interest to the ticket attendant. Johnson noted his frustration of being placed into a lose-lose situation where speaking up could only position him into ‘the angry black guy’ stereotype. This stereotype was originally a fear-mongering tactic used to justify the lynching of thousands of Black Americans. Today, the stereotype persists in the form of police brutality, the criminalization of people of color and racial profiling.

Contradictory to the smiling minorities placed throughout UCPH promotion material, feelings of otherness are rarely left behind upon entering campus for Brynton and Sabrina. While discussing how the university narrowly defines diversity in terms of gender and sexual orientation, Sabrina jokingly jumped in to say »—but your color, we’ll definitely discriminate on that!« We snickered over this, shrugging »at least they’re being honest.«

This exclusion of people of colour in the university’s diversity rhetoric, unfortunately becomes all too real in the classroom. Where Sabrina says she feels a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult »to speak up when you’re in a group of people that all think alike and you’re the only one who has experienced the other thing.«

In more specific terms, Sabrina says she feels her classmates ask questions and make comments from a western/white/atheist perspective that often positions her Brown/Muslim perspective as inferior. In Brynton’s courses, where he is the only person of color, he explains the stress of being »under a lens all the time« and the pressure of his appointment into the impossible role of »the spokesperson for being Black.«

»Black is not a monolith. We are not all the same. You can’t put an idea on all of us and expect us to represent it.«

Brynton L. Johnson

In this role he is constantly combatting one-dimensional assumptions that he must be African American or should have playlists filled with rap music rather than dancehall and afrobeat. Similarly, when whiteness is the norm he finds himself often justifying his existence by explaining how the histories of Black people in the Bahamas are distinct from Black people in North America. The mental toll of this daily necessity to prove oneself as a fully fleshed human with contradictions like anyone else should not be understated.

»Black is not a monolith. We are not all the same. You can’t put an idea on all of us and expect us to represent it,« he says.

What Can the University Do?

Like all western institutions and privileged bubbles, it turns out the university can do a lot. And I recommend asking Brynton and Sabrina for advice.

For starters, a clear commitment to racial and ethnic minority students in the university’s ‘diversity and equality’ statement would be nice. Backing up this symbolic gesture with systemic actions would be icing on the cake.

To create »a place where minorities can come and speak up, speak together and feel seen« Brynton calls on the university to support community organization for students of colour. As an active member of his undergraduate university’s Black Student Association and Caribbean Student Association, Brynton is keen to see these kinds of spaces connect students of colour while bringing ease and a greater sense of belonging onto campus.

So far, we have had approximately two white men teach about feminist research approaches, three white men teach about intersectionality and an overwhelming majority of white professors lecture on everywhere from Tanzania to Malaysia.

To further prioritize minority students, a serious look at both course curriculums and university staffing is required. In Brynton’s and my own studies there are ample opportunities to incorporate diversity into the classroom with far reaching benefits.

I want to emphasize this is not a critique on the staff themselves, who have ample experience, expertise and passion in their respective areas, rather the system in which they teach in. A system which leaves Brynton feeling that »teachers will not understand what [he] is going through.«

Even while exploring study abroad options, where one would hope to find a splash of multiculturalism, Sabrina found a heavy handed Eurocentric bias remained. And was disappointed to find South Africa and Israel as her only options to study outside of the western world. Not only would Sabrina like to see wider options for herself to experience a new culture, but she also believes it would benefit the student body to be encouraged outside of their white dominated academic bubbles.

This is just the starting point of a long list of interventions the university can take inspiration from to align with the anti-racist movement. I look forward to seeing this progress take place in Denmark, my hometown and other privilege bubbles. Finally, I would like to thank the brave bodies and voices like Brynton, Sabrina and the many inspiring authors of colour I came across while writing this featured comment. Who pursue what is rightfully theirs with acuity and compassion.

References

Diallo, O. M. (2019). At the Margins of Institutional Whiteness: Black Women in Danish Academia. In A. Emejulu & F. Sobande (Authors), To exist is to resist: Black feminism in Europe (pp. 219-228). London: Pluto Press.

Elton, C. (2020, December 8). How Has Boston Gotten Away with Being Segregated for So Long? Boston Magazine.

Fottrell, Q. (2020, June 3). How America perfected the ‘art of demonizing Black men’. MarketWatch.

Friis, R. (2020, September 28). Researchers want University of Copenhagen to commit to anti-racism struggle. University Post.

Hansen, N. K. L., & Suárez-Krabbe, J. (2018). Introduction: Taking Racism Seriously. KULT. Postkolonial Temaserie.

Holtug, N. (2013). Danish Multiculturalism, Where Art Thou? In Challenging Multiculturalism: European Models of Diversity (pp. 190-215). Edinburgh University Press.

Macaraig, A. (2020, June 12). Half of Danes say racism not a problem in Denmark – survey. CPH Post.

Macaraig, A. (2020, June 23). Danish News Round-Up: No racism in Denmark, contends Pia Kjærsgaard. CPH Post.

Overgaard, S. (Writer). (2020, August 15). Facing Eviction, Residents Of Denmark’s ‘Ghettos’ Are Suing The Government [Transcript, Radio broadcast]. In All Things Considered. NPR.

Questiaux, F. & Mortensen, S. (2020, September 17). Open Letter to The University of Copenhagen to Address Racism in Academia. University Post.

Semuels, A. (2019, April 11). The Utter Inadequacy of America’s Efforts to Desegregate Schools. The Atlantic.

University of Copenhagen. Diversity and equality. Retrieved February 14, 2021, from https://about.ku.dk/profile-history/diversity/

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