by Rochelle Smith, DENMARK
Before deciding to head off to Copenhagen I did some Google searches that are familiar to most PoC when planning a trip abroad: “Black people in Denmark”…”Danes and racism?”…”Afro hairdressers in Copenhagen” etc. According to various forums I learnt two things: 1) Afro hairdressers were hard to come by and, 2) the racism exhibited there was much like that seen in England. I was told to prepare myself for something quite subtle and structural. With the parallels that had been made to my home, England, in mind I decided to commit to a year studying abroad in Denmark – apparently one of the happiest countries in the world.
And here I was, a week and a half into my 10 month exchange. It was my second class of the semester, an elective course entitled ‘Introduction to Postcolonial Studies’ – I later realised the irony of the name of this course as the Danes seem to be quite content on completely sweeping their colonial history under the rug! I had sent a picture of the reading list to one of my friends a few days earlier as it was, for the most part, way more diverse and Afrocentric than the reading lists we’d get at my home university. The prospect of core readings including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Edward Said made a change to the typical predominantly white reading lists that I was used to. But things quickly fell apart when my white-Scandinavian teacher issued an apology to the White Males in the room, in case they felt attacked whilst we explored postcolonial theory (wth??). Then I, the only Black person in the room, had to listen to the word ‘negro’ be used by my teacher and a fellow classmate when talking about how, in general, Danes believe this racist and outdated term is still acceptable to refer to people who look like myself – This, she told us, was Denmark’s ‘negro problem’. This wasn’t something that Google had prepared me for. Throughout the class there were other instances of trivialising the very real and important historical struggles of Black Peoples. So I left upset, and called my sister back home to vent.
If this experience was useful for anything it was for making me very aware of the bubbles that I’m used to being in. Whether that was at home (South London) or within my home uni where there are networks of PoC and activists dedicated to liberating curriculums, embracing cultures, or just having a good time. Nonetheless, I had committed to a year-long exchange, so I dropped module (not before issuing a complaint), started learning the language and signed up to volunteer in a non-profit café in the city centre. By the time my second semester in Copenhagen came around I’d definitely got a better feel for the city and figured out how to navigate my way around all the little side streets and backroads and how to avoid getting run over by angry cyclists, lol.
Unsurprisingly, I remained one of few, if not the only non-white person in all of my classes but I’m so grateful for those few other PoC. Over dinner or a cup of coffee we would bond over our ‘otherness’ and rant about other people’s ignorance. With the exception of a few slightly heated incidents, I’d say that for the most part my interactions in Denmark mirrored that of home, but there, I was definitely aware of a heightened sense of sticking out/ hyper-visibility. This was probably most evident in the staring. There was a lot of staring, it quickly became tiring and was, in some instances definitely both sexualised and racialised (haha, three cheers for intersectionality (!)). And on the structural level, Denmark has a whole host of other issues**, particularly as the political climate in the country is one which is becoming increasingly exclusionary and alienating to the 11% of the population whom are not recognised as ‘ethnically Danish’.
Despite the ups and downs, I definitely don’t regret taking the opportunity to study abroad. I’ve been able to appreciate what it means to live so far away from my home, as well as the outer-beauty of a really picturesque city. It’s a small enough place to get around pretty easily and all of the different districts have something to offer. Vesterbro is seen as the city’s edgy/hipster area as well as being home to the meatpacking district, notorious for its nightlife. There’s a beach out in Amager where you can spend time on one the rare sunny day in Copenhagen, and Nørrebro is full of independent restaurants and cafés and is about as culturally diverse as the city gets.
Vi ses Copenhagen! Thanks for the lessons and the memories, but still, you’ve got nothing on London 😉
***Despite Denmark implementing some of the strictest and most dehumanising policies in relation to immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, there are a few volunteer-run organisations (such as Trampoline House and Venligboerne) dedicated to helping those within these categories and aid their integration into Danish society.