DIS Student Vlogger Blue (he/they) opens up about their experience as a student of color studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. They talk about their main struggles while studying abroad, and tips and tricks on how to maintain wellness and make the most of the semester. The video below has been transcribed into a written format. Learn about Blue’s time abroad in their own words below.
In this video I would like to talk about my honest experiences of being a student of color, because it plays a large factor in the study abroad experience.
Copenhagen is a predominantly white city. Racial isolation and racism in general can have a huge impact on the study abroad experience. I would like to go over my own experiences navigating race in Denmark, in DIS, and in general. Then, I will cover mindsets, tips, and strategies I used to keep my own wellbeing in check and ensure that I could continue to have the most fun possible whilst studying abroad.
Historical Conceptions of Race in Denmark
Firstly, I’d like to talk about the conceptions of race in Denmark. Despite what Scandinavian exceptionalism narratives might support, Denmark has a long spanning colonial history as egregious as any other Western Power. Its colonies included Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a region in West Africa called the Gold Coast.
Denmark has some serious historical amnesia in regards to its own colonial past, and instead opts to portray itself as this benevolent, morally pure, innocent society not nearly as bad as those guys (flags from the U.S., U.K, Spain and France appear within the frame of the video), and with little involvement had was through civilizing efforts that were motivated by humanitarian missionary intent and definitely not white savior complexes.
Both Denmark’s colonial history and even modern day racial and class disparities aren’t centered in national discourse. They are alluded to from a neutral standpoint, but not the head on reckoning that is due. For example, Danish colonial history is not taught in public schools, nor is it taught in many of the Danish language and culture courses that the DIS offers.
I knew functionally nothing about Denmark pre-departure aside from this ‘happiest place on earth’ narrative. It’s perfect welfare system, collectivist culture, high social trust, high quality of life. These are amazing things. Yes, these are great, but the downside of collectivist culture, ironically, is how exclusionary it can be. Notions of collective identity can quickly mutate into hyper nationalism as one demographic becomes the face of the collective and group sentiment becomes oppressive, constructed as much around an ‘out’ group, as an ‘in’ group.
I think Scandinavia and the Netherlands get romanticized a lot amongst liberal college-aged Americans. So if in studying abroad, you’re hoping for this fantastical escape into a progressive society, yes, but I also caution us to remain critical. And as lovely as Denmark can be it still has its flaws.
Race in Denmark
Okay, so why the history lesson? Because Danish conceptions of race historically affect the way race is viewed in the modern day as well.
There’s no PC culture in Denmark. In the States, at least the racists keep their ignorance to themselves for fear of being canceled. Here, because racial inequality is viewed as this distant error of the past, some Danish people struggle to recognize the way racism affects the lived experiences of people of color today.
Racial isolation, microaggressions, and Eurocentrism lead to POC being starved of representation. These things wouldn’t make the news in the same way that a killing would, aren’t on the radar, or aren’t ‘as bad’ and thus aren’t treated with the same cultural sensitivities.
If you do encounter racism while abroad from Danish people, it will likely be in the form of the most out of pocket, blatantly ignorant, offhand comment. I personally never came across this (text on screen: But I have heard BIPOC friends vent their frustrations about), it was more common for people to show a complete obliviousness in regards to race and a very rudimentary understanding of things like my hair… and why I speak in AAVE (African American Vernacular English).
I will say, I have definitely been a lot more patient with the ignorance of Danish people than I would be of white Americans. Because there’s this sort of two way cultural blindness when I talk to Danish people. In my domestic life, so much of why talking about race with white Americans is so exhausting is because it feels like I’m teaching them for free. Like I exist in all white spaces for the sole function of being a thankless educational tool for white Americans.
Whereas in Denmark, when I am an ignorant traveler, interacting with an equally ignorant local, neither of us have ever talked to anyone from the other person’s culture. So having a difficult conversation feels more rewarding because there is that mutual benefit.
Race in DIS
DIS is a program that predominantly recruits white Americans from rich private colleges. For all my brothers and sisters that go to PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), this is likely going to be more of what you’re used to.
I was oftentimes one out of maybe two to four people of color in my classes. But I will say, I actually became so close to my classmates in DIS, compared to my classes in America, especially with my Core Course classmates. I definitely remember thinking on my first day of classes in Copenhagen when I walked into a room full of white students that this was going to be the loneliest semester of my life. But once we started going on Study Tours, Field Studies, and weekend trips together, I definitely warmed up to my classmates and they became serious allies to me throughout my semester experience.
I actually became so close to my classmates in DIS, compared to my classes in America, especially with my Core Course classmates.
I think the class dynamic of American classrooms makes students of color particularly perceptible to isolation. Because in those classes, you’ll only ever talk to your peers in group projects, or when you need a pencil or when you need help with homework or something. But at DIS, once you start doing Study Tours together, there’s a certain bonding element that happens during the travel that transcends lines of identification.
Prepare for the initial culture shock, yes. The nature of being in a classroom full of white Americans is likely to be something that you’re used to. But it’s also likely to be the only thing in common that DIS has with classrooms back home. Because, I found the educational model that is built around travel is inherently inclusive and is set up in a way for all humans to enjoy.
Strategies, Mindsets, Tips
Now, I want to talk about tips and tricks that I used to maintain wellness as a student of color abroad.
Tip #1: Take a course about race.
I found that these Race and Ethnic Studies, Sociology type courses, can offer a space to have healthy, constructive conversations about race that you might not be getting outside of class.
Here are some courses that I’ve heard great things about. (Course titles pop up on screen)
Tip #2: Utilize the Students of Color Meetup group offered in the DIS Navigate app.
This is an in-person meetup group that I joined during my semester at DIS, and we would do really cool things like go out to have dinner at a restaurant, or do fun activities around the city, or host safe spaces to have discussions about our experiences, and all of this was paid for and organized by DIS.
The meetup group is hosted by women of color faculty, and it can be a good way to meet other students of color in DIS through fun activities, especially during those first few weeks after landing.
Tip #3: When you start to feel like you’re missing your people, call them. Homesickness is amplified by racial isolation, and in a vulnerable moment, it can feel like the only solution is doing something drastic, like leaving the DIS altogether. But it’s so much healthier to just FaceTime your friends and see their pretty melanated faces.
I remember walking around Copenhagen my first few weeks and all I would notice is how many white people there are. And it would just zap so much mental energy from me, that I wouldn’t even notice the beautiful new city that I am in.
And, I would just advise you to focus on all of the things that Copenhagen has to offer, rather than all of the things that it doesn’t.
Tip #4: Utilize the Care Team.
In moments when it gets really bad, open up to the Care Team. They are trained social workers and counselors and they are women of color faculty that are ready to listen to you. Do not suffer in silence.
Tip #5: Visit a more diverse part of Denmark.
Not all of Denmark is white. There are very diverse neighborhoods in Denmark such as Nørrebro and Christiania. Nørrebro has some of the best food in Copenhagen and Christiania is just a beautiful, artsy place, period. I spent a lot of time just wandering these cultural hotspots and actually befriended quite a few Danes of color.
Not all of Denmark is white. There are very diverse neighborhoods in Denmark such as Nørrebro and Christiania. I spent a lot of time just wandering these cultural hotspots and actually befriended quite a few Danes of color.
Tip #6: Visit a more diverse country altogether.
DIS builds a lot of travel time into the semester for independent travel. So if you’re feeling particularly racially isolated, buy a plane ticket and go to a more diverse part of Europe, where your community is for a weekend. One particularly rough week, I left Denmark for a weekend and hung out with the queer Afro German community in Berlin. And it was just so healing for me.
Tip #7: Regularly ingest media by people of color. Movies, music, TV shows, social media accounts. The internet can act as a reliable source of representation that you may not be getting in your in-person life.
Tip #8: And lastly (sigh), wave hi to people of color on the streets.
There’s a stereotype that Danish people are reticent and keep to themselves. But this is not necessarily true for POC strangers that I have seen on the street. There’s this unspoken solidarity that you have. And even so small and interaction as a way of can be what you need to keep going. I cannot tell you how much it pains me to walk past another BIPOC person and I wave at them and they don’t wave back. It makes me think that you’re in the sunken place or something. Don’t be that person.
Being BIPOC in White Spaces in General
I would like to end this by saying if you are a student of color and DIS sounds perfect for you, except the demographic, go ahead and come. I’d say pull up to Copenhagen regardless because that was the exact same position that I was in.
I promise you, the positives outweigh that negative by so much and you are way too brilliant to let the threat of racism stop you. DIS is not the first, nor the last all white space that you will occupy as a person of color. I have been trying to reframe the way I look at my positionality in professional spaces. I try to remind myself that every single negative emotion, every single micro aggression I could possibly have endured, another person of color before me has gone through that exact same thing, and they survived. And you want to know how I know they survived? It’s because I would not be where I am if it was not for them. I take comfort in the fact that a long line of people of color before me has paved the way for me to be here, and hopefully in me being here, I too am paving a way for a long line of people of color after me.
I take comfort in the fact that a long line of people of color before me has paved the way for me to be here, and hopefully in me being here, I too am paving a way for a long line of people of color after me.
These important figures everywhere from Richard Theodore Greener, to the Little Rock Nine, to my mother, and now me. Historically speaking, whiteness has always tried to deny people of color opportunities like studying abroad. And I think declining an experience this amazing, for fear of racism, is letting whiteness win. Now, I’m not saying be a martyr. No. I’m saying we must consider reorienting our mindsets. Being the only person of color in a classroom or the whole city for that matter isn’t an insecure position. It’s a power move. And you should jump at the opportunity to take up space that you are more than qualified and more than deserving, of being in.
So yeah, those are my thoughts. If you have any tips for fellow students of color, share them in the comments below. Let’s start a discussion. I would like to end with a quote from the FX documentary series, Pride:
Yes, you may be discriminated against, but how do you find joy amidst all of that? It’s up to you.