My Experiences in Copenhagen: Finding Beauty in Adversity
Olivia Pearson is a current junior at Spelman College, member of the Class of 2017. She studies English and Comparative Women's Studies.
As I reflect on my time in Copenhagen, I realize that I have grown significantly over the past four months. It seems like only yesterday that I arrived in Denmark, both excited and disillusioned. Copenhagen is an extremely beautiful city, however it contains a culture that is hard to access if you do not blend in, or assimilate, with its homogenous population.
At first, I was highly resistant to my study abroad experience due to the fact that I did not see many people who looked like me, neither at the my study abroad program, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, nor walking the streets of the city center. Coming from Spelman College and the Atlanta University Center, Denmark lies in stark contrast to what I have become accustomed to over the past two years. The cultivation of young Black scholars at Historically Black Colleges and Universities is an experience that is specific to the United States. Since my time in Denmark, I have come to realize how much I cherish the opportunities that Spelman has endowed me with and the experience of attending an HBCU as a whole.
Outside of the U.S., the conversation shifts from race to national identity. My primary identifier while abroad has shifted to that of an American, but in the eyes of others, I am suspected to be from Africa or Latin America. Additionally, given that race is erased from the consciousness of the Danish community at large, it has been difficult maneuvering through Danish society.
Racism and white supremacy are global phenomena. Denmark is a country that advertises that it is the most equal and happiest place in the world, however racism and white supremacy are very much embedded in the foundation of its society. It is important to remember that most European countries have a colonial past, and their depiction and perception of individuals from former colonies is largely still present within society.
Additionally, given the homogeneity of Denmark as a country, the Black presence is largely erased given that dominant culture has forced individuals to assimilate. The language that I have developed during my time at Spelman has given me the tools to talk about and reflect on how systems of oppression are operable throughout the world. The ugly, pervasive, toxic disease of white supremacy and racism manifest globally, and although such systems wear different masks within Danish society, they rear their ugly heads in institutional forms of oppression.
All that being said, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad, however difficult it may have been. I have developed a pride and demeanor that relishes my being a Black female. I have also come to realize that despite a society’s efforts to assimilate Black identities and culture, they come into fruition in less obvious ways. My relentless pursuit to find my place within Danish culture was affirmed the other week when I attended a Women of Color Panel and Discussion hosted by the African Empowerment Center in Denmark. The panel was entitled, Women are Powerful and Dangerous. On stage were the images of Angela Davis and Audre Lorde, and the panelists were a diverse group of empowered women who identify as Black, African, and Women of Color from Sweden and Denmark. This panel was the second ever event of its kind, and I found myself at the forefront of a discussion that attempted to address all of the observations that I have made during my time in Denmark. This experience is one of the most notable memories of my time abroad because it exposed me to the lived experiences of members of the Diaspora who live in Denmark.
At the panel entitled Women are Powerful and Dangerous, one of the panelists introduced herself as Caroline Cline, an activist and mother of Swedish and Nigerian descent. She went on to say that she attended a Historical Black College in the United States, in Tennessee more specifically (later namely, LeMoyne-Owen College). Later, after much excitement, after introductions were said and arrangements were made, Women are Powerful and Dangerous resulted in Caroline inviting me and my fellow Spelman sister who was studying abroad with me to her home in Malmö, Sweden for dinner. I had found home. I had found my place within Scandinavia. After much anxiety, I had been able to find beauty in the adversity.
My advice to those who are considering traveling abroad is to go for it. Studying abroad has been eye opening, and it has taught me the importance of listening and observing. In addition, I have learned the importance of my voice. I have learned to combat the dismissal of my raising awareness of the issues present within Danish society as my being a “politically correct” American. Yes, it is true that I am American, but I seek to expose racism and white supremacy even when they take the most subversive forms. Studying abroad in Europe is difficult at times, but it has also been extremely empowering. As I pass the torch to future travelers, I encourage you not to be discouraged, and stand proud knowing that inner strength and conviction, as well as a strong sense of self, are key to withstanding and gaining from new experiences on a global level.