Finding Places to Find Yourself… and Racism: Studying abroad while “Brown”
On the first day of my exchange in Copenhagen, I was greeted by the sight of the most adorable, well-mannered toddlers waddling their way to school—all of whom were blond-haired and blue-eyed. Along with the cobblestone paths and Danish-language road signs, it was one of the strongest reminders that I was far, far away from Toronto. The geographical borders of my life have only stretched so far as Vaughan, Etobicoke, and North York, so racial homogeneity was a largely distant concept to me. As the reality of my new home sank in, I began to wonder how much my brown skin would shape my life abroad.
Truthfully, it wasn’t something to which I gave much thought while planning my exchange. I was excited about the opportunity to study political science through a non-North American lens. I wanted to experience independent travel, make a home out of a completely unfamiliar city. And in my defense, studying abroad is frequently glamourized as a panoramic getaway, brimming with life-changing adventure and potential for self-discovery. Rarely mentioned is the fact that, in the same space you’re given to discover yourself, others are discovering you, too. You’re a traveller, but you’re also a foreigner, and that label comes with a lot of baggage—especially if you’re a Brown person visiting a dominantly White country.
The history of brown-skinned people voyaging to “White” lands itself is deeply political and fraught with negative stereotypes. Sometimes, we’re a sympathetic cause: poor, desperate, and simply in search of economic and social refuge. Other times, we’re a scourge, burdening government welfare systems, bolstering criminal activity, and stuck in our backwards cultures. We’re an otherized monolith in either perspective, detached from our complexities—our different identities and our diverse motives for movement. Perhaps worst of all, we are refused the luxury of anonymity: the ability to travel without being subject to a hypercritical gaze, questioning our every step.
These thoughts formed the backdrop of my circumstances on exchange. Across the continent, the refugee crisis has taken a profound toll on European countries, sparking divisive debates and bringing humanity’s ugliest inclinations to the fore. Denmark, of course, has been no exception. Danes have had to grapple with a flux of people who seem to be nothing like them, and have chosen in response to tighten their borders, render Denmark economically unlivable for immigrants, and even institute a burqa and niqab ban. To be clear, these policy decisions reflect the opinions of a dominant segment of Danish society that is undeniably hostile toward Brown people.
By the end of my four months abroad, though, I completed my exchange largely unscathed. Between the occasional “random” selection at the airport and the throwaway comments from some of my Danish peers about “lazy criminals” in Nørreboro, a dominantly Middle Eastern neighbourhood, I didn’t experience anything radically different from the racism I’ve witnessed here at home. This could have been for any number of reasons. I have a cute White first name. I have a Canadian passport and my place of birth is Toronto. I speak English fluently and I don’t have an identifiably “foreign” (read: non-American or European) accent.
Whatever the reason, the realistic part of me knows these privileges have allowed me to be the exception rather than the rule. I can’t help but wonder about my experience had I appeared more strikingly, more stereotypically “Brown.” What if I wore a hijab? What if my name was less “White”? What if I had a passport from a Middle Eastern or North African country? The twinge of alienation I felt being a Brown girl in a sea of White people in no way compares to the very real threats of violence and discrimination that face others outside my unique position. However, more importantly, maybe my feeling of alienation foreshadows those threats.
As fortunate as I was to have had the space to explore Europe and grow as a person—as every student who embarks on an exchange ought to have—there is certainly merit in people of colour discussing the underbelly of travel. Racialized students shouldn’t feel deterred from going on exchange as a result, but they should be allowed to prepare themselves for uncomfortable encounters. After all, studying abroad is about finding places to find yourself—not the stress and restriction of racism.