Decolonising Global Health: Day 1

Author: Mary Harasym

Please see a list of definitions at the bottom of the article.

“Who really wants to change a structural system that benefits them? … It’s time to engage and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Rukiatu F. Sheriff

With a powerful opening speech, Rukiatu from Sammen Mod Racisme (SMR) set the stage for two days of learning that would challenge many of our foundational beliefs- about race, about the university, and about our role as future global health practitioners. Decolonising Global Health was a 2-day seminar that took place on 1st and 2nd October 2019, co-organised by EOGH, SMR and the School of Global Health at the University of Copenhagen. The goal of Day 1 was to explore structural racism and give space for personal reflection and discourse between participants.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

Following Rukiatu’s speech, June Thalin Worm from SMR recited Chinese 101, a spoken word visual by Alex Luu; connecting the content of our seminar to the arts, often where society’s boundaries are first pushed.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

The main lecture and workshop was led by Mica Oh; an activist, educator, philosopher and writer with extensive experience educating people about structural racism in Denmark. Mica opened her workshop by being vulnerable, discussing her and her assistant’s mindset that day. Sharing her anxiety about being in a white academic institution presenting her workshop in English for the first time. With this vulnerability, she set the stage for her audience to be vulnerable too. The workshop was  emotive, challenging, and required participants to do the work- of reflection, self analysis and self-critique.

A key concept explored during Day 1 was that of positionality; explained by Rukiatu as “the social, political context that creates our identity, in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability status. Positionality describes how your identity influences and potentially biases the way your understanding of the world.”

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

Mica shared her story, as an adopted black girl in Denmark, growing up with an unstable home life and living the effects of white people’s unbridled racist prejudices, stereotypes and biases. Mica spoke to the audience using the narrative of her life story, with the purpose of arousing their emotions and empathy. Part of her educational method is evoking feelings in people because, in Mica’s own words, “You have to feel it, before you can learn it.” 

Near the start of her presentation Mica Oh asked the question, “Are all white people racist?” Hearing this for the first time is jarring and can trigger deep-rooted white fragility; the tension in the room became more palpable. The statement “all white people are racist” has been explored extensively by public figures and critical race scholars.  But it can be challenging for many white people to cope with, because the word racist is so tightly associated with being a bad person. Mica reminded the audience time and time again that this is not true- but rather that racism is a structure we are born into. She urged participants to first listen to people of colour, then reflect on their own blind spots, and then acknowledge how these affect their lives.

After Mica’s presentation and a break, we moved into the workshop where in small groups were able to reflect on different questions about white privilege, white saviourism and allyship, among other concepts (defined at the bottom of the article). When participants were asked to reflect, the floor was open and students were more candid and vulnerable than I’ve seen in any classroom setting previously.

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Photo by Nekisa Ghasemi

The space transformed from a lecture to a place where people could learn together through discourse, and explore some of the more difficult concepts that relate to racism in our personal lives as well as what structural racism means for global health.

One question asked us to consider how language might contribute to or disrupt structural racism. Participants talked about how in global health, phrases like “Global South” and “developing countries” are often used uncritically as shorthand for poverty, disease and malnutrition- without consideration that the roots of many of these issues can be traced back to colonialism. One participant asked- how do we know that “developed” countries such as Denmark have finished developing?

To study and to work in global health, is to be at the forefront of working with the effects of colonialism and structural racism. Mica’s workshop showed how we can all be complicit in these structures; especially those of us that benefit from them. She pointed out that you don’t get a free pass because you are a “nice person” who isn’t actively committing hate crimes. Furthermore, good intentions are not the same as a good impact. For example, many participants shared experiences of volunteering abroad, questioning whether their unskilled labour was valuable- would it have been better to donate the cost of the plane ticket to a local organisation? As well as teaching these challenging lessons, Mica took care to let participants know that being racist was not their fault as individuals- we’re born into this system and many of us are never taught to understand or question it. She paraphrased the iconic quote from James Baldwin: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”

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Mica cited Toni Morrison as a major influence on her growing up (image from Wikimedia Commons)

If I know anything about my classmates and colleagues in global health, it’s that they have a huge social conscience. Central to a social conscience is constantly acknowledging your privilege, in order to avoid reproducing the very harms you seek to end. Mica Oh’s workshop set the stage for the personal work that must be done on structural racism. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time hearing different sets of anti-racism terminology, we all have something to learn, and this type of reflection is vital  to contribute to the academic discourse on decolonisation.

A number of definitions you may find useful:

Structural racism

White privilege




White fragility

White supremacy 

Reverse racism


Note: I am a white settler Canadian and acknowledge the Anishanaabe land I grew up on. I also acknowledge that no white person is at the centre of anti-racism work and this article intends to reiterate and give a student perspective from Day 1 of the seminar. 

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