Rap artist, Andre 3000, once wore a statement piece that read, “Across cultures, darker people suffer most, why?”
If you’re a student of color, then you most likely choose to study abroad to see another part of the world, experience different cultures, and develop your language skills. Yet, during your explorations, you might have to deal with how natives will react to your existence because you are Black, Brown, and different.
There is already a small number of students of color traveling abroad, but those of you who do have to take into account many considerations. There will be cultural differences like communication barriers, the difference in appearances, attitudes, and tone of interactions. And as a student of color, it’s best to recognize that diversity abroad means something different in the United States, and across the world.
For example, racism is embedded in society and global institutions where throughout history, those with darker complexions across cultures and nations have had negative experiences. You must also consider stereotypes based on gender/sex and how the world sheds light on certain actions of people of color just like you. There have been many examples where people are gawked at and become spectacles (i.e., a viral video of a group of young black men sitting on some stairs in China) because of their dark skin. Those moments are met with confusion and astonishment.
Although this is true, you should understand that while THIS exists, it shouldn’t hinder your decision to study abroad or your actual experience traveling overseas.
Here is a compiled list of things that a student of color studying abroad should take into account and how to tackle them.
Language or Communication Barriers
One of the major challenges that ALL students might face traveling abroad is a language barrier. Of course, if the local language isn’t your native tongue, then it presents some obstacles connecting and meeting natives in your host country.
Whether this happens or not, it would be good to learn common words and phrases to get around despite your lack of fluency.
But, what if you face an intentional or unintentional insult from a local?
Unpacking microaggressions while abroad
There might be some underlying tones and biases that can catch you off guard and taint your view of the locals. For example, have you ever approached someone to ask a question and they asked you, “Where are you from?” Once you respond, they look at you with a confused face and proceed to ask, “Where are you REALLY from?” with the hint of judgment and suspicion.
Even while you’re abroad, you might face similar interactions where someone doesn’t believe that you are born where you say you were born, or rather believe you to be from somewhere else. For example, mistaking that you’re not from the United States because of your hair texture or skin color.
In these situations, your first thought might be to classify them as racist. But, in fact, it’s just ignorance and curiosity. Does it make it okay? No, but it is likely that the locals may have never seen or interacted with a person of color, and you’re the first.
While you may or may not want to use this opportunity to educate the locals on your culture and heritage, it’s ok to (1) ask them to respect your space, (2) walk away, and/or (3) stand up for yourself.
Most importantly, if you are in a situation where your safety is a concern, then reach out immediately to your study abroad advisor or program leader for assistance.
You must also take into consideration your appearance, such as the way you dress or your hairstyle. This isn’t to suggest you need to change your appearance. You should do exactly the opposite. Embrace who you are and be comfortable with how you look.
There are things, however, you should be mindful of when studying abroad. Slogans or logos on your clothing may attract a negative reaction from people. Research the country and discover what signs, symbols, and designs may be offensive to the local culture.
Additionally, people touch Black women’s hair without permission and fetishize their womanhood because they appear “exotic”. Black women are met with the dilemma: either to react or accept the disrespectful moment. If you as a black woman react then you’d be stereotyped as being loud and aggressive, and ultimately boxed into the narrative that all black women are like this. If there is no reaction then you may feel helpless and defeated because you “allowed” the incident to occur.
The best thing to do is to prepare yourself for these types of interactions, whether they will or won’t actually occur. Before arriving at your host country, dig into travel groups for advice or learn about other students or people of color’s experiences. You’d find tips on how to navigate such a culture and possibly understand that people may be unaware of your social norms.
If harassment and maltreatment continue to happen, report the behavior immediately. Your study abroad advisor and your program advisor are there to support you and respond to any safety concerns you may have. Certain issues warrant the involvement of your home and host institution.
Hair products for people of color may not be readily available as it is in the United States. Consider wearing protective styles such as braids, wigs or twists. These hairstyles are easier to manage while abroad, and its low maintenance will allow you to focus on other important stuff like meeting new friends and trying different cuisines.
For men, you might be lucky to find a barber who can cut your hair or learn how to do it yourself.
If you prefer carrying and traveling with your hair products, be sure to purchase a couple of months’ supply and pack it in your checked luggage. It’ll save you time, effort, and money having it mailed to you overseas.
Whichever you decide, your hair is art so show it off and be extremely proud of it.
It’s not all bad when you study abroad. There are some positive considerations that will impact you for a lifetime.
As a student of color not only are you gaining educational experience in a different country, you are also gaining life experience. The exposure to other cultures gives you an advantage in the playing field of life. More experiences will enhance your knowledge and wisdom. This will give you an edge in the pursuit of your personal and career goals in the future.
Be open to learning from the locals and improving your language skills. There may be some fear about how to approach a stranger and who to trust but use common sense and the tips and advice given to you by your study abroad advisor.
If you decide to embark on a study abroad program with a group, don’t be afraid to step away and maximize your own experience while in-country. (Note: Do so safely) To be honest, you may not click with or share the same views as your peers. And, what if you’re the only student of color on the program?
Although you may feel lonely during your study abroad experience, it’ll open up an opportunity to explore yourself as a person. Soft skills that are important in the job market include being flexible and adaptable; open-minded; and able to work well with others. The great part about studying abroad is that you gain these soft skills and more.
It’s not easy trying to convince your mom or family that studying abroad is purposeful and important. Sometimes, they try to talk you out of it because they are fearful of the world themselves. Or, they aren’t clear what exactly study abroad entails.
Regardless of their fear, allowing your family to hold you back should never be an option. They are so many resources online and offline that can give clarity over studying abroad, whether it includes how to finance your experience, where you should go, or how to manage life abroad as a student of color.
Show them, not tell them how studying abroad is RIGHT for you!
Homesickness is real. Yet, very normal. Traveling far away from home without the security of family and friends can be a hard feeling to get over for the fact that you aren’t sharing the experience with them. But, cultivating memories of your own can help you get over their absence pretty quickly.
You’ll have a lot to talk about over the holidays, breaks, dinner, and surely after your return. Share your diverse knowledge of your host country and special moments during your time. This would be the perfect opportunity to express why you as a student of color benefit from a study abroad experience. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and community will give your mother something to brag about with her friends.
With the advancements in technology to combat that sense of loneliness, you can chat with your family and friends via video calls, and take pictures and share them on social media to prove to your family that you are just fine.
Whether the experience of traveling abroad is good or bad the fact that you took the opportunity to see the world is a great feat. The experience could be out of the ordinary or the best thing since sliced bread. Remember that being a person of color and defeating the fear of exploring the rest of the world is a challenge and opportunity that many students do not have.
People of color set out on their ordinary lives every day hoping to make it the best day ever while ducking stereotypes and microaggressions. But, you’re deciding to study abroad in spite of this. My advice is to not be afraid, go ahead and take the leap into a culture you are curious about, learn from other people, and experience the world for yourself.
Adriana Smith is author of the book Studying Abroad for Black Women (Diary of a Traveling Black Woman: A Guide to International Travel Book 4) and Assistant Director of International Programs in the Office of International Programs at Presbyterian College in the USA.
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