Lately, I’ve read and related to many articles about the struggles of people of color traveling and living abroad, in Thailand, Spain, France, and others. Traveling as a person of color raises many questions about where we feel most comfortable, who we identify with the most, where we feel most at home.
These questions become particularly critical when participating in a study abroad program. The close-knit community fostered in study-abroad programs creates all kinds of power dynamics that sometimes need to be processed in order to have a positive experience. As a student of color who studied abroad my junior year of college, there were many things I wished I had considered before jumping in to the experience. Here are a few:
1. How diverse are the students in my program? How much does that matter to me?
My study abroad program only had a handful of people color. Statistics show that in most study-abroad programs, this lack of racial diversity is common.
I didn’t realize until I arrived in my host country how much that mattered to me. At my university, over 30% of our student population were students of color. My friend group consisted of people from a wide range of backgrounds, and many of my closest friends were children of immigrant families like my own. Suddenly spending a semester with a more homogenous group of students definitely took some getting used to.
2. How will the the racial dynamics already present in the country affect my experience?
While studying abroad in Paris, an Asian-American friend of mind struggled with many locals’ insensitivity towards Asian-American culture. People on the metro would tease her by slanting their eyes with their fingers or making “Kung-Fu” noises when they saw her. Coming from a liberal area of the United States, she wasn’t used to this kind of behavior. Before studying abroad, it may help to research the general perceptions of racial and cultural groups in the country so that you’re not caught off guard when an incident happens to them.
Even when a country’s racial attitudes aren’t directed at you, they can still affect your experience. For example, while traveling in Brazil, a Latino friend of mine found it difficult to enjoy herself while observing the stark inequalities between the country’s black and white populations. With the injustices so blatantly “in your face”, as she told me, she found it difficult to go about her daily life without thinking about it constantly. While studying abroad in Cape Town, I felt similar. On a Saturday, I could drink wine at a fancy, hotel bar frequented by mostly white tourists and be served by only black staff. I could attend an expensive outdoor weekend market, and then walk out and find people sleeping on the street. The quick transitions between these “two different Cape Towns” often were emotionally difficult to process.
Before studying abroad, I wish I had asked how I would personally deal with these dynamics, and what strategies, tools, and resources I needed to handle its emotional impact.
3. What will locals label me? Will it be different than what I’m labeled back home? How can I deal with that experience?
While studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, many locals refused to consider me “American” and instead labeled me “Mexican” or “Ecuadorian” after the country of my parents. Inversely, others considered me “white” simply because I was from the U.S, and refused to acknowledge my identity as a person of color from the States. Others simply associated me with the racial classification of their own country that made most sense: in South Africa, sometimes I was labeled “coloured,” sometimes I was labeled “white.” Whenever I’d try to explain that I feel most comfortable identified as “Latino,” people were confused and had a hard time understanding what “Latino” really meant.
As a foreigner, I tried to go along with what others decided I should be, but these racial labels also affected how I was treated or perceived. When considered “American”, I definitely received more privilege and respect than when labeled “coloured.” When considered “Mexican,” I received more problematic comments about my “exoticness” than when I was labeled “American.”
I quickly realized that unlike the white students in my program, I wasn’t only experiencing culture shock of living in a new country. I was experiencing the “racial shock” of navigating spaces under a new racial identity. I wish I had come prepared for these situations, so that instead of spending a lot of time confused and doubting myself, I could have responded instead in ways that were healthy and empowering.
4. How will I relate to the students in my program?
Before studying abroad, I assumed that, as students from the United States curious about travel and life in South Africa, the students in my program and I would have a lot in common. Yet sometimes the racial/cultural issues within the U.S. students in my program were far more difficult to overcome than even the racial/cultural issues with locals.
Since the majority of study abroad students come from upper-class, white backgrounds, I struggled to relate to many of my peers’ upbringing, or to keep up with the amount of money they were often able to spend while abroad. Some students expressed racist and bigoted views of local South Africans that made me feel unsafe in their presence, or uninterested in deepening a relationship with them.
Meanwhile, the tight-knit vibe of study abroad programs made me feel guilty for not always identifying with these students. I often doubted myself whenever I felt out of place. I felt like something must be wrong with me if some of these students didn’t feel like “my people.”
Traveling with U.S. students abroad crystallizes the racial, socio-economic and cultural issues you can sometimes easily push aside at home. Before joining a program, I wish I had reflected on how interactions within my U.S. group could affect my experience, and how I would confront those challenges as they occurred.