Studying Abroad As A Minority

by Berginald Rash

As a non-white study abroad student, you will be faced with unique challenges that your white contemporaries simply will not experience when studying overseas. It is important to remember that you are in many ways a cultural ambassador, not only of your U.S. culture but also as your U.S. culture in its ethnocentric context. This is not to suggest that you are, as a black or latino person, an expert on all things Black and/or Latino, but simply that your experiences, your presence, your voice, carries an authority, a weight that could potentially clash with the status quo and present experiences wholly specific to you because of your background.

labyrinthian streets of San Sebastian
Ambling through the narrow and labyrinthian streets of San Sebastian, confronting the anachronism that is my present with the walls' and streets' past.

Below is a short list of tips on how to navigate the amazingly wonderful experience that is studying abroad, without selling out or diminishing the all of you that’s embarking on this trip. 

Cultural Paradigms precede you.

Many people with whom you’ll come in contact already have an idea, or rather they think they have an idea, of what it means to be you. Your experience as a minority in the U.S. may come across as novel or as something out of some Quentin Tarantino fan fiction. They may not have the cultural context to place your experience in the appropriate frame and so, it is possible to encounter people who are interested in testing the boundaries of the appropriateness of certain words, phrases, or cultural stereotypes. Patience and firmness in these circumstances goes a long way to mitigate any future issues during your study abroad trip.

Just your friendly neighborhood educator.

Due to these preconceived notions you may have to gently educate people on what it means to be you as a non-white American. Many times foreigners have an impression of the U.S., albeit a pretty narrow one, based on shows like Sex and the City, The Wire, and Jersey Shore, just to name a few, all of which represent minorities in very limited ways if at all. Foreigners are, for the most part, very well versed in U.S. culture and tend to generalize U.S. citizens in a way that can marginalize those who don’t fit the Eurocentric norms of westernized, read “white” USA . This can work for or against you, depending on how well you identify with these cultural norms. Be willing to propose an alternate U.S. learning experience, one that discusses and explores the deep history of sexism, racism, elitism, capitalism, etc. Locals won’t have any problem doing so reciprocally, if they feel you are willing to be openly critical about both cultures.

USA versus America.

For many European countries the U.S. is not America, it is the United States of America. Remember the U.S. does not have a trademark or patent on the term American and for many, all of the Americas, North, Central, South, and the Caribbean, are America. Taking a global and historical perspective on the use of certain terms can help illuminate your travel abroad experience as a non-white U.S. citizen, and provide greater context by realizing that what you’ve always learned to be true may well be cultural bias.

Another good example of this is the number of continents recognized worldwide. In Europe they learn there are six, whereas in the U.S. we learn there are 7. Again cultural bias and historical context play a major role in our view of the world and what constitutes a continent.

People of color

Universal truths are neither “universal” nor “true”. 

Chances are that you grew up in a home where the way you communicated was dictated by the communication norms of your family and culture. For many, what you consider to be pleasant light-hearted banter can be viewed as yelling or nonchalance, depending on the perspective of the viewer. It is important to remember that your natural expression has the power to ingratiate or alienate others.

If, for instance, you come from the Deep South where heavily didactic religious rhetoric and zeal are du’jour, your manner of impassioned communication may be more boisterous, lively, and energetic. This is not a negative, just be cognizant of the fact that others may perceive this manner of communication as threatening or aggressive, depending on their experiences and understanding of communication. That is not to say that you must change who you are or how you speak, but to be aware of how others perceive you.

Essentially, your self-expression has to be filtered through two lenses when studying abroad, that of the target culture and that of the listener/viewer, especially if his or her culture is different. In Latin America, where the culture and history is a mixture of African and indigenous cultures, one might find themselves more at home than say in Scandinavia where dark skin and the culture that comes with it are wholly foreign. Know your audience to get the greatest impact and mileage out of your words.

Racism does not exist in a vacuum. 

You may very well experience racism in your new home. It happens. It exists. How you process and then handle it defines your character, not the racist you encounter. Remembering that in these experiences you are an educator first, if there is an opportunity to graciously elucidate, do so. If not, remember that just as the U.S. does not have a trademark on the term American, it also does not have a patent on ignorance and blatant stupidity. View these moments as growth opportunities for you and teachable moments for the individual you encounter. For some there’s an element of shock value that they wish to elicit when engaging disrespectfully with non-whites. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Students doing the peace sign

Not all words are equal. 

Translation studies will show you that the connotation of words can, in many ways, take precedence over the prescribed meaning. That’s simply to say that, words that may be offensive in English might not carry the same gravity in the target culture’s language. However, this principle can work in reverse so it’s always good to be mindful of colloquial language and its usage, both contextually and culturally.

Beauty is culturally defined.

As a non-white U.S. citizen, you may have wrestled with defining your beauty, your sex appeal, and reconciling it with what the mainstream touts as ideal. In other parts of the world, beauty constructs are not necessarily defined by white American standards. You may have the wonderful experience of finding that those things you’ve felt insecure about or mark you as “other” in the USA, only seem to enhance your physical appeal and help you stand out as a great vision of beauty to behold. This is a wonderful trade off when leaving home. Self-discovery and a refocusing of one’s own lens and how you see yourself through studying abroad can be a very rewarding discovery on your travel journey.

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