Recently, I attended the first study abroad session of the year. Being new to the school, I heard students rave about the programs and couldn’t wait to see all the choices offered.
Yet as I began to look around the room, I only noticed one or two others who looked like me — a black student. It didn’t take too long before I was visualizing possible mishaps.
Will I be picked and prodded at? Is my hair type accepted? Can I handle the stares in a country where I’m one of few? If something bad were to happen, would anyone believe me?
I’m not alone in my observations. When it comes to studying abroad, black students are grossly underrepresented, only accounting for 6.1%, according to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. Traveling internationally while black brings on extra hurdles which remain disregarded by college programs.
This isn’t to say studying abroad cannot be enjoyable for black people, in fact, there are countless positive and one-of-a-kind moments waiting beyond America. But nothing is simple.
Being black in America comes with a unique set of challenges and they don’t end at home, something rarely discussed. Of course, to travel, money is needed — something black students statistically have less of. But above finances, we face unique stereotypes overseas with little guidance or examples of how to overcome them.
In many countries — especially non-black, racially homogeneous ones — blackness is primarily presented through American media. This almost never ends well. Often depicted as dangerous with the occasional exceptional outlier (Oprah Winfrey, the Obamas, Beyoncé), people without the experience respond to black visitors in utter fear or amazement.
As flattering as it is to be mistaken for a celebrity, association with criminality is another story. Overall, getting approached and expected to behave like a caricature instead of a person becomes old — not to mention dehumanizing.
Having to constantly defend your very being, clarify intentions, or become the unofficial spokesman for an entire demographic is exhausting. This is even more apparent in a different environment.
After all, studying abroad is about personal growth. Being in a position where you’re always explaining yourself limits individual discovery. For many black people, it takes a lot of time and resilience to develop a healthy sense of self just in America. Beginning that journey somewhere else requires bravery.
Security is another concern. Sought after locations like Italy and France also double as political hotbeds, with a rise in recent African immigration and growing cultural tensions. Processes like the Libyan Slave Trade funnel thousands of West Africans into Europe, including women and girls being forcibly sex-trafficked. Stories of locals trying to solicit black female travelers due to stigma aren’t unheard of.
As a woman, so much time is already spent taking extra precaution against assault and harassment. On top of that, oversexualization remains a concern for black women. Because of a less likeliness to be believed when violated, we consciously and subconsciously go the extra mile to protect ourselves. This is especially relevant when having the choice to travel to an unfamiliar setting.
Areas, where pigmentation is an indicator of success and skin bleaching is rampant, blackness is associated with everything you shouldn’t be. Being reminded that your existence is considered the worst-case scenario can be unwelcoming enough. Whether through inefficient service and treatment, or a simple sly comment, colorism may manifest itself in many ways. A painful reminder of both historical and personal pasts, it can resurface deep wounds which inhibit enjoyment.
Universities must acknowledge and address our additional difficulties faced studying abroad. The reassurance of protection and fair treatment go a long way, and being more open about the challenges wouldn’t hurt either.
Our concerns don’t always align with the pamphlets and presentations. To insist that the black experience is identical to anything else is to deny the black experience altogether