We know that being black abroad comes with unique challenges. You may encounter different forms of racism and colorism or find that products for your skin tone or hair type are hard to find. But these concerns should not stop you from seeing more of the world, developing your global skills, and connecting deeply with communities and cultures. That’s why our Students of Color Exchange Group created and compiled these useful tips and resources to help black Americans prepare to study and live abroad.
1. The Black Experience is not the same in every country or for every student
Be mindful of the fact that being black abroad can be very different from your experience at home. Keep an open mind and realize that you’re in a different environment that you’ll learn to navigate with more cultural knowledge and practice. That’s why you really should…
2. Do your homework
Learn the cultural nuances in your host country. Of course, this is easier said than done. And it will probably take some time once you’ve landed to get oriented and understand the various cultural meanings, norms, values, communication styles, and social structures that may influence perceptions of race. But the more you study up, the better prepared you’ll be. Be sure to research the history and current conversations about racial dynamics in the country, region, or city that’s hosting you.
3. Pack smart
Think about the “specialty” items that you can only find in certain stores and stock up. Whether they are hair and skin products, treatments, or anything else that makes you feel like your best self, take them with you. It’s possible that those particular items will not be available (or are very expensive) in your host community. If you don’t have room for all your specialty items, no need to worry. You can always have someone mail items to you while on program.
4. Take on your role as a cultural ambassador
There are many stereotypes out there and, while it is not your responsibility to dispel them all, take some time to explain any misconceptions that you don’t agree with and have some meaningful teachable moments—if you’re feeling comfortable and willing to do it, of course.
5. People will be curious
Sometimes people will stare or surprise you with their questions. Assume positive intent, be patient, and answer questions as best as you can. Realize that it is not up to you to figure it all out on your own. If you face an especially difficult situation, do not hesitate to take a step back and talk to a trusted peer or adult.
6. Your identity may be questioned or assumed
Be prepared that your “American” identity can be questioned or, on the other hand, can override your sense of identity as you present yourself. You might get asked, “Where are you really from?”, in places where blackness is not typically associated with “American” nationality. Or you may meet people who only see you as a skin tone and not your full self. This may be an opportunity for you to share with others your American story and to help them learn about the diversity of our citizens.
7. Document everything and share your experience
Representation matters and the more you talk about your experience as a black student abroad, the more others will relate to it and see that it’s possible for them, too.
8. Stay positive
Don’t let any negative experiences ruin your impression of your host country and go into each new interaction with a fresh outlook and perspective.
9. Remember, you’re not alone
The AFS Staff and Volunteers in the country where you’re hosted are there to help you adjust to the culture and overcome any issues you encounter. And, we’re here to support you, too! You can always reach the Students of Color Exchange group at [email protected].
Studying abroad is a life-changing experience regardless of your background or prior experience. We challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and be curious about life in a new environment and know that there are always resources to help you along the way.
To start, take a look at some of the websites and blogs listed below and do your own research, too. And, for ways to fund your journey abroad, check out our scholarships and Faces of America initiative. If you would like personalized advice or have any experiences you would like to share with us, reach out to the Students of Color Exchange group at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.
- Realizing My Skin Color While Studying Abroad (student blog)
- Does the term African American only exist in the United States? (student blog)
- Studying Abroad as a Female African American (student blog)
- Managing Black Hair Abroad (blog)
- Teens of Color Abroad (site)
- Diversity Abroad (site)
- “We Out Here”: Inside the New Black Travel Moment (article)
- The Black Expat (site)
- Travel Noire (site)