Race and Ethnicity Off-Campus
While you are abroad you may be identified as part of a particular race or ethnicity, or simply as an American student. The people you meet will likely have an opinion about the U.S. and may be eager to tell you what they think, positive or negative. Attitudes toward other races and ethnicities may also vary widely depending on where you are studying. Such as in the U.S., historical events and trends, as well as current immigration issues and socioeconomic and political climates continue to impact the perceptions of different races worldwide.
In the United States, there exists a tremendously complex racial history. Due to this history, there are certain ways of speaking to racial and ethnic issues that may not be present in countries that have not experienced a history like the United States. This causes the discussion around race and the behaviors towards those that do not physically look like the majority of the population to look different in different countries and can often be surprising to U.S. American students of all races when living or traveling abroad.
The people you encounter may make certain assumptions about you based on your physical appearance, the fact that you are speaking English (or not) or that you are speaking the local language with an accent. Some may be interested to learn more about your culture or ethnicity, but there may be others whose behavior toward you might make you uncomfortable. They may stare at you, try to touch your hair or your skin, or ask invasive questions about your cultural heritage, physical features, or national origins. Curious children in particular may approach you as something of a novelty if you are studying abroad in a location where people have had little or no contact with people of varied races or ethnicities. What one in the U.S. would call “Political Correctness” is far less common in some countries. Nevertheless, if an encounter makes you uncomfortable, it is best to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Your first priority should be your own safety.
In these situations, however, it is generally best to try to assume positive intent. While the person may have said or done something that is offensive to you, they may not have intended to do so and may simply be curious to know more. After an initial shock or confusion, most students report that they are able to distinguish between a person who is genuinely interested in learning about them or their culture and someone who has bad intentions. Remember to always put your safety first while you are learning to discern behaviors. If something does not feel right, remove yourself from the situation and consult the on-site staff of your program provider.
Alternatively, some students may be in a location where underrepresented students, particularly U.S. students of color, are not often seen. They may be mistaken by locals for someone of a different identity, or even as a local, causing people in the communities to treat those students differently than other international students. According to the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors Survey, approximately 70% of U.S. American students who studied abroad in the 2016-2017 academic year identified as white or Caucasian. This, as well as many of the media portrayals of the U.S., lead some to believe in white or Caucasian individuals being “the Americans” while students of different ethnic and/or national origins, despite being raised in U.S. or having a U.S. passport, receive the persistent, “But where are you REALLY from?” question.
In these situations as well, it is best to assume that the individual means no harm and is merely curious. Many people in different regions of the world may be unaware of the complex history of the United States that makes it as diverse as it is. If possible, use these opportunities to engage with your host community about the diversity in the United States and about your own cultural background.