Being Black and abroad
Denver Regine Lark | 6/22/2018, 11:15 a.m.
It is said that the lack of minorities that study abroad is slim to none. I have had a first hand experience has I have studied in over three countries and visited more than 13 countries in as little as five months.
I have had the privilege of studying abroad as a Nelson Mandela Global Scholar through CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange) this spring and I can say that it has been an astonishing experience. My program was not your typical one location study abroad program. As a Nelson Mandela Global Scholar I began studying in Paris, France, then Cape Town, South Africa and finally London, England. Each country offered new experiences and opportunities.
Although I met many different people from many walks of life one thing remained the same no one looked like me. Few were females, few were black, and fewer were black males. But why is this? Is it because we don’t want to? Are we scared? Or is just that we think we can’t travel? Well I have proven all of these thoughts wrong by doing just that and traveling! Lets not forget to mention not only did I study abroad but also conducted numerous solo trips. After talking to many black students and black faculty in many of my study locations the answers all remain around my assumptions.
Fortunately despite the negatives there were many positives to my experience. I was able to find many native foods, and excursion as well as ones that were similar back home. This balance allowed me to learn and live in a new culture as well as not get homesick as many things were similar. Paris was my first time in Europe and boy was It a culture shock! From the language, food, and overall culture it took time to get used to.
Fortunately Paris although unexpected had a African diaspora given that it is very close to the African continent. Although many people looked like me, I had to realize that they were not like me. They were not “African Americans” but identified as something else. Yes, our ancestors may be similar but could you classify yourself as a “Black American?” No, not at all. This question was one that I came across in England and surprisingly, even in South Africa.
This distinction could not be made by our appearance, but it was once we spoke that we were quickly asked not where we were from immediately people made the assumption that we were Americans.
We soon were questioned about our political beliefs, economic statues and reasoning for studying abroad in South Africa. Many times people were happy and thrilled to meet black Americans, especially meeting women who were seeking an education. On the other hand, we would hear comments like “you left your brothers and sisters to suffer and die as you went to live with the white man.” We found these things quite strange when we would visit townships.
This unfortunate relationship was due to the many years of social disparities that myself and many of my peers who looked like me ran into from the apartheid era. We were not categorized or judged by how we looked but where we were from. We soon learned that certain words like the “N” word that has a viral connotation here in the US has the same one in the South Africa as it is highly used in pop culture. I was quite surprised as I walked through remote townships and heard the latest Billboard 100 songs being sung by children of all ages.
All my of my experiences came to a forefront when we were taken to visit a township in Soweto. Upon arrival we were warned that the little babies who are considered our brothers and sisters would not pay us any mind when we arrive with white people and would run and play with them because they believe since they are in their homes that they are not what is referred to as the “enemy.” Such situations forced us not to be able to comment and continue to conversations but stray away from the reality of such.
As I continued to travel with others and on my own I always kept in mind that I was not only an American, but a Black female at a crucial time in politics where many people in other countries would pray on such vulnerability. I soon learned that the leap of faith I took to travel would inspire others of my age, gender, and race to do the same.