Student Identities Abroad: Racial and Ethnic Diversity

While studying abroad you may be identified by your race or ethnicity, or simply as an American student. The people you encounter may have an opinion about the U.S. and be eager to tell you that opinion, positive or negative. Perceptions toward other races or ethnicities may also vary depending on where you are studying. As a student of color, you may be concerned about facing racial bias or prejudice without the comfort of your usual support system. Whether or not people identify you as American, they may make assumptions based on your physical appearance. There may be people who stare at you or who are eager to touch your hair or your skin. Others may ask insensitive questions about your cultural heritage, physical features, or national origins. If you are studying in an area where people have had little or no contact with minority students, people tend to be very curious – especially children. You will find that confronting and coping with your adjustment abroad, as challenging as it may be, can be a positive experience. It will not always be fun, but it can present a learning opportunity that will benefit you in the future. If somebody says or does something that is offensive to you, try to distinguish between a person who is genuinely curious about you and your culture and someone who has bad intentions. 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. Political correctness is far less common in other countries than it is here in the United States. If an encounter makes you uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Your safety is your first priority.

Questions to consider with an Advisor/by yourself:

  • What are some common perceptions/stereotypes about my race or ethnicity in my host country?
  • How will I react if I encounter racism or other discriminatory behavior? How should I react?
  • Is there a history of racial or ethnic tension in my host country?
  • How will my personal experiences with my racial identity shape my experience abroad?
  • Will there be other minority students in my program?
  • Who should I contact if I encounter racial bias abroad?
  • Does my program have support staff who will understand and help me through any racial or discriminatory incident I may face?
  • Would I be comfortable studying somewhere where no one else looks like me?
  • Are there laws governing race-related crime in your host country?
  • What are some products and services that I have at home that may not be accessible in my host country?

Tips for having a positive study abroad experience:

  • Remember that people abroad have different cultural norms and tend to be less politically correct than people in the United States.
  • The more you integrate with the culture the less you will stand out, but your appearance may still attract attention. There may be resistance to welcoming you into host culture because of your appearance.
  • Research how your racial identity is received in your host country. You may also want to research their history with immigration in general.
  • Talk to other students who share your racial identity about their experiences abroad – especially if they studied in the same country.
  • Build a support network with your peers that you are studying abroad with so that if you encounter racial bias abroad, you will have support to deal with it. Identify allies who will stand up with you against racism.
  • Be prepared for incidents, but do not go abroad expecting racism or discrimination.
  • Research the justice system in your host country.


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