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This summer I had the thrilling experience of studying abroad on the Contemporary London Program through CGIS. I absolutely loved being in Europe. There was always something new to experience and it was fun to share my culture with those around me.
When I first arrived in London I realized that the way I had imagined the city was way different than how it actually was. I thought going to London would be similar to going to New York City--bright lights, new buildings, great food, and lively citizens. The only big buildings were in the financial district. The food was good, but it was hard to get a daily intake of vegetables amongst the fried fish, fried cheese, fried potatoes, and fried desserts. And while many of the locals in our neighborhood were nice, everyone was either very sarcastic or pretty quiet. London was drastically different than what I pictured, but it was a good different. I enjoyed slowing down a bit and just taking in the scenery around me. I was able to learn more about the history of the city while I also watched it change before my eyes. My perspective changed from that of a tourist to one of someone who lived in London that understood how differences makes it such a great place.
Although we always hear the stories about how fun study abroad is and how much it changes your life, but we never hear about the reality for some of us that are minorities and how that affects that experience. I want to bring to light a few things that African American/black students and other students of color may face when they study abroad and give my advice on how to be black abroad.
1. Being one of few or the only minority on your program
On my program I was one of five people of color out of a group of 20 students, which to be honest, made me feel slightly intimidated. Arriving at the airport, I instantly felt alienated by the White students that were able to quickly become friends based on similar sororities, organizations, or mutual friends, whereas I and the other minority students shared nothing in common with them other than the fact that we attended the same college. I think that people branched off into their own groups immediately for two reasons.
First, studying abroad is a new experience in an unfamiliar place. It’s easier for us to usually be drawn to people that bring some familiarity in this unknown space. It can be challenging being so far away from home without your friends and family. With that in mind, I don’t think the intention is to be exclusionary to people of color, but sometimes people just go for what feels more familiar. Secondly, I think that these groups form because as people of color, we ourselves go into situations already feeling excluded and we push ourselves out. It can be intimidating when you’re the only or one of few people of color in a majority White group. Because of our history, the current political climate, and micro-aggressions we’ve experienced in the U.S., we sometimes instantly put up a guard when we're put in situations of being the “only” person of color. No matter what the reason, it doesn’t always feel good when you aren’t included.
Within the first few weeks, it became clear that many of us weren’t easily welcomed into the main circle. We were excluded from planning weekend trips, left out of group chats, and only probed when they had questions about black culture in relation to what we were studying. I was the only black woman that spent any time on the trip with the white students, and when I did, I felt like I was the token black because the others weren’t welcomed to hang out with us. So lesson number one: As a student of color, be prepared to be the only minority, but don’t let this affect your experience. Continue to be yourself, be more forward, ask to be added to the chats and included in certain activities, and make an honest effort to find some common ground with new people. Find a group that makes you comfortable like I eventually did and realize that the connections with those on your trip may come in handy.
2. Experiencing racism (Way different than in the States)
Racism in Europe is something most people leave out when they talk about their time there because “racism is everywhere.” Which is true, but in Europe it can be a lot more in your face than in the States. In the States, we’re more used to micro-aggressions and discrimination that turns violent at times. In Europe, sometimes it can feel as if segregation hasn’t ended. During my first week I was denied service at a restaurant because I’m black, and one of my friends on the trip was denied entry into a club for the same reason. In the States, I’ve never been denied service or told that I can’t participate in something. However, this wasn’t my experience everywhere and it didn’t happen often. Lesson number two, if you find yourself in this situation be sure to do the following: leave that location, make a complaint/review, talk to someone in the group you trust to acknowledge how you feel, and don’t let this affect your perception of every place you go because some places are actually friendly and love it when they see new faces.
A part of the reason I believe London is segregated is because of the current political and racial climate. Back during World War II, Caribbean and West Indies immigrants moved to London to fight in the war. In the midst of the war, London was bombed. Instead of leaving after the war, these families of immigrants stayed to rebuild the city. London as we know it only exists because of their hard work and sweat. Today, these citizens that once rebuilt London are being asked to leave. Half of Parliament feels that these immigrants never gained citizenship because they don’t have the correct paperwork, however, this same half of Parliament was actually found burning legal documentation that proved them wrong. The other half of Parliament has struggled relentlessly to remind London that these families that they’re trying to make move back have lived in London so long that they only know the city as their true home. With this political battle raging, it has not only torn Parliament in half, but the citizens at home as well. The attitudes wafting from Parliament have fallen upon common citizens and affect how they interact with one another. London is still diverse, but this current issue of who belongs and who doesn’t may be another reason that being black in London is difficult at times.
My final advice is that if you experience any of the things I’ve discussed just know that you’re allowed to be offended, but you have to remember that you are far from home and in a new environment. It takes time to adjust when you’re out of your comfort zone. Give yourself time to digest what has happened, talk to peers about your experience, and then move forward expecting that this new place will come with more fulfilling experiences than the encounter you just had.
Overall, my experience in London overshadowed the one or two bad encounters I had. The memories that made this trip worthwhile for me were meeting new students, taking photos in front of the famous red phone booths, eating fried macaroni for the first time, meeting Louise who owned the corner store near our housing, visiting Parliament, studying in the Queen’s Garden, and conquering my fear of riding possible the largest ferris wheel, the London Eye.
Don’t let these examples scare you or push you away from an awesome experience outside of the country. I don’t regret my study abroad experience at all and I’m actually excited to do it again next summer, if possible. However, I want people to be prepared for the possibility of things that I and other peers experienced. Moreover, this is not a universal experience for all people of color. Those reading may not experience any of these things. Don’t enter your trip expecting what I’ve listed, but have an open mind and an excitement for this great opportunity you’ve been given.