Thoughts on race and life abroad

Living abroad challenges your cultural perceptions as much as the cultural perceptions of the people you meet. I have traveled to locations varied enough to both appear to be from the country that I was in and appear to be a foreigner. More often than not, reactions and comments, positive and otherwise, are spurred by race. In China, I was perceived as a oddity; families asked me to pose in their vacation photographs. In Brazil, people I met assumed that I was Brazilian and did not believe me when I told them otherwise. Policies may actually discriminate against certain nationalities or races.

Race remains an issue in social interactions; the concept of colorblindness is debatable. Political correctness is a cultural phenomenon that changes, depending on location as much as context. Part of being in a foreign country is learning to adjust your sensitivity to racially tinged comments.

1. Ask about what you hear.

In Argentina, it’s common to use the word negro or negra like a term of endearment. In most other contexts, the word is used to describe something or someone who is black. The first time I heard someone call me negra, I thought it was odd they were being so forward. Asking about it made sure there was no misunderstanding due to the language barrier. It also prevented from me being upset about something that is perceived as harmless.

2. Definitely ask if you are thinking about correcting a misconception.

During my first week here, I had lunch with the staff at a local drug rehabilitation center. After a nice lunch conversation, one of the women who worked there asked me if I could sing. I asked her why wanted to know. She told me that once she had heard a black woman sang and she really enjoyed it, therefore implying that because I am black, it is likely that I am a good singer as well. I made a joke about how I sing in the shower (poorly), but told her that I am sure that she enjoyed the performance because the woman was talented. Correcting misconceptions is usually not about lectures and angry reactions.

3. All else fails, consider the experience as a part of travel.

I meet new people, especially patients at the clinic, all the time while I am in La Plata. Not one person I have met has guessed that I am American even though there are several American students here. The perception is prevalent that Americans are white. Of course, there are some benefits to not appearing American, but it is also odd and vaguely frustrating to explain to people that I am not Brazilian or Dominican.

This does not mean that you have to spend time with people who insult you. There are ignorant people all over the world; feel free to ignore them just as you would ignorant people in the country you live in.


2 comments so far

  1. Jessica on

    I like your point about it being okay to ask questions. I studied abroad in high school and now help other students who are going abroad prepare and that is the first piece of advice I give them, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what is going on. Nice post!

  2. Vanessa on

    Thanks for reading! I spend a lot more time listening and asking questions that when I am in the States. It’s a different way of learning.

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