The moment when you are on the metro and you feel the eyes of passerby on you—they stare at your hair texture and curl pattern, or perhaps your choice of garment. Their blank look connotes at the very least intrigue—whether that intrigue is married to anger or admiration is unclear. You do your best to look away regardless. The moment when the bouncer looks at you and treats you differently than your friends who joined you on line at the discotheque. The moment in a restaurant, or store, when the clerk points to your different skin color, or your afro. Whether such an acknowledgement of your difference stems from an imagined benign fascination or interest, or is colored with a more malignant, explicit goal of marginalization, the acknowledgement of that difference rarely feels good. The reminder that you do not belong, or that at the very least your presence is jarring, is exhausting for students of color abroad.
Because most study abroad programs are majority white (as a product of most schools in the U.S. being majority white), difference is often fetishized in conversations regarding study abroad as exciting and explorative. The experience you are prepped for is one of that of an “American,” and is described as a universal and typical. The understanding that part of study abroad is placing yourself in a foreign environment where your difference will be highlighted “for the first time” is a narrative I never quite identified with. As a gay, black man, almost every institution I have ever attended has forced me to rigorously acknowledge my difference for better or for worse, thus going abroad is not a unique, exciting exercise in difference. My experience as a study abroad student is not that of just an “American.” It’s another exhausting iteration of navigating this world as someone like me, who has identities that differ from those around them.
But I’m still here.
I still chose to study abroad and continue to choose to study abroad every day. And I am still in Rome, and I ride the metro every day. And I will tell all of my fellow brown and queer friends to study abroad as well. Why? Because that difference is a fabrication. That difference is constructed. And I won’t let it rob me of my opportunities.
I write this because I wish I had read something like it before I came. Abroad as a student of color is not a walk in the park, but it is a damn good uphill hike, full of potholes, thorns, and gorgeous sunsets along the way. So, to my brown folk, my queer folk, and those whose identities make them “different,” remember that that difference was created by someone who had a voice when you did not. Remember how you feel on those days when you look in the mirror and love those parts of you that others tell you are different. Don’t let those folks, who want nothing more than to taint your experience by making you fear your difference, control you. You’re prepared for this—as an American student, you come from a complex country, one that provides a unique access to liberation in comparison to many of the countries to which you may be venturing, but also one that makes that journey quite difficult in ways that probably differ from the country you are in. In short, you know how difference feels. Reach out. Write home. Surround yourself with people who understand you. Remain safe. Take care of yourself. When you have the energy, perhaps smile back at the person who is staring at you—their potential to give you a warm smile back may help reassure you that many people are excited for you to visit their country, and welcome your perspective, experiences, and desire to explore regardless of some folks’ intrusive intrigue with your body. And most importantly, remember that these experiences are for you too.