The Intersectional Context of Black Women Studying Abroad
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
In considering the intersectional context of Black women studying abroad, Willis (2015) channels Maya Angelou who writes that the Black woman exists in a “tripartite crossfire of masculine privilege, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power.” Nearly 14 years after my own study abroad experience as a woman of color, Willis (2015) offers a narrative that sadly reflects the limited improvement in racialized and gendered experiences of students who are women of color.
Willis (2015) points to the fact that much of the study abroad research focuses on students from traditional 4-year institutions and that many of those students are middle to upper-income. Research on the study abroad experience on non-traditional students, particularly those from community colleges is limited. There is also limited research that examines the experience students of color have while studying abroad. Willis’s study addresses these gaps through intentionally sampling 19 Black women enrolled in community colleges while participating in a study abroad program. Willis was specifically interested in understanding the lived experiences of studying abroad as a Black woman when in a heritage destination country compared to student’s experience when in a non-heritage destination country. Heritage or specifically, heritage-seeking refers to destinations that offer the student an opportunity to connect with their ancestry. For example, an African-American student who travels abroad to an African destination or a Jewish student who participates in a Birthright trip to Israel are heritage-seeking. A deep desire to reconnect to heritage or ancestral roots is a powerful motivator for students of color choosing to study abroad and ultimately selecting their destination (Lee, J., & Green, Q., 2016; Morgan, Mwegelo, & Turner, 2002; Mullen, 2014; Murray Brux & Fry, 2010).
Based upon the reports of the 19 students, all the women encountered microaggressions that were both racial and gendered, regardless of study in a heritage or non-heritage country (countries which are often popular study abroad destinations, such as Italy). Surprisingly, the primary source of racial-gender discrimination and microaggression was from white U.S. peers. This speaks to the need to train students on what bias, stereotypes, prejudice, and effective forms of community building among the cohort are, in addition to training them about how to become internationally- or interculturally-ready to interact with the host culture (Goldoni, 2015). As faculty, if we do not attempt to address or prevent rampant microaggressions among our students then we are condoning the imposition of another layer of emotional labor on our historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS). Participants in Willis’ (2015) study reflected on the impact of having at least one peer who shared their racial or ethnic background. “The difficulty of feeling racial othered was largely mitigated by the presence of multiple other Black travel companions“ (pg. 217). Willis further reports, that this tethering by shared experience was enhanced when at least one of the Black females had prior study abroad experience. These experienced travelers became de facto peer mentors.
Although, microaggressions were experienced by all the students, the type of microaggression – or focus of the microaggression varied by heritage or non-heritage country classification. Students studying abroad in West Africa reported homophobic harassment and awareness that it was not safe to be “out” in these spaces. Students also reported more instances with colorism, particularly in countries with colonial and imperialistic histories that favor lighter-skin tones and finer textures of hair. In the European countries students visited, they reported more non-verbal hostility. Students who studied in European destinations also reflected on the hyper-sexualization of their body. These women were often see as the exotic attraction, invoking the tales of Sarah Baartman, known throughout Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”.
In her final paragraph, Willis (2015) gives the reader one of her most powerful assessments for how we design study abroad experiences that acknowledge the intersections of HURMS. She writes, “An important cautionary reminder from this exploration is that racial dynamics, racism, sexism, and microaggressions do not mystically enter temporary stasis during study abroad sojourns, and therefore cannot be ignored.” In my next blog, I will reflect on the practical implications of this research and how it can be implemented to create impactful experiences for all.
- Goldoni, F. (2015). Preparing students for studying abroad. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1-20.
- Lee, J., & Green, Q. (2016). Unique Opportunities: Influence of Study Abroad on Black Students. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 28, 61-77.
- Morgan, R. M., Mwegelo, D. T., & Turner, L. N. (2002). Black women in the African diaspora seeking their cultural heritage through studying abroad. Naspa Journal, 39(4), 333-353.
- Mullen, S. (2014). Study abroad at HBCUs: Challenges, trends, and best practices. In Opportunities and challenges at historically Black colleges and universities (pp. 139-164). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- Murray Brux, J., & Fry, B. (2010). Multicultural students in study abroad: Their interests, their issues, and their constraints. Journal of studies in International Education, 14(5), 508-527.
- Willis, T. Y. (2015). ” And Still We Rise…”: Microaggressions and Intersectionality in the Study Abroad Experiences of Black Women. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 26, 209-230.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.
How to cite this post:
Longmire-Avital, Buffie. (2019, November 5). The Intersectional Context of Black Women Studying Abroad [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/intersectional-context-of-black-women-studying-abroad