“Where are you from?”: Studying Abroad while at the Intersections between an American and Racial Minority Status
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
In my previous blog, I discussed the common barriers students (including my collegiate self) encounter when considering a study abroad experience. Although, there is a growing discourse around the effective steps to address these barriers, discussion about the potential obstacles historically underrepresented students (HURMS) could navigate through while studying abroad remains limited.
It was June of 2001; I was 21 years-old and halfway through my first study abroad experience, which was also my first substantial travel outside of the U.S. When we boarded the train from Naples to Rome, I grabbed one of the two aisle seats in a four-seat cluster. A local train. I noticed that there were hardly any passengers sporting stylish yet functional bags for their backpacking through Europe adventures. Since it was one of the few trains running between the two cities, most of my classmates were also on board in various cars, all of us making the trek back to our residences in time for another week of language immersion classes. At this point in my study abroad experience, I had drifted into a wonderful routine that included exploration and study of the Roman city and culture during the week and trips to other famous Italian cities on the weekend. This weekend, my friends and I had been in Ischia – a small island perpetually dwarfed in notoriety by its more flasher sibling, Capri. Despite all the sites and experiences I was constantly absorbing (and clothes I was accumulating – at the time the Lire exchange rate with the US dollar was 2:1 or what I referred to as a 50% off sale), I felt lighter.
This metaphoric lightness started to take shape when I noticed that my presence in stores was not met with suspicion or that my movements throughout the places and spaces I frequented were not tracked. Instead, I was greeted with enthusiasm over the American dollar that was in my wallet. I had grown accustomed to the reaction I received when walking by a line to get into a club; I was ushered in, right past the waiting crowd. I walked up to packed bars and my drink orders were immediately filled; I was no longer the invisible woman who had to keep shouting, “excuse me” to get someone’s attention. In the few short weeks I had been living in Italy, I had walked in the rain without worry that my relaxed hair would shift back to its naturally curly state. I had stopped fretting about how I looked in my clothes, and I smiled more. For the first time ever, I was just an American, an American student in Italy. The late literary genius, Toni Morrison famously stated when discussing the nuances of race in America that, “in this country American means White. Everybody else has to hyphenate”; with the loss of hyphenation I had experienced so far throughout my travels, I felt light enough to fly.
In my new American state of persistent smiling, I did not avert my eyes when the group of young White Italian men took up possession of the seats directly across the aisle from my friends and me. Eighteen years later, I am unable to recall when into the hours-long trip the harassment started, but I do remember the first question he asked: “Hey, Hey where are you from?”
It appeared like an innocent question, but there is a tone that I have grown acutely aware of that warns of danger. The language and accent may change but the tone does not. I quickly answered, “I’m from Boston,” intentionally invoking my American privilege shield. Without pause, he challenged, “Is that in Africa?” I shook my head quickly, “No, It’s in the U.S., America.” He laughed, “No, it’s in Africa,” he countered while he stared at me and chuckled, first by himself then with his friends.
I thought that was the end of this ignorant exchange, but I was wrong. Only a few minutes passed before he began to badger me again with the same question/statement, “You from Africa – Boston Africa?” After stating “no,” a few more times, I decided that I would just ignore his teasing. Unfortunately, this decision, my small attempt to wrestle minimal control back, only escalated his behavior. He began to make monkey sounds and other lewd gestures. I remember he had a water bottle that he would occasionally waive in my direction to get my attention when I refused to return his look or acknowledge his racial taunting. My friends, who were both White women, looked on in horror. They witnessed all of this, yet he never adjusted his gaze or verbal assault to include them. None of us reached for our bags or headphones. none of us tried to engage the others in conversation. We all just attempted to breathe.
At some point, one of my friends got up and went into the next car. I did not move; I continued to look straight ahead while this man and his friends continued to harass me. It was not until she came back with two of my male classmates, who were both White that I realized where she had gone. Without words, she gave me a nod and a kiss, took her stuff, and left. She was switching seats with one of my male peers. She was not escaping discomfort; she was leaving to make room for one-half of the human shield my peers were creating. My other classmate motioned for my remaining friend and me to shift our seats. In a disturbingly motivated game of musical chairs, my friend and I took the two window seats and our two male classmates took the two remaining aisle seats. Still no one talked. My harasser looked on with glee. Although, he stopped making comments, the occasional gorilla or monkey sound was made, which was often followed by a chorus of laughter.
I refused to cry; I have never fought so hard to hold back the tears that desperately wanted to burst out. My entire body was shaking, but I managed to hold my head still and I kept my hands in tightly coiled fists. I was not the only one; my classmate who sat next to me began to flex his hands. I could see the tension in his jawline and the way his forearm muscles shifted. We were all aware that we were at a disadvantage. None of us was Italian, nor were any of us fluent in Italian; an altercation was not an option. I just remember wishing and praying that they were not getting off the train in Rome too.
At some point during this tense standoff, I remember shifting my gaze slightly towards my fellow classmates. I refer to them as “classmates” because even though we had attended the same small college together for 3 years and knew of each other, we were not friends. A loose comradery had developed with everyone on the trip, but it was the equivalent of the chatter you would engage in with a stranger that was stuck in the same elevator with you. The chatter a necessary distraction or product of forced interaction. Although we were all on this study abroad trip, relationship development was never a focus.
At some point, the train came to a stop and the racist trolls left, continuing their taunting, laughing, and giggling as they departed. A deep exhale rippled through the four of us sitting in our cluster when the train rolled away from the station. The boys each turned to me; at this point, my tears were hovering, and they nodded – the universal non-verbal communicator of the question, “Are you good?” I nodded back, but I lied – I was not ok. My body shook the rest of the train ride to Rome.
The boys returned to their seats, and my friend and two other friends came back to check on me. When we arrived in the station, we simply said our goodbyes and made our separate ways back to our residences.
There was a rumor that our professor and his family was also on the train, but I never saw them, and I will be honest that even if I had, I do not believe I would have sought him out for help. I felt exposed, vulnerable, raw, and perhaps a little dirty. In the time we had spent on class excursions with our professor, I had not gotten to know him, and I do not believe he knew me. In fact, I was angry with him. None of our pre-trip classes prepared me for the terror I encountered on that train. No one talked to me about what it would be like to navigate a foreign country as a racial minority, as a woman of color.
I realized on my way back to my residence that my walk was slower and I felt heavier. It was still not the same heaviness I boarded the plane with, but it was not the lightness or freedom of identity that I had been gallivanting around Italy with. This heaviness was born of the diaspora – the African diaspora. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it means to be Black and that Blackness is not bound to a country or continent like my hyphenated American identity, which I knew intimately well. Blackness, or more broadly, otherness, is informed by the socio-political histories that shape global exchange, and it – along with other minority identities – are a necessary critical context to be considered when both developing a study abroad experience and preparing to engage in study abroad.
Perhaps, the first set of questions to ensure the creation of a critical study abroad context are:
- Who are the historical underrepresented minorities in this country and why?
- What is the historical and current climate for racial-ethnic, religious, sexual, and other minority groups in this country?
- What are the rates of hate crimes, and what (if any) laws are there for reporting hate crimes (including discrimination and harassment)?
- How can I train my students and myself to be both allies and advocates for minority students who may encounter discrimination and harassment?
- How are the logistical assumptions I have used to construct this experience informed by my own privilege (i.e., am I aware that just taking the bus to the next meeting stop may be an anxiety inducing event for some because of their sociocultural positionality)?
- What opportunities are there for 3-point (i.e., pre, during, and post) reflection to help students unpack this experience both individually and collectively?
Study abroad can spark identity development and intercultural awareness (Young, Natrajan-Tyagi, and Platt, 2015), if not competency. However, what that identity is and how it evolves over the course of the study abroad experience is situated within the sociocultural package the person brings with them.
Young, J. T., Natrajan-Tyagi, R., & Platt, J. J. (2015). Identity in flux: Negotiating identity while studying abroad. Journal of Experiential Education, 38(2), 175-188.
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, September 3). “Where are you from?”: Studying Abroad while at the Intersections between an American and Racial Minority Status [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/where-are-you-from/