Race & Ethnicity Abroad

Over a quarter of a million students studied abroad in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Institute of International Education Open Doors Report. Of the 341,751 students who studied abroad, 30% identified as US racial or ethnic minorities. While you are abroad you may be identified as part of a particular race or ethnicity, or simply as an American student. The people you meet will likely have an opinion about the US and may be eager to tell you what they think, positive or negative. Attitudes toward other races and ethnicities may also vary widely depending on where you are studying.  Some students may be racial minorities at home but will be studying in a country where their race is the majority. Others may face becoming a racial minority for the first time. In any case, it is important that students be aware of their own expectations and cultural assumptions.

For some students, their race or ethnicity might provide a more challenging transition into the host country. In host communities where locals are not used to interacting with students who have different physical characteristics, they may make assumptions or be curious about your appearance. Some may be interested to learn more about your culture or ethnicity, but there may be others whose behavior toward you might make you uncomfortable. They may stare at you, try to touch your hair or your skin, or ask invasive questions about your cultural heritage, physical features, or national origins.

In these situations, it is best to try to assume positive intent. While the person may have said or done something that is offensive to you, they may not have intended to do so and may simply be curious to know more. “Political correctness” is far less common in other countries than it is here in the US. Nevertheless, if an encounter makes you uncomfortable, it is best to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Your first priority should be your own safety.

Think about:

  • How is my race/ethnicity perceived in my host country? Are there stereotypes associated with my race/ethnicity?
  • Is there a history of racial or ethnic tension in my host country? Is the issue of immigration a source of racial or ethnic tension currently?
  • Am I going to be treated the same way in my host country as I am in the US? Will I be in the minority/majority for the first time?
  • Are there laws in the host country governing race relations? Ethnic relations? What protections are offered to ethnic or racial minorities?
  • How will my personal racial or ethnic identity shape my experience abroad?
  • How will I react if I encounter racism or other discriminatory behavior?
  • What online resources that offer advice, personal narratives, and other information are available?

Before You Go:

  • Make use of online resources that offer advice, personal narratives, and other information

Race and Ethnicity Resources: