Peer Advocate Post: An Honest Reflection on Studying Abroad as a Person of Color
Written by: Peer Advocate Raziya Hillery
Studying abroad as a person of color (POC) was such a frightening task for me. I had numerous questions in mind and almost no answers to them. How will they treat me? What are race relations in (enter country)? How many people who look like me are there? Where can I get my hair done? and so many others.
I just knew one thing: I wanted to go abroad.
I had some parameters, however. I wanted to study in a country where I can practice Spanish, travel, and be with other students. I began researching and found Butler’s Semester in Spain program. Academically, financially, and location-wise, this was a great program for me, but those same questions I listed earlier were still present.
Once I was accepted, I spent hours searching “How it is for a Black woman in Spain,” and variations of that general question. From what I found, there was not much information. This scared me because some of my immediate thoughts were that maybe many people like me did not travel there because it was not welcoming for them.
However, those negative thoughts changed once I began speaking to other POC-identifying students who studied abroad. They answered some of my most daunting questions, and one student in particular guided me through her experience as a young, Black woman in Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain. While her experience was not the same as mine, her advice greatly helped, comforted, and prepared me more for studying abroad in Europe. Therefore, I highly encourage speaking with students who have previously studied abroad.
I was nervous heading to Spain, but when I got there, it was fine.
There were some things that made me uncomfortable, but for the most part, I did not get treated differently. I was also prepared for some of the experiences, thanks to previous students’ warnings. For instance, people would touch my hair, stare at me, and sometimes refer to as la negrita, Spanish for Black girl. There were many times when I was the only one, but there were many times when there were plenty of Black and Brown people around me, especially as I traveled closer to the city. (I must note that I traveled to Rome, London, Paris, Budapest, and different parts of Spain, and these experiences were similar.) After reflecting with other students on the webinar, I learned that these encounters are not rare, especially in places where they are not used to seeing people who look like me.
Thanks to help from a previous student, I knew where to go to find certain hair products, flavors, and other POC. There is an immigrant-populated neighborhood in Madrid called Lavapiés, and I went there once a week to sit, eat, laugh, and enjoy life. This is also where I got my hair done, tasted different food, and treated myself to Mexican horchata every once in a while.
In all honesty, there were some difficult parts to studying abroad as a POC in Spain that were rooted in history, race, and my American point of view. Spain did not have the race problem that the US has, so their outlook, social constructs, and perspectives are slightly different. Just as the United States retells history in its favor, so does Spain. I can think of many examples, but I will list a couple of the most appalling.
- Blackface: I have seen Blackface multiple times in Spain on murals, paintings, and figurines. I sparked a conversation with my host parents, who were native to Spain, on the topic, in which they told me that it was not offensive to them, and I told them that it was to me. After the long discussion, we left at the consensus that while Spain does not have the same history as the United States, it is not right to dress with exaggerated Black features or use literal black colored paint to depict us.
- La conquista (the conquest): In Spain, Christopher Columbus and other conquistadors are depicted as heroes, as many took pride in saying that they “united the world.” I have walked on streets named after Hernán Cortés (the conquistador of Mexico), and I have passed multiple monuments dedicated to these colonizers. I even heard from a couple Latinos at school that they felt their cadence and accent of Spanish was dismissed as being unable to speak proper Spanish by natives.
These experiences were uncomfortable to say the least, but I encourage students to have these conversations with their host parents (if they have any). While we all cannot speak for the large groups of people that we represent, we had enriching, meaningful conversations that helped us learn and grow.
However, most of the surprise came from other students from the US and not entirely native people. I did not understand the bubble that I put myself in back home—predominantly with people who look and think like me—until leaving the country! Between the jokes, remarks, lack of empathy, and discomfort from other American students, I was shocked and asked myself, “People actually think like this?” multiple times. I must note that from Butler, there was one other POC-identifying student and myself. Of the students attending the program that fall, there were maybe an estimated seven out of 40. These experiences with other students were some that we did not have to be in Spain to have, and it shows the real work that we, not only as a country, need to do, but as institutions educating the next group of leaders and citizens.
Toward the end of the semester, one of my professors spoke individually with POC-identifying students us about our experiences. She decided to set up a working group where we would meet with her and other faculty to process and have healthy conversations about our experience. In these sessions, I heard of other encounters, learned from others, and gave suggestions on how to improve the program. It was a great feeling to be in a space where we could reflect on our experiences and feel heard.
In relation to that, I did a lot of reflecting upon my return home. The working group, study abroad video, webinar, and this blog greatly helped me register my time abroad. With the webinar, I learned that I was not alone in many of the thoughts, experiences, and feelings I had. We gave suggestions, found commonalties, and even gave some comic relief on important issues that we faced. This allowed me to return back to the sense of community, support, and comfort that I needed upon my return.
Overall, studying abroad as a person of color should not be the barrier that I once thought of it as. Yes, the world has a lot of growing to do, and yes, there were times when I wished that I was in a position where I did not have to worry these things. However, POC students exist, and we deserve to enter into these spaces, have these conversations, educate if we feel the need, reflect with others, and obtain the extremely valuable education that comes with studying abroad.