Managing the Three Isms Abroad Because of Your Skin Tone
The matter of racism is everywhere: in culture and country. I have lived outside the US as a third culture kid and as an expat for a total of 20 years. My childhood days existed in a country where my skin-tone was all around me. My teenage years and half of my post-college years were in a country where my skin-tone was a challenge.
I have been reading and responding to various posts on social media by persons expressing an interest in leaving the US. This increase in interest is mainly because of the current events of both black men and women being inhumanely killed. The plight of blacks, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) because of systemic racism and institutional prejudice has passed its tipping point. Preventative measures to correct the numerous injustices inflicted is long overdue.
As a black, female, solo expat, I welcome everyone to join the growing numbers of us abroad. However, let me caution you. Leaving the US will not prevent you from experiencing racism that is systemic and institutional. Sometimes racism abroad will be directed at you while other times, it will be directed at people in your circle depending on your location. Furthermore, based on my experiences living and traveling, I would say the occurrences are sometimes not as blatant or to the magnitude that we can encounter at home. However, while living abroad, you may also grapple with other isms that feel and resemble #racism.
“Colorism is a form of racial discrimination based on the shade of an individual's skin tone, typically favoring lighter skin. It can occur both within a specific ethnic group and across ethnic groups.” (Dictionary.com)
Besides racism, you will face some levels of #colorism and #classism. The issues that arise around these forms of discrimination are also systemic. I have found both to be more noticeable during my experience abroad. I grew up with both and later added racism to my vocabulary after returning to the US in my pre-teen. I know I have dealt with all three; racism, classism, and colorism have allowed me to navigate the nuance between them when it is directed at me or in my presence. While I am feeling the pain, sadness, and anger of racism, the need for change is revealing itself because of the #blacklivesmatters movement. I also think there needs to be a more in-depth conversation about the other two isms associated with skin-tone, which are equally problematic inside and outside the US. However, I will only shed light on this matter for aspiring expats.
“Classism, a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes.” (Dictionary.com)
Because of my life experiences, I do not immediately label the inherent discriminations I have experienced stateside or abroad as racism first. Actually, I try to deconstruct the action and label them based on my life experiences. However, I am sure that I have also mislabeled situations too. That said, I want to bring awareness to the current, but especially aspiring expats. Know that not all incidents are about race. It could be the level of melanin in your skin or the perception of your socioeconomic standing.
As you are reading, doing research, searching for a location, and thinking about taking the leap, be mindful that you will not escape racism. You might encounter it to a lesser degree, personally. Also, realize that you may witness racism in your new location that might not be directed at you but at the locals with whom you work, dine, and call your friends or new family. You will experience colorism and classism, and it may have a similar strain on your emotions as racism. I want you to take your leap and prepare for the isms that exist outside the US that can affect you even if it is to a lesser degree.
“Passport privilege is the ability to travel to many countries without requiring a visa (or getting one upon arrival).” (wanderlustingk.com)
Now, in many places, you may find the reward of living abroad is passport privilege. Your blue (USA) passport has long been coveted by many, and you will gain status. Your visa-free/visa-on-arrival options are 185 countries, as noted by the 2020 Henley Passport Index prior to the pandemic. Although we are no longer in the top five visa-free entrances and slowly slipping in its stature, our passport is still recognized for its value. Holding it while traveling or living abroad can open doors, places, and others with little fear or waiting. The passport allows us (BIPOC) to receive warm welcomes at many airports worldwide regardless of skin-tone. If there was any doubt about the passport, then you open your mouth and speak. The “American accent” as called globally also affords you some privileges, or sometimes, you are double-charged for unpriced souvenirs as a tourist. We are still appreciated in many countries, but the “welcome mat” varies based on our foreign policies and governmental relationships.
Genuinely, if you are seeking to move abroad, take the leap but do so with knowledge. Life abroad is one filled with the day-to-day routines that may include you being a “tourist attraction.” You become an attraction via stares, requests for pictures, the touching/rubbing of your skin or hair. My experience has been much of curiosity about me, and some that are because of ignorance.
However, I have experienced the positive and negative of colorism in Tanzania at local police checkpoints. In a positive instance - not being stopped while white tourists were being pulled to the side and questioned. In the negative instance - being stopped and questioned because they thought I was not a tourist and that the tour guide was using the company car for personal pleasure.
I have experienced classism in Thailand while checking in at a luxury resort where I had booked a villa for just me as a solo traveler. They asked me for a cash and credit deposit when the other guest (a brown couple from the South Asian region) checking in at the same time only needed a credit card.
But, while working in Singapore, I would often get the infamous question, “Where are you from?” Most of the time, the question was from a local taxi or rideshare driver out of curiosity. Then one morning on the way to work I confronted racist behavior, I got the infamous question, when I responded, the US, it was not acceptable. So, I was asked again where my family is from, even when the driver got the same answer, he then insisted I was from Africa and gave me the option of two African nations. So, when I did not select one of his choices, and I insisted that I was from the US, he dismissed my response and chose an African country for me. In this driver’s mind, I could not be from the US.
Now, these three examples were not common, but they highlight the situations you might encounter while living or traveling abroad.
Nevertheless, life abroad can and will be life-changing. You will broaden your horizon, build new coping skills, and increase your resilience. The tangible and intangible rewards of travel, quality of life, physical safety, and life flexibility are immense. If you are serious about moving abroad, know your reasons, and how you will handle life matters, including issues of race, color, and class. These topics and situations will pop-up, and if you prepare, you will manage them with grace and eloquence. As a side note, remember unless you have dual citizenship in the country of your choice to make your expat home, you are an unofficial ambassador as a passport holder. How you address challenges such as racism, colorism, and classism that will arise will make a first and last impression. These impressions will apply to the next person who looks at you. I am not directing your actions or behaviors as only you know the situation and what it takes to find a solution. As a current expat to other current and future expats, let’s leave a noteworthy legacy and reputation for those who will follow us.
If you leap into the expat space, we welcome you with open arms. We will enjoy your presence for the time you are with us. As an expat coach, I assist current and aspiring expats in making the leap, so contact me. Let me help you unlock your potential, maximize your moveability, and equip you with resources and tools for your journey. The journey abroad might be easy, but staying and thriving abroad requires advance preparation and knowing your purpose.
Side Note plug...
If you are interested in learning more about my journey in #highereducationabroad, visit my blog. Additionally, I am open to being a guest on your panel, podcast, in your classroom, or a featured speaker.
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-- Karla A. Fraser, Racism, Colorism & Classism Exist at Home and Abroad, Roseapple Global, LLC
Roseapple Global provides expat coaching and guidance for individuals or groups. We serve all aspiring or continuing expats and specialize in assisting higher education professionals. We also offer to consult for student-facing units of higher education institutions internationally. Our services focus on developing or improving the administrative and operational areas of your departments. We help you unlock your potential, maximize your ability, and equip you with resources and tools for your journey or your student-facing unit. Contact Us