Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality Abroad

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 U.S. 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.

The people you encounter may make certain assumptions about you based on your physical appearance, the fact that you are speaking English or that you are speaking the local language with a foreign accent. 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. Children in particular may approach you as something of a novelty if you are studying abroad in location where people have had little or no contact with people of varied races or ethnicities.

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 U.S. 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.

Before you go abroad, it is best to do some research on the country and the particular city or town where you will be studying so that you can be aware of attitudes toward race and ethnicity in that area. Even though you may be part of an ethnic minority here in the U.S., in your host country, you may be part of the majority, or vice versa. It is best to consider ahead of time the following questions:

  • What are some common perceptions and stereotypes about my race or ethnicity in my host country?
  • 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?
  • How will I react if I encounter racism or other discriminatory behavior?
  • How will my personal racial or ethnic identity shape my experience abroad?

It may help to be in touch with other students of your ethnic or racial background who have studied abroad in the past. You are welcome to contact the Study Abroad office to be connected with these students. You may also wish to reach out to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs or the Office of International Affairs for further advice.

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