Endless Stares: What You Didn’t Expect From Study Abroad

On my way to Buenos Aires,
Argentina, I knew that the number of black and brown faces around me would be
scarce. But I never thought that within my program they would be almost
nonexistent. 

I was one of three students of color in my 17-student program; the other two were biracial and considered as part of a different racial
group from myself. I was the black boy of Middlebury College’s Study Abroad Program in Buenos Aires, 2014 Edition.

No one told me that I should not
expect to find very much black solidarity in Buenos Aires. The study abroad
office forgot to mention how I would feel being a spectacle of otherworldly blackness—that each move I made would be subject to curious eyes. Buenos Aires
was described as a bustling city, full of culture and excitement all around,
just waiting to be explored. I heard about the beauty of the vineyards in
Mendoza and the breathtaking views of the Iguazú waterfalls.

I was a bit less informed about the
number of times people would ask me to take pictures with them because they
wanted to show their friends the black guy they had stumbled upon or touch my
hair so they could verify the true existence of my afro.

The other students on the program
always tried to gauge my reactions when we discussed issues of race in
Argentina. On the second day of the program orientation, we were briefed on how
Argentines talk about race, often using terms like ‘moreno’ or ‘negro’ to
identify people with darker skin. I quickly realized that this discussion was
only for me, so that I knew that when people called me ‘black’ or ‘brown’ on
the street, it was not meant to be offensive but just an indication of my skin
color.

Fast-forward two months to my
time in Buenos Aires, when we all went to a theater performance. As I got out
of the taxi, the driver called me “el Moreno” and everyone’s faces went blank
in anticipation for my reaction. The driver and I were talking the whole
ride, and I knew we were cool. I’m from Jamaica, and people referred to others
based on their skin color or ethnicity all the time without giving it a second
thought. But it seems as though when things do not fit into a U.S.-centric,
politically correct box, white people get nervous. Everyone was afraid of the
anger I was going to unleash because ‘racism’ was supposedly slapping me in the
face.

As far as explicitly racist
encounters go, I think I was fortunate to either not notice or not experience
too many. Unlike most African-Americans, I have not had to deal with the
blatant, in-your-face racism of the United States and may have more of a tolerance for
the ‘curiosity’ of others.  

Still, my study abroad program was probably
lucky that I did not come to them asking for help because I don’t think they were
equipped to deal with me asking them how to deal with the constant stares. I’m
not sure the director would have had an answer to help me deal with exoticization,
or cope with incidents of people trying to pull my hair out of my head to get a
piece of my blackness as a souvenir. Who was I going to talk to about feeling
like I was constantly on display every time I left my house?

I’d like to think that I have tough skin, but I should not need a defense built up to cope with studying
abroad. The reality is that when you choose to live in a different country, you
put yourself at the mercy of the cultural and historical context of that
environment. You have to go along with those rules and adapt as best as you
can.

People of color deal with microaggressions at the Claremont Colleges and
are probably going to deal with them abroad. You need to know your limits—can
you handle not having another black or brown face with which to find solidarity, to
give that nod that indicates, “Yeah, on some level, we’re going through the same
shit?”

Study abroad offices should be real
with their students about how they will be perceived and treated because of
their skin color. Give students anecdotes of different people’s experiences so
they know what they are getting themselves into. This definitely would have
made me think a bit more about the impact race relations have on a study abroad
experience. In choosing Buenos Aires, I would have been a little more aware of
what was in store for me.

I enjoyed being in Buenos Aires a
lot, but it was also hard and definitely lonely at times. I figured out what I
needed to do keep myself sane, how I could make myself feel more comfortable
and how to enjoy the environment I was in. But it is not for everybody, and
you need to be honest with yourself about what environments you can deal with. Issues of race can affect so much of your experience when you’re
studying abroad, and if you don’t have a support system around you, it can
really drain you.  

At the end of the day, study abroad
offices and these programs will only do so much and are only equipped to handle
certain conversations. Think about where you are going, and take care of
yourself because you’re going to have to look out for yourself when no one
else can or will. Choosing not to study abroad somewhere because of race issues is not taking the easy way out. 

Gervais Marsh PO ’15 is a sociology and gender and women’s studies major from Kingston, Jamaica.

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