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Engaging in Uncomfortable Discussions about Race

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In London, I’ve experienced similar challenges with micro-aggressions (aka “casual racism”) as I have in the U.S. Like the United States, the UK has its own set of racial tensions that inhabit college campuses and the greater London community. In the conversations that I have had with other students of color, similar sentiments about the development of identities and how we move through the abroad experience have been expressed. I sat down with three students: FA, a Black American college junior from Seattle who attends a small, predominantly-white institution in the west coast; SP, a Black American college junior from Queens, New York who attends a small, predominantly-white institution in central upstate New York, and JYM, a Chinese American college junior from New York City who attends the same university as SP.

How would you compare your experience with race relations on your home campus, and the ones you have had here [in London]?

SP: I feel like I’m having two completely different experiences. This is a city and a lot of the Black students seem to live off campus, and there aren’t many social spaces where we can all interact. At home, though, all of us are always together and race is a critical topic of conversation.
FA: At school back home, we [Black people] almost have to fight to talk about race. We have to be in spaces like the Black Student Union, or other spaces with majority black people and/or with people we know are allies in order to feel safe. Here, I feel like I can speak freely about race issues and I think that has a lot to do with the environment I’m in. The town my school is in is predominantly white, and just genuinely not as diverse as London.

Have you had to have any uncomfortable conversations around race while here?

FA: I had an incident where a white [American] girl said the ‘n’ word. Having had similar experiences before, I felt a little more comfortable with telling her not to say it, but she still laughed it off. Three weeks later, we were in my kitchen – the same girl and her friends – and she did the same thing. But I didn’t have the energy to deal with it again, so I called my friend to come and save me and she did.
SP: I’ve had repeated incidents where I’d walk into different rooms with all white people and none of them will acknowledge my presence. This could be a personality trait and not necessarily about race. But the fact that I even have to contemplate this whenever this happens speaks to an uncomfortable racial context that already exists.
JYM: I haven’t really had any uncomfortable conversations about race. I’m more introverted and don’t talk to many people, so the opportunity for me to have one of these uncomfortable conversations hasn’t really come up.

Has it been easy or difficult to find students with the same racial identity as you on your college campus? How about in the greater London area?

SP: I met some students with the same racial identity during the IFSA-Butler orientation, and I think that molded the beginning of my experience. Normally if I’m surrounded by white people with no other person of a racial minority around, I just choose to stick to myself or put myself in what feels like an uncomfortable position.
FA: I feel like it was easier because I was actively looking for Black people, and it seemed like we were easily drawn to each other. There are also more Black people here than at home, so there were more opportunities.
JYM: I haven’t found anyone who identifies as a Chinese American, but I haven’t had trouble befriending people who identify as Chinese, British, or any other racial identity.

If you could give any advice to students with your same racial identity who were studying abroad, what would it be?

SP: It honestly would be cool if you could travel with someone of your same racial identity. But this isn’t always possible. So my main advice would be to meet as many new people as you can, regardless of race. So many people here, by proximity and by way of education, have just travelled to a lot of places and seem to be more globally minded and learning from them is amazing.
FA: Join clubs, such as the African-Caribbean Society. It’s a good starting point for meeting people who look like you. Also, go out of your way to meet people, especially Black people, who aren’t necessarily from where you are from. Getting to expand on my own definition of Blackness has been one of the best aspects of my abroad experience so far.
JYM: Like SP said, I believe that meeting many new people and exploring all over London is one of the best ways to have an enriching experience. A lot of students, across races, are in the same boat as you, and the h2est relationships can be built out of facing the entirety of the abroad experience, uncomfortable race conversations and all, together.
The ways in which race and racism affect each individual, across races – and even within the same racial identity – vary, and each experience is valid. If one is met with an uncomfortable [nonviolent] conversation around race when abroad, I think it is important to think about how much energy to spend on it. Choosing battles is a very important part of the abroad experience. One of the best parts of being abroad is meeting people from every walk of life – jumping into situations with people of different backgrounds, while being cognizant of one’s safety and mental health, is the best advice I would give to any student of color studying abroad in London.
Rachel Godfrey is an African American Studies and Science in Society double major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is currently studying abroad with IFSA-Butler in England at Queen Mary, University of London for the Fall 2017 semester. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.