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Race and Ethnicity

When you study away, not only are you learning about and immersing yourself in another culture, you are also being perceived in different ways than you might be in the United States. Specifically, before you depart, it is important to consider how race and ethnicity are perceived in your host country generally, and how your specific racial and ethnic identity might impact your experience.

People in your host country might categorize and interpret your race, ethnicity, and other identity attributes differently than you have experienced before, or differently than you identify yourself. For example, in the United States, you might be more often identified by your ethnicity, but abroad, you may be identified first as U.S. American. Or, while you are used to being part of the majority based on your racial identity while in your home community, studying abroad might be the first time you are in the minority in your new host community.

Each person brings multiple intersecting identities with them while studying away, so it is critical to consider that no experience will be the same for two people, and that intersecting identities play out in different ways depending on the context.

Studying abroad presents opportunities to consider various identities in a new cultural context, which can be a rewarding learning experience. However, there may also be times when you experience discrimination, racial bias, or prejudice. This could come in the form of curiosity rather than judgment, where people stare, or want to touch your skin or hair. It also might come in the form of insensitive questions about your cultural heritage or physical features, or assumptions about your national origin.

If you are a student traveling to a country where you have ethnic or racial roots, it’s important to recognize how local norms, expectations, and perceptions might be different for you than for students with other backgrounds. Or, if you are a white student, this might be one of the first times you are confronted with issues related to your race and forced to reflect on how you are perceived in this new environment.

When considering your study away destination, it’s important to explore all parts of a culture, including potential racism and discrimination. Racism and discrimination exist abroad to various degrees depending on the country and culture, in the same way that they exist differently in different contexts within the U.S.

Regardless of your racial and ethnic identity, we strongly encourage you to better prepare yourself for the situations you might encounter through researching your host country – its history of racial and ethnic relations, current population data, social and cultural climate, the political context, and general perceptions towards people of various races and ethnicities. You can also look through the resources listed below, or speak to study away returnees about their experiences on this topic.

Finally, if you experience discrimination while abroad, it’s important to consider how you might react, and know who to contact for help and support. While you might not have the same support systems abroad as you do at home, methods of dealing with discrimination could be similar to the ones you use at home. You may need to find new support groups, or reach out to Macalester or other resources for support. The Center for Study Away and other offices at Macalester College are here to support you before, during, and after your study away experience.

We encourage you to bring up topics, concerns, or questions related to your racial and ethnic identity, as well as how it intersects with various other identities that you carry with you, during an advising session. CSA advisors are prepared to answer questions or provide additional resources and suggestions. If we don’t know the answer to your specific question, we will reach out to our partners and networks abroad to get you connected with the right resources and information.

Questions to Ask—Selecting a Program

  • What are the ethnic and racial (among others) identities that characterize you?
  • Based on your identity factors such as race and ethnicity, how do you imagine you will be perceived in your host community? What types of stereotypes or assumptions might you encounter?
  • What is the historical context of racism or ethnic tension in the host country?
  • Have locals likely seen many other people of your race or ethnicity in that country?
  • Where do people of your race/ethnicity fit into the host country’s society? Are you likely to be a target of racism? Might you be treated the same way as you are in the United States?
  • Are issues of racism or discrimination influenced by immigration in the host country? How do politicized immigration concerns fuel racial tensions? What is the context of immigrant communities?
  • What are the cultural norms of the host country, and how might those norms affect you?
  • Are there laws in the host country governing race relations? Ethnic relations? What protections are offered to ethnic or racial minorities?
  • How many students of color, or students from your same racial or ethnic group, typically study on the programs you are considering? Would you be comfortable if there aren’t many or any students who share your racial or ethnic identity on your study away program? How would you deal with that situation?
  • Some programs offer scholarships for students from underrepresented groups in study away, including students of color. If the cost of study away is a factor for you, does your program offer scholarships that you might be eligible for based on your racial or ethnic identity?

Questions to Ask—Preparing for Departure

  • Will you be part of a majority or minority racial or ethnic group abroad? How might your national (U.S. or other) identity come into play?
  • If you are studying in a country where your family is from, have you been there before? Do you speak the language? How will your background and knowledge impact your experience in that country?
  • How might you react if you find something to be offensive? What if you are the target of curiosity, prejudice, discrimination, or racism?
  • What social supports are available in your host community or through your program? Are there organizations, events, or neighborhoods that relate to your race or ethnicity?
  • Who can you contact if you experience discrimination while abroad?

Resources about Race and Ethnicity and Study Away

Student Voices


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