“If it gets to be too much, or if you start feeling like you’re in danger, you call the university and tell them to bring you right back to Chicago.”
I was on the phone with my mother discussing my upcoming study abroad trip to Europe. “I hope they like Black people there”, I joked with a tinge of seriousness. Though I spoke solid French, I deliberately chose to complete my minor in a German-speaking country: Austria. After committing to the program, I caught up with a friend who had recently studied abroad and he shared the rampant racism he both witnessed and experienced in Mexico. As sorry as I was to hear about it, I held onto the belief that I’d be able to evade those experiences; my Americanness would shine through and I’d be just fine. But two weeks before my trip, I had stumbled across a story in a Austrian newspaper detailing the rising levels of anti-Black sentiments and racial attitudes within the country. That’s when I began to panic and wonder “do I have the mental stamina to endure living here for 10 weeks?”
The answer was undoubtedly yes, but my experiences in Europe tested me more than I could have imagined.
As I walked through the airport after the 10-hour flight, I couldn’t help but notice the piercing stares I received, but I chalked it up to my big hair once I saw another Black person waiting to go through the passport checkpoint. However the stares would continue throughout the entirety of the program in stores, on trains, and in restaurants—especially when I was unaccompanied. I couldn’t have stuck out any more than I did, and I was reminded of this virtually everywhere I went. But I tried to focus on other things and, though they may not have noticed, limited my outings to those with my classmates.
That strategy proved moot on a class trip to Krakow, Poland. After dinner, we stumbled upon on a hidden jazz club, packed but relaxed. We stood in line to get refreshments at the bar, but when I finally got up to the front, the bartender would not serve me. I waited, patiently at the beginning, with a 5 euro bill in hand while watching the man serve everyone around me—including the multiple people who skipped me in line. Eventually, the bartender resorted to cleaning racked glasses when there were no other people left to attend to in his attempts to render me invisible. I felt my skin getting hot as a wave of anger and embarrassment rushed over me. After fifteen minutes, I returned back to my table. A friend, who isn’t Black, took my bill and returned five minutes later with both her drink and mine. As hard as I tried to forget the incident, it cut deep; it was the first time I had experienced firsthand someone openly refusing me service because of the color of my skin.
Weeks later, during the Austrian presidential elections, billboards and signs promoting far-right candidate Norbert Hofer practically covered the city of Vienna. His racist, xenophobic platform was akin to Donald Trump’s, and so was his level of popularity. Hofer won 49.4% of the vote in the election. Though I did enjoy laughs and great fun throughout the trip, towards the end of it I found myself getting more anxious and exhausted every time I had to leave my apartment. I postponed even basic things like grocery trips to the last possible minute and declined invitations to dinner and other outings with my friends. I’ve never wanted to be invisible so badly in my life, but I struggled to explain how I felt to my friends on the program and at home.
Studying abroad was supposed to be a fun, transformative experience of a lifetime, and to some extent it was. I forged great friendships and learned more than I could have imagined. But the push for more Black students to pursue study abroad programs without raising awareness of the very prevalent anti-Black sentiments abroad (particularly amid the refugee crisis) left me feeling psychologically fatigued. Like it or not, racism, specifically anti-Black racism, is a global sentiment; we’re not off the hook anywhere we go. But in a foreign country, or continent, even trying to be a tourist can turn into a negative experience. So go fill your passport with stamps, but be aware that, outside of Africa, your presence won’t always be wanted.
Image via Roni Lubofsky