Why studying abroad can be uncomfortable

6 minute read

To say the least, this has been a very tumultuous week. Terence Crutcher was murdered—not accidentally killed—murdered by yet another police officer back in the U.S. 13-year-old Tyre King was fatally shot by cops because they believed his BB gun resembled a firearm. Kaepernick has still received criticism for his refusal to stand for the national anthem which has evolved to death threats. All of this has even brought international attention, encouraging the United Nations to criticize the U.S. for it’s racial discrimination and police violence. But all this, of course, is occurring in the U.S. The black students and other POCs here at DIS shouldn’t be affected or care about this kind of stuff, right?

Not quite.

What many people—especially people of privilege—do not understand is that oppressive structures are not momentary experiences that dissipate with time or can be conveniently escaped because racism is omnipresent. Whether we evade the state—where racist, abusive cops are magnified—or if we attend a minority-serving institution or if we leave the country to study abroad, we are still traumatized by white supremacy’s existence. We are never comfortable.

For example, my roommate and I have had plenty of conversations about race and identity, with a common theme that enters the conversations about how we should “just be people; race shouldn’t play a factor,” which can make the discussion in question uncomfortable. I’ve also noticed that if I so much as utter the words “white people” I forge discomfort. (White) People tell me not to call them “white people” because they just want to be people. However, a component of white privilege is that white people have always been referred to as human beings; they don’t have to live with being called “white people.” They have always been referred to by their first name. They have always just been people.

Then there are us—the Black, the Hispanic, the Asian, the immigrant, the “other.” The Other has to constantly, day in and day out, assert ourselves to prove our worth, which is an emotionally taxing endeavor. So suddenly when a person who is white is called white, it makes them feel “colored.” It makes them feel as if adding white to them eradicates their humanity. Or quite possibly, for a brief instant, feel like they are a Person of Color—but what does that mean?

Being a Person Of Color means that your identity is one that experiences dehumanization from the minute you are born. To be a POC means that you won’t be referred to by your full, ethnic name; that you need to tell people your “American” name because your real name is “too hard to pronounce.” You become compartmentalized into a group and referred to as such—you are no longer Lupita Nyong’o you are “that black girl from 12 Years a Slave.” To be a POC means that your individuality will be delegitimized because if one of you fails—if one of you endures rejection if one of you rapes if one of you cheats in college—you all fail. So when a white person is referred to as a color, they fear becoming subject to this oppression that People Of Color face, and they know that. So they protest their discomfort. They retort with the fallacy that we should all just be “people” to extinguish their reduction; to make them more comfortable.

We don’t have that.

POCs cannot leave uncomfortable dinner conversations to another environment in which their humanity will not be brought into question. We cannot just leave the country and anticipate safety. That is why even when we are abroad, hearing news that a Black man was killed yet again reminds us that oppression is still occurring back in the states. It means that our Black/African/African-American friends are still in danger. It means racism is still existent. It means we are still not safe. Anywhere. It reminds us that in the face of brutalization, we cannot escape because no matter where we go, we are subject to trauma. We suffer toxic collateral damage merely by exposure, which invades our thoughts, disrupts our attention, affects our ability to work, ruins our experience—even when we are abroad, even at DIS.

These sorts of sentiments are easy for a non-POC to deflect because quite frankly, these are issues that do not pervade their lives, so it never accumulates to a point where their humanity is in constant defense. As a result, it is easy for those who do not understand to advise us to become apathetic to the situation. We are told that now is not a moment to be political, to be sensitive. But can you imagine what a Black person must feel? Can you imagine that every day you turn on the news, you’ll hear another one of you being shot at the hands of cops? Can you imagine logging onto Facebook and seeing another hashtag emerge to canonize the death of another Black person? Can you imagine what it must be like to feel every. single. day the pain of empathy—the pain that that could have been you?

I understand that I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth—for experiences. That my time in Denmark should be spent exhausting every minute maximizing my happiness so I can jovially look back on this with nostalgia. I shouldn’t be concerned about what events are occurring in the US or how my fellow POCs are feeling, I should be planning which club I want to go to this Friday, or what country to visit next, or what new food I want to try so I can tell the world how great the food here is compared to America. The truth is: I cannot, and have not.

Truth be told, it isn’t easy being in a medical program with over 100 students where you are the only Hispanic male. It isn’t easy when it becomes more difficult to talk about issues that affect you because everyone else struggles to comprehend, or their inability to sympathize encourages them to doubt you. It’s hard being at DIS when some professors say racially insensitive comments, stereotype a student, or doubt where we are originally from because it does not fit the narrative they were taught to believe. This makes it hard to fully enjoy myself because my experiences are intrinsically different than the majority of students here because I’m persistently halted from enjoying myself by issues such as another Black person’s death, another microaggression that is not rectified, another discomfort.

It is not so easy for me to detach myself from the crimes occurring in the states. I cannot temporarily—and quite frankly, selfishly—shield my eyes so that I can brag to my friends and family about my amazing Fall semester. I cannot be silent in the face of oppression. So it has been a tough week. Moments such as these make me sad that I am not back in the States because I should be supporting my friends. I should be playing a more active role in making a difference. But that does not mean that my presence here is meaningless. I realize that even abroad there is considerable work to do—especially in international programs. There is still much to be done for me and other POCs to be comfortable.


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