A Black student in England Delves into European Culture and Turns Up Reflections on the United States.
By Karla Renee Williams
In the past, I have never found myself at a loss for words. For some reason, I was struck with a quiet tongue when it came to describing my experiences as a Black woman and a minority studying abroad and travelling throughout Europe. The challenge fell in differentiating between my experiences and those of other minority students.
In the spring of 2002, I studied abroad at Manchester University in England through Arcadia University. I left the United States with a solid image of myself as a Black American and returned home at the end of May with a new perception of myself as an American who is Black. “Black,” I noticed, was a solely American construct and was applicable only in the context of American society. It was my identity as a Black woman that made my experiences different from those of others.
Despite the national tragedy on Sept. 11, I had never stopped seeing myself more as a Black woman than as an American. Like me, the other study abroad students on the plane were all in their junior years at prestigious private colleges and universities; they all had the desire to travel outside of the U.S.; they were all nervous about being away from their friends and families; they were all wondering if they could make it for five months without their favorite American candies. But I was different because I am Black, and I was very aware of this. I wondered how this would affect my interactions with the other students and if it would be an issue in Manchester.
Upon reaching Gatwick International Airport, I was confronted for the first time with my identity as an American. In London, people commonly referred to me as “the American” and questioned me about U.S. government and policy. It was the case everywhere I travelled. Very early on in my semester, I realized the importance of reading the newspapers and watching the news on a daily basis.
Elections were taking place in late spring all across Europe, and the atmosphere was incredibly politically charged. I remember sitting in a class at Manchester University and discussing the nature of power and the effect of grassroots organizations on politicians. A few days after our discussion, Fortuyn—a parliamentary candidate in the Netherlands—was brutally gunned down and killed after a press interview because he was pushing for legislation that would keep citizens of Middle Eastern and Islamic nations out of the Netherlands. He claimed that the very nature of Islam threatened the freedoms of the Dutch people and was oppressive to women and homosexuals. His death transformed my feelings about the importance of politics and changed the way I viewed myself as a Black woman. Outside of the ongoing battles between Israel and Palestine, it had not occurred to me that there were places in the world where people were arguing over whether to allow another group access into their country. It seemed impossible that laws could be made to close the borders of lands that did not belong to anyone. This concept put a brand new spin on my ideas about race relations in the U.S.
Regardless of what people might say about the advancement of race relations over the past century, being Black in the U.S. still means something different from being a member of any other race. Each group experiences American society in a different manner. Race and region can affect self-perception. Only increased exposure to diverse types of people allows for understanding and tolerance of differences, as well as the dissipation of feelings of entitlement.
I believe that minorities tend to have different expectations of others. Our sense of what is owed or due to us operates differently because we are not accustomed to having our needs met on demand. It is possible because time is not a premium in the Black community as it is in other communities. I found that my fellow Black students and I seemed to adapt more readily to European culture. We did not attempt to make Europeans conform to American standards.
During my time abroad, I had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe with British students, not Americans. It was important to me to avoid travelling with another study abroad students because I wanted to be less identifiable as an American. I also wanted to observe how the British interact with people in other countries. My friends at Manchester University had travelled widely. I was curious about whether they faced the same challenges that we study abroad students were experiencing.
Most surprisingly, the people I encountered in each country could not believe that I was American. They insisted that I was Senegalese or Moroccan and had difficulty accepting that I was born and raised in the U.S. In this way, my complexion worked to my advantage while travelling. While another study abroad students consistently reported that they were uncomfortable in many places where they travelled and that people were unfriendly, that was not true for me. With one exception, people were warm and welcoming and seemed genuinely interested in me.
The one exception occurred in my host country. The campus community service organization I had joined gave me the chance to travel throughout the United Kingdom. Along with other students, I collected money for various national and international charity organizations. Each weekend, we travelled to a new city and spent all day Saturday collecting money on the streets. On a trip to Cardiff, we were standing outside in the rain collecting money for the National Leukemia Research Foundation. A woman approached me and asked me if I was an American. I said yes. She proceeded, without provocation, to tell me what a horrible place the U.S. is and that I should be ashamed to be part of such a nation. She went on to say how befuddled she was that any group of people (referring to Black people), after being stolen from their land, could allow themselves to participate in the society of their captors. This harangue went on for four or five minutes before the lady walked away. I was afraid to respond because I did not want to give her any justification for what she had said. Needless to say, I was shocked. I had never been so insulted or made to feel so badly about my country and my race. But what occurred to me was that the woman was more upset about America and its treatment of Americans than about me as a person or about me as a Black woman.
When I returned to the U.S., I felt strangely liberated. How could I feel judged in a country that has never viewed itself objectively? I still occasionally find myself longing to be in countries like the ones I visited while abroad—where people rarely seemed to notice race and interacted with others on a more individual level. When I came back to the U.S, I felt like an American for the first time.