By: Tyler Womack
As I eagerly boarded the plane for Ecuador, my mind was filled with romantic notions of traveling through tropical rainforests, becoming a fully accepted member of my host family, and becoming perfectly fluent in Spanish.
I was ready for the life changing experience that I would carry with me for the rest of my life. However, I was quickly hit with the harsh reality that my position as a privileged black foreigner made integrating into a new cultural space isolating and difficult.
I traveled with a group of 12 Caucasian Americans and I was the only black female on my trip. Not only did I have to deal with the micro aggressions and racial ignorance of my travel mates, but I also had to navigate through a new society that once again put black people on the bottom. I remember asking my program director if my race would affect how I would be received in Ecuador, and he told me that it would not and that I would just appear more “relatable.”
I remember on the first day of meeting my host family, my new mother asked me “which country of Africa are you from?” She was shocked to find out that not all United States foreigners were white with green or blue eyes. She then proceeded to talk about how beautiful the white girls in my program are and how proud she is of her family for looking almost as light skinned as them. I sat through this uncomfortable conversation realizing that I was nowhere near “relatable” to the middle class populations of Ecuador.
I was disappointed at the lack of support and understanding I received from my program directors about what it would be like for black females to integrate into Ecuador’s version of an anti-black culture. The program prided itself on providing a place for cultural guidance and moral support for American students. We were taught how to greet properly with a light kiss to the cheek, that finishing food is a sign of respect, and that we need to have a separate set of house shoes. All the talks we had relating to gender, sexuality, and cultural differences were geared towards the white people in my program.
I remember that at one of our program’s single attempt at a race talk one of my Caucasian friends said “I know what it feels like to be a minority now!” She proceeded to talk about how people stared at her, and how she would receive overwhelming amounts of male attention.
She failed to realize that white supremacy is carried worldwide. White people in Ecuador were put on a pedestal and they were stared and gawked at like celebrities. Sticking out like a sore thumb made them special, beautiful, and exotic. Whereas minorities in America are shunned, ignored, and unwanted. To assume that she had finally gained the minority experience proved the excess amount of privilege and ignorance through which she saw the world.
Like the United States, Afro-Ecuadorians are descendants of formerly enslaved Africans. Poverty is rampant amongst Afro-Ecuadorians and I heard several stereotypes of them being “lazy” and “thieves.” Since I resembled the Afro-Ecuadorian population, I got to experience their mistreatment and disrespect. I think the most difficult part of my trip was meeting strangers with my Caucasian friends and being the only person aware of how differently we were received.
As a black woman you will notice that many strangers will refuse to make eye contact with you and won’t acknowledge what you say. Whereas your white friend will be warmly welcomed and doted on. Your friend will leave saying how wonderful people are and how easy it is to make friends. You will feel relieved to leave yet another hostile environment. As usual, the person with privilege has the luxury to ignore situations where others are being mistreated.
According to the Institute of International Education only five percent of Americans who study abroad are black. This denies black students rich cultural experiences, future leadership positions as diplomats, and experiential education. While many societal factors impact Black participation in study abroad programs, one major barrier is the fact that the programs only cater to white people.
In most cases black students will have a much harder transition into the country they go to and will have to navigate through a whole new set of racial relations that will not benefit them. To deny black study abroad students the necessary supports is to continue to deny access of one of the many privileges white students receive in higher education.