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4 challenges I faced while travelling abroad as a person of colour

Business Insider Australia logo Business Insider Australia 7/01/2020 Stephanie Taylor
a group of people standing in front of a building
  • People of colour face various hardships when they travel abroad to certain regions.
  • I lived in Italy in 2018 and experienced discrimination and racism firsthand.
  • Here are some of the challenges people of colour face when they travel.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

It is a known fact that living and studying abroad has a number of positive effects, including reduced stress, increased life satisfaction, and a better sense of self.

Yet studies show that the percentage of students of colour at US colleges represented in study-abroad programs pales in comparison to their white counterparts. According to the Institute of International Education, only about 5% of Americans who study abroad are black. This is partially due to the reality that people of colour face the possibility of discrimination when they travel.

I lived in Italy in 2018 during a time of heightened tension, with the nation on the brink of an election and immigration one of the most hot-button issues. With the swell of migration from Africa came a swell in anti-immigration sentiment and racism in Italy.

I came to Italy as a part of a teaching program. There were about 20 teachers placed in different schools across northern Italy, and I was one of two black teachers in the program. As a single, curly-haired African-American woman in her 20s living in small-town, northern Italy, I was an outlier in a number of ways: my age, ethnicity, nationality, and native language.

One of the hardest parts of living in Italy for me was the feeling of being "other" - there might as well have been a sign painted on my back that said outsider. For African immigrants, this was their daily experience, to live in a country and be seen as an alien, as different. I got to go home, but for them, it was their day-to-day lives.

Here are four of the biggest challenges I faced while travelling abroad as a person of colour.

I had to get used to people staring at me in public places.

a group of people looking at a cellphone

Often travelling solo throughout Italy on weekends, I had to be aware of my surroundings because my olive skin colour and thick hair meant that I was different. I was often stared at in coffee shops or on trains. It might sound harmless, but three months of getting stares wherever you go and few smiles or hellos from passersby is exhausting.

Only when people realised I was American (after I spoke), did some of the tension lighten surrounding my appearance. But the staring never stopped. Small towns often felt more unsafe than bigger cities like Milan, Turin, or Florence, where diversity was more accepted. Even in bigger cities, there were stares upon my entry into a local coffee shop or bakery.

I had to constantly be aware of the possibility of racial encounters.

a man and a woman sitting on a chair

During the time that I lived in Italy, there was a tense social climate surrounding race as the number of African immigrants began to rise. In one of my first weeks living abroad, there was a story about an African man who was attacked at a train station while waiting to board. Once when I visited Florence on a weekend there and met up with a new friend, she told me of the reality that I might be treated differently because I was black.

Rarely did I travel to nearby small towns without someone I knew or unless I was meeting a friend. I once sat in a coffee shop waiting to meet with a fellow teacher assistant, and I watched the stares avert when my Italian friend came and sat with me.

Another time, when I went to purchase a train ticket, I handed the person working my euros, and he refused to take the money from me directly. He waited for me to place the money on the counter and only then did he take my payment. I couldn't help but think that he did not want to touch my hand because of the colour of my skin.

The threat of violence wasn't out of the question, and other people had to worry about my whereabouts.

a man sitting on a table: Migrants pray at a Catholic church in Lampedusa, Italy. Migrants pray at a Catholic church in Lampedusa, Italy.

I was unaware of the racial tensions surrounding immigration in Italy until my arrival, but once I was there, the discord was almost palpable. Because Italy is surrounded on three sides by water, it makes it a prime location for immigrants, who are often fleeing religious persecution and political oppression, to make their temporary home.

In 2018, a racially motivated physical assault happened every two days on average. There were constant headlines of African immigrants being harassed or even attacked because of the colour of their skin. My host family never directly warned me of the dangers related to race in Italy, but they constantly worried about my whereabouts.

The young people I met all had stories of racial minorities being picked on and treated differently.

a woman smiling for the camera

During my time in Italy, I taught English to high school students in a small town. In one of my lessons on American culture, I asked my students about the current state of politics in Italy and how immigrants are viewed.

We were able to parallel the similarities between African immigrants in Italy and Mexican immigrants in America. They shared that immigrants are often looked down upon and seen as outsiders. They openly discussed how people of colour are treated as criminals and seen as "dirty" or "less than."

The other assistant teachers in my program shared stories with me about their students of colour being treated differently by their peers and parents.

They told stories of African students being picked on, or of kids not wanting to play with them or touch whatever toy they had touched. African students were often treated with scepticism and mistrust.

However, by the end of my time abroad, I realised that my experience wasn't exactly the same as my peers. The nuances of race didn't infiltrate their personal travel stories the way they did mine. Similar to life back in the States, racial prejudice affects people's day-to-day experiences in different ways. And for a traveller of colour, it can impact safety, freedom to travel and peace of mind while abroad.

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