"You're not like other expats" | BIPOC Navigating Racial Microaggressions Abroad
Updated: Sep 8
The Effects of Racist Microaggressions on BIPOC Abroad
Not all of us experience travel, living and moving overseas in the same way.
On the one hand, there’s the issue of passport privilege. In short, passport privilege is granted to an individual based on their country of citizenship, with citizens of certain countries being granted visa-free access to many places, while citizens of other countries might find that their passports don’t let them move past their own borders. Some of the strongest passports hail from Belgium, France, Spain and Austria, while some of the weakest passports are from Afghanistan, Somalia, Dominican Republic and Syria. Until the COVID-19 epidemic, the United States also had one of the strongest passports in the world, but now due to an inability to contain the spread of the virus, many countries are banning US citizens from visiting. Privilege revoked (in a rather bittersweet, ironic twist of fate).
On the other hand, the travel and tourism industry was never a level playing field anyway. Just take a look at your typical holiday advertising: historically, advertisers in the travel space haven’t made much of an effort to lure BIPOC travelers (Black Indigenous and People of Color). We've had to carve out our own travel space, and in doing so have come to learn that sometimes even our passport privilege isn’t enough to give us respite from ignorance and bias.
We spoke to two psychologists, both BIPOC themselves, about how racism and microaggressions continue to be perpetuated across borders, and how encountering these on an almost constant basis affects the experiences of people of color both at home and abroad.
What ARE some examples of racist micro-aggressions that a BIPOC might encounter in a foreign country?
“There are countless types of discrimination and microaggressions.” states Sámar Khalife, M.A., M.S.. “Some that a BIPOC might encounter in a foreign country are stereotypes based on popular media, such as movies and music; ascriptions of intelligence or beauty based on race; denial of individual or structural racism; being treated as a second-class citizen or open disdain and disrespect for other races; exotification in the dating scene or assumption of criminal status. For those coming from previously colonized countries, the microaggression can be language related, such as correcting your already correct terms or expressions to the local language (and therefore, to them, improving upon what you said). Other language-related microaggressions are racist and derogatory terms and expressions embedded into the language, and therefore "normalized" in their use, which can be quite jarring and offensive to an outsider.”
An easy to spot example of this last issue is the term ‘Chino’,commonly used throughout Spain to refer to any alimentacion or local corner market. The term itself is rooted in bias, prejudice and racism - yet is used on a daily basis by both locals and even foreigners who have come to reside in the country.
Dr. Kennetha Frye, PhD, LP, LSSP, HSP agrees that the media plays a role in perpetuating microaggressions. “I believe that the majority of these stereotypes that are placed on BIPOC is that individuals outside of our country are only exposed to what they see in the media, which are usually negative images/representations of Black people from America.” She adds that “during my travels I have used these instances to educate other cultures that being Black is not a monolith and is not limited to being impoverished and uneducated, but that we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, leaders and do not all come from broken homes”.
However, it’s important to note that educating people and calling them out on their racist beliefs (least of all when one is traveling on holiday) is never the responsibility of a BIPOC. And certainly not when these offenders have access to Google and can take the time to educate themselves if they so choose.
So now that we have an understanding of what microaggressions look like…
Why do these micro-aggressions exist?
Unfortunately, racism is embedded into systems everywhere. But I’ll let the professionals explain:
“The very premise where colonialism finds its roots is that there is one race (or class or country) above another, which is a means to justify why some have privileges that others don't.” Khalife points out. “The other parts can be explained by ignorance, lack of education on the subject and fear of potential loss of privilege. There are many discriminatory biases which people are not aware of, and in some cases do not want to be aware of because that would imply potentially having to give something up or having discomfort.”
And while on the subject of discomfort, Dr. Frye adds “it is not the duty of those of us who are oppressed to continue to call out these behaviors but it is the duty of those people who claim to be allies. They have to be just as vocal as we are to move forward with change. This includes having those difficult conversations with your racist and privileged family members...it includes calling out those individuals who continue to scream out ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’ because they are afraid to be challenged in regards to their privilege. Change cannot be made in this area until our privileged allies call out the oppressors, who most of the time are their own family members.”
So, What kind of emotional and mental impacts do these incidents have on BIPOC?
“The emotional and mental impact of these incidents on BIPOC is huge and unmistakable” says Khalife. “These experiences create trauma, they strengthen and amplify internalized racism, and can lead to low self-esteem and higher levels of self-doubt. Microaggressions are brief, but they can wear you down, make you feel unwelcome, and ultimately erode your confidence over time.”
If you’re a BIPOC faced with a racist micro-aggression while abroad, what should you do?
First and foremost, if you’re moving abroad, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to find a community, even if it’s just an online support system.
Aside from the initial culture shock that any person faces when moving to another country, coming face to face with racist microaggressions in your new home can be triggering. If you’re feeling safe enough to do so, responding to said aggressions by offering an alternative perspective and reinforcing your boundaries is a strategy embraced by both of our interviewees.
“I do believe that at some point these microaggressions should be corrected immediately” adds Dr. Frye. “But due to issues of inequity in power, individuals who are the targets of these microaggressions can fear retaliation. Because of these fears it is imperative that our white allies and those in positions of privilege speak out and help to educate.”
Which leads us into our next point...
How can non-BIPOC serve as allies while living or traveling abroad?
Sámar Khalife says: “Read, reflect on your own experiences with racism and privilege. Create dialogue, broach some of those uncomfortable conversations with people around you. Also, don't be afraid to make mistakes when speaking up. You are a human ally, not a robot one! Think about your values and beliefs and try to uphold them in these conversations while listening, being curious and compassionate.”
Dr. Kennetha Frye says: “‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.’ These are words spoken by Benjamin Franklin but that speak to this specific question. Speak up. Even if you feel uncomfortable, just imagine how BIPOC feel every time they are the target of microaggressions whether it be intentional or not, it continues to be a traumatic experience that plays on the psyche. Additional ways to serve as an ally include donating to grassroot organizations that are working on dismantling these systems of oppression and racism and to check in on your BIPOC friends. However, remember to not be overbearing with these check ins and don’t center your experiences over theirs. You have stated that you wanted a seat at the table and an invite to the barbecue. Well here is your chance.”
Sámar Khalife, M.A., M.S. is the founder of Safe Space Spain, a support group and safe space for BIPOC to talk about race-related stress, trauma and healing after moving to a foreign country. To learn more or sign up visit https://samarkhalifeiglesias.com/safespacespain, or you can follow @samarkhalifepsychologist to keep up with the latest updates.
Dr. Kennetha Frye, PhD, LP, LSSP, HSP is a Licensed Psychologist, Health Service Psychologist, and Licensed Specialist in School Psychology. She specializes in working with diverse at-risk children/adolescents who exhibit emotional and behavioral difficulties. Her private practice is based in Houston, TX, USA.
Written by Vianessa Syed Castaños
Deputy Editor, Girl Gone International