A Black Woman’s Experience Studying Abroad

November 14, 2019
Anna Johnson

Today’s blog post comes to us from API Global Leader & University of Alabama student Anna Johnson. She studied abroad with us in Florence, Italy. If you want to join us this fall in beautiful Florence, applications for our fall 2019 programs are due June 15th!

Anna Johnson
Anna in Cinque Terre, Italy

A large part of my identity is that I am a Black woman. I take pride in that, but I’m also very aware of my identity at all times.

I wasn’t sure how that would combine with my study abroad experience, but I learned a lot about myself and others throughout the process.

I studied abroad through Academic Programs International (API) in the Fall of 2018 in Florence, Italy. Coming from the University of Alabama, I already understood how my identity impacted me at home, but I wondered how it would change in this new foreign country. I’m typically an optimistic person, and that did not change in this instance. In fact, I did little research surrounding Italian’s cultural views on women and African Americans. I’d been told by friends that Italians love Black women and that was enough for me to not be concerned.

I had an amazing time studying abroad in Italy! But there were certain instances where my race came into play that are worth mentioning.

For one, I was the only Black person in my study abroad program. The group was mostly Caucasian women with a few Hispanic and Asian women as well. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, as I am very much used to being in these types of situations. But, this definitely speaks to the lack of diversity in many study abroad programs and it sparked my interest in advocating for such experiences for all.

While I was never discriminated against or treated differently by any of my fellow students, my blackness and womanhood often came into play while walking the streets of Italy. Most of the people I interacted with were able to tell that I was American once I opened my mouth and spoke and that identity became more prevalent that any other as I was deemed a tourist. But for those who did not hear me speak, a question of my identity was often brought up. While walking through the streets to class, vendors and salespeople would often call at me specifically to get my attention. They would say things like “Africa? Ethiopia? Somalia?” or any other African country they could name in an attempt to learn where I was from. In the beginning I would retort back, “American,” but I soon found it was easier to just ignore them since they were really just trying to get me to buy their products. Once, someone even called me Beyoncé, to which I was flattered, but also annoyed at the generalization because I truly look nothing like Beyoncé.

Anna & API friends in front of Vatican City

Honestly, this was more of an annoyance than anything else, as I have been catcalled before in America and this was just another version of that. It was interesting to see my friends’ reactions when they witnessed it. A few of them got really upset that this was happening and wanted to find a way to show those individuals what they were doing was very ignorant. But, as someone who has experienced real racism in America, these subtle passes of ignorance were relatively harmless to me.

Another relevant factor in my experience is the current political climate of Italy.

While I was there, the country was dealing with an overflow of refugees from African countries and this had sparked a sort of negative image towards Black people. So, it’s no wonder I got a few dirty looks or long stares, but the overall tone was much less tense than I imagined.
One of my professors actually told us about an incident where a refugee had been murdered by an Italian man for ultimately no reason and the subsequent uproar it caused among refugees. There was great tension during that period of mourning, but she expressed that many Italians did not have prejudices against Black people and that greatly aligned with my experience.

Christmas market in Vienna, Austria

My experience outside of Italy was even more stress-free.

I traveled to 13 countries and over 20 cities while studying abroad. I can’t recount any other instances where my identity played a role in a negative experience of mine. In fact, I was almost as unaware of my identity while traveling as I ever have been. There were even comforting moments like when I was traveling through Paris and stumbled upon a district full of other Black people advertising hair braiding and barber services. Frankly, I hadn’t seen that many people that looked like me in a long time and that was an exciting and heartwarming coincidence for me.

Also, speaking of hair care, that was a big concern for me as I prepared for my time abroad. As someone who spends a great amount of time, money and effort on maintaining my hair and skincare, a lot of my suitcase was devoted to these products. But I probably should have done more research beforehand because shortly after arriving, I stumbled upon a few city blocks owned by Black people that catered toward Black people. I was able to find a hair braider, natural hair care products, African food, and so much more within Florence. It not only made my experience easier but spoke to the growing trend of diversity and inclusion throughout the world. In fact, there was a great bit of diversity with many Asian restaurants and even a section of Florence called China Town!

Honestly, most interactions surrounding my race dealt more with intrigue and curiosity than hatred.

I spoke to a few Italian students regularly while in Florence, and they were always very interested in learning about my experience in America and my different perspective. As well, by the end of my trip, my Italian sounded fairly authentic and strangers simply assumed that I was Italian, like them. The direction of the world is leaning towards greater inclusivity and understanding, and my study abroad experience for the most part affirms that.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to avoid being discriminated against, and luckily, I did not have to deal with any prevalent and impactful racially motivated incidents, but simply being aware of that possibility is important. Of course, being aware of your race in America is common place for most, but there are other countries that are far more progressive in their stance on diversity and many that are far less accepting. Being aware of all this can be incredibly helpful when planning a trip abroad, and in this way you can get the most out of your experience, just as I did.

Anna & API friends on their last day in Florence


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