Leaving the US Will Never Be the Antidote to Racism
As I read a Washington Post article by a Black American woman who traded New York for Paris, a single line triggered my wanderlust: “Paris, a city that has historically revered Black arts and culture and respected Black humanity.” Ever since Trump’s election in 2016, publications have been running stories like this about “Blaxit,” the exodus of Black Americans in search of a better, less racist life overseas. Many include inspiring pictures of Black women living their best life — and apparently best hair — their melanin poppin against lush vistas or architectural wonders in the background.
I began to wistfully imagine myself living in the City of Lights. Unencumbered by the constant stress of American racism, I’d finally be able to live life to the fullest. I’d join the ranks of Black icons like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin, hobnobbing with Parisian intelligentsia and the woke jet set. I’d eat a chocolate croissant every single day.
But the thing is, I’ve lived outside the U.S. for about 10 years — in Cameroon, Costa Rica, and now Turkey. I have loved living overseas, but when it comes to race, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. If I had left America to escape the kind of racism I face at home — I didn’t; I moved for love — I’d have been disappointed.
Some forms of racism, like blackface and monkey chanting, are bizarrely universal.
Anti-Blackness isn’t just “an American problem.” There are the stereotypical ideas about Black Americans gleaned from global pop culture, which often reflects the White gaze. Some forms of racism, like blackface and monkey chanting, are bizarrely universal. English isn’t the only language to have its own racial epithets for Black people; in Turkish it’s zenci, a reference to the Zanj region of Africa where the Ottomans sourced slaves. In more ethnically homogenous countries, locals may not have had any experience with Black people, which can lead to uncomfortable situations.
“The way the locals acted, I was probably the only Black person they’d ever seen,” says comedian Keelah Rose Calloway about her time living in central Vietnam. She has since relocated to Ho Chi Minh City where there are more Black expats. “It’s never fun to have people stare at you like you’re some kind of circus freak. Between my body size and my skin color, my hair… It was all just like a sea of wonders for the tiny town.” We bond when she tells me that a group of Vietnamese teenagers once filmed her without permission; here in Istanbul, I’ve been an unwilling subject myself on more than one occasion.
Skin color isn’t the only way we are marginalized when we travel. Different countries have different legal and social conventions related to women’s roles, bodies, and behaviors. Local beauty standards may not include Black beauty. Turkey may have basic universal health care, but mental health treatment is costly and not covered by public or private insurance. The city of Istanbul is largely handicap inaccessible. Before you jump on the “Year of Return” bandwagon, you should know that Ghana, like most countries in Africa, including Cameroon, where I used to live, and many nations in the Middle East and Asia, criminalizes LGBTQ people.
Aspiring Blaxpats should also be aware that even among the woke, the racial discourse in your adopted country may not be the same as it is in the U.S. Nneya Richards, a fashion stylist and blogger who resides in Bergamo, Italy, notes that affirmative actions and other protections for minority groups don’t exist in Italian corporate culture: “And how many people of color do you see in high positions in these companies? We’re calling out American CEOs or American…corporations for having only five black people on an exec board of 30, 40? In these countries it’s zero, and the conversation about calling that out is nowhere near there yet.”
“For Dutch people… there is this very dominant discourse around ‘we’re colorblind… we don’t see race… our Black people are happy,’” says Jennifer Tosch, who lives in Amsterdam and leads Black Heritage Tours that center the largely-erased history of Black and Brown people in Dutch culture. “It’s completely a false delusion. It’s not true.”
Local culture isn’t the only challenge. Before I left the states, I naively assumed that living cross-culturally would give White people greater empathy and a more evolved outlook on race. The reality is that people bring their biases and privileges with them, and it is exacerbated by the racism and colonialism built into traditional expat careers like diplomacy, NGOs, and international teaching. Immersion in one culture doesn’t make you any more knowledgeable or empathetic towards Black folks. I’ve often served as an unpaid racial educator for White expats and, occasionally, their kids. But despite this expertise, they still question my lived experiences with racism in Turkey. I helped them manage their emotions after Trump’s 2016 victory. Everyone has something to say about my hair. My favorite was when a neighbor told me my box braids looked “just like Bo Derek!” And these aren’t even the Trump supporters I know. Yes, right wing conservatives travel, too.
Living overseas is also touted as a way for Black people to improve health and wellness, and stay physically safe. In America, exposure to racism contributes to all manner of reduced health outcomes. Prevailing stereotypes — Black patients are drug seekers, we have a higher pain threshold — also compromise the quality of the care we receive, if we have access to it at all.
On her second visit, the doctor explicitly told her, “you’ll be fine because you’re stronger,” a misconception Black women seemingly have to contend with on every continent.
But that doesn’t mean that health systems outside the United States are immune to racism because experimentation on Black bodies was foundational to modern medicine worldwide. Raycene Nevils-Karakeçi, a writer and friend of mine who also lives in Istanbul, experienced a complicated miscarriage and went back to the ER four times because of hemorrhaging. Doctors gave her acetaminophen for the pain. On her second visit, the doctor explicitly told her, “you’ll be fine because you’re stronger” a misconception Black women seemingly have to contend with on every continent. “It raised a lot of questions for me. I don’t know where he was coming from with that” says Nevils-Karakeçi, who was unsure if he was speaking based on stereotypes.
Many Black expats say they left the U.S. for their own or their children’s physical safety. In Istanbul, it is extremely unlikely that I will be the target of police brutality because of the color of my skin. But that is simply not true everywhere. When George Floyd protests went global, it wasn’t pure solidarity; many people were protesting racialized police brutality in their own countries. America is not the only place Black folks get pulled over for no reason, and violence against Black people has been documented everywhere from Brazil to the Netherlands and Scotland — and even in Paris, France. In some cases, Black Americans are actually safer from violence, stigma, or harassment than members of their host country’s African diaspora or minority groups. I know I have been. Back in Bergamo, Richards once drew police attention while showing a Black friend around. When she spoke to them in English, and they realized she was not Afro-Italian, “it flipped their script,” says Richards, and they were suddenly helpful.
As a Black woman, I’m all about calling out White privilege. But living abroad has made me reckon with my own. My “White passport” lets me travel wherever I want, unlike most Black and Brown people around the world. I am paid in U.S. dollars while living in a country with an unstable currency and a low cost of living, which makes my standard of living higher than both your average Turk and many Black Americans. I have a job I can do from anywhere, relative financial stability, and no caregiving responsibilities. I can afford a housekeeper, which is beyond my means back home. These are luxuries that America’s most vulnerable people — those who would likely benefit the most from a well-timed Blaxit — simply don’t have.
“In the United States, as a Black person, of course, I feel that oppression, but here, because of money and because it gives me social class… I end up becoming the privileged one,” says Kerra Bolton, an artist and documentary filmmaker based in Mexico. “It does make me feel very uncomfortable. I don’t know how to deal with it.”
This discomfort can also lead to guilt. Following everything that’s been going on in the news and social media has fomented a cocktail of mixed emotions: relief, bone-deep exhaustion, worry about stateside family, depression, impotence that I can’t do more to help. I’m not the only one. Calloway, whose mother was a civil rights activist, says, “I’m kind of feeling guilty that I decided to leave instead of staying to fight to try to make things better… My solution was to just get out.”
Nevertheless, living overseas can be deeply meaningful and rewarding. Black women are traveling more than ever before and it’s easier than ever for us to connect through Facebook groups like The Black Expat, YouTube channels, podcasts, and local events aimed at Black expats. There are so many positives but a panacea for everything wrong with America isn’t really one of them, especially because many of those same things are wrong in other countries. As Bolton suggests, you should Blaxit “because you want the experience of living in another country, not to escape racism.”