Studying abroad can be quite nerve-wrecking in itself, but it just gets worse when you’re discriminated against just based on the colour of your skin. Madhura Sansare tells you more about how to deal with racism while studying abroad
There are a lot of things that go through a student’s mind while preparing for studies abroad. Finding an appropriate accommodation, the fear of relocating to a new place, leaving the luxuries of a home life to live all alone, making new friends, etc. During such a time, one of the things that probably never cross a student’s mind is having to deal with discrimination. However, racial discrimination can become a very real concern for students heading to less racially diverse countries. Rashi Arora, a student at London College of Communications, recently went through her own experience with racism.” London is a multicultural city, she says, “and LCC is a university where people from different diversities come to seek education. It was very disturbing when one of my fellow students passed a comment on my nationality and culture.”
Racial discrimination is not always intended, which makes it worse, because the person discriminating against you probably doesn’t even know that they are treating you differently than they would treat others. Unintended discrimination is called microaggression. This includes offensive actions like someone holding their purse a little tighter when you cross them on the street, invalidations like assuming an Asian or Latino student is on a scholarship, and backhanded compliments like someone asking you how your English is so good when you’re from a primarily non-English speaking country. The latter microaggression is quite common for Indian students when they go to study abroad.
These microaggressions usually stem from a misunderstanding of other cultures or just from innocence. They may even be well-intentioned, like someone saying ‘you must be good in maths’ just because you’re Indian. Now whatever the intention of these comments may be, they have the same effect as deliberate discrimination. What’s surprising is that the perpetrators of these microaggressions aren’t racist, in fact, there’s a very high possibility that they consider themselves to be anti-racist.
So how does one deal with microaggressions, or even deliberate racist comments? Racial discrimination is a psychological action more than anything else. The perpetrators say certain things that may hurt another person, but they say them because they believe them. Even the effects of racial discrimination, at least while studying abroad, are more psychological than anything else. So it only makes sense that your fight against these racial discriminations or microaggressions should be an internal one. Following are certain things to keep in mind while dealing with these kinds of discriminations.
Remember that it’s not your fault: A lot of microaggression victims tend to think of themselves as the problem. They think they’re being overly sensitive and that their reaction is exaggerated. We’re here to tell you that if you have faced something like this, your reaction is completely valid. If any comment or action made at you makes you angry or sad in any way, and sticks to you even hours later, trust yourself to know that it isn’t your fault. Talk to someone about it, about how it made you feel. It’ll feel much better once you get it all out.
Question their statement: When faced with a racially discriminating or microaggressive comment, it usually makes more sense to let it slide than to confront the person about it, especially if they’re close to you. It makes complete sense that you wouldn’t want to risk your relationship with them for what seems to be nothing more than a small comment for them. But if it hurts you, you need to tell them. Question their comment by asking them what they mean by it. It’s when they start to explain it that they’ll realise what they said was offensive. Sure, there will be an awkwardness attached to questioning them about it, but you must remember that the person in front of you making a racially discriminative comment against you probably doesn’t even know that they are. And if you don’t make them think about their comments, they will keep on believing that they are right.
Make Your Decision: Just because you can educate someone about racial disparities, does not mean you’re under any obligation to do so. You can if you want to, but if you’d prefer to walk away because you can’t stand them, you can do that as well. We know engaging in a long, serious discussion about race can get exhausting. You don’t speak for your entire race, and you are not expected to handle every indiscreet person who comes your way making racial comments. Pick your battles, as not every person can be educated on their discriminations. Some might just get defensive, and that reaction is just not worth your breath.
Talk about the action, not the person: To avoid someone getting defensive about their racial comments, it is recommended to focus on the racial comment or action, and not the person perpetrating it. Instead of saying ‘you’re racist’; say ‘that statement is making a lot of racial assumptions’. This takes the spotlight off the speaker and focuses it on the words.
Be Proud: There are two theories about a strong, proud ethnic identity being able to help you get over discrimination. One theory says that since your ethnicity is a central pillar of your identity, an attack to it can be particularly damaging. The other theory, however, states that racial identity is similar to social identity.
Social Identity Theory: Social Identity Theory was developed by the pioneering social psychologist Henri Tajfel, whose entire family was killed in the Holocaust. This led to him studying ingroups, outgroups, and the psychology of prejudice, and coming up with his revolutionary theory. Social Identity Theory states that we each affiliate with a variety of possible groups and tend to band together with those like us. Some of the groups we choose – anyone who’s ever been through high school and was a band nerd, skater, druggie, jock, or goth knows how this works.
But some of the groups we’re born into. These include gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, socioeconomic status, disability, and, of course, race. According to Tajfel, once you’re part of an indentified in group, you tend to focus on the positive aspects of the group. This both raises self-esteem and invests you in highlighting the positive aspects of your group.
And research plays it out. A number of studies across racial groups, like African-Americans, and ethnic groups, like Filipino-Americans or Korean-Americans, have found that strong ethnic identity protects mental health in the face of discrimination.
Basically, remembering where you come from and not being ashamed of it, will take you a long way while dealing with discrimination.
Another way of dealing with racial discrimination while studying abroad, especially if it is from your fellow students, is to contact your school about it. “I spoke to our course director during our tutorials. And things have been better since he took the required steps,” says Rashi. “Students approaching education abroad should firstly check all the issues that they have in mind before taking admission, and if possible, speak to the people studying there to get a clearer idea. If any problem occurs, always keep your views strong and talk to your class representative about the matter. Be calm and patient, don’t lose hope,” she adds.
Your education is a very important factor for your career, but it is the experiences that you have when you’re away from your comfort zone that make you the person you’re supposed to be.
“Students approaching education abroad should firstly check all the issues that they have in mind before taking admission, and if possible, speak to the people studying there to get a clearer idea.” – Rashi Arora
Volume 5 Issue 11