An Open Letter to the International School Community: Our Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement and Anti-Racism Work

Rachel Engel
8 min readJun 4, 2020

International school communities in the Global South are connected through the curiously unique experience of attending or working at an international school. Many of us find it difficult to explain our very nuanced experiences as students or teachers in said communities, and often find friendship in other individuals who have had similar experiences, who may understand. For reference, an international school can be defined as an educational institution which adopts curricula differing from that of the host country’s, with an emphasis on global citizenship.

Those who have attended international schools in the Global South may fondly recall the diversity amongst our graduating classes, as well as the days we spent celebrating cultures other than our own, like Diwali or Chinese New Year. These institutions also provided us with the ability to travel to places far and wide, generally on service trips presented as a means to aid those less fortunate than ourselves. For most, thoughts of international schools conjure up images of racial harmony and tolerance, a utopian society where matters of race simply do not exist; an example of a post-racial society, if you will.

Now, as protestors in the United States march against systemic anti-Black racism and police brutality, some international school students — particularly those living outside of the United States — might wonder what this fight has to do with them. Even more dangerous, they might conclude, “This has nothing to do with me.” To that end, we must understand that our upbringing in an international school setting does not mean we are exempt from being racist, either overtly or covertly. Contrarily, our upbringing and success has been contingent on the maintenance of global White supremacy, demonstrated through our ability to assimilate in Western countries, privileging their cultures, languages, and educational systems before our own.

The birth of the international school can be traced back to the migration of European expatriates and diplomats to developing countries in the Global South. Understanding that their time — and in effect, their children’s time — in said context would only be temporary, diplomats and expatriates sought to create an educational system comparable to those in their home countries, which would eventually recognize and transfer their children’s educational credits when they moved back. And so, the international school was born.

Today, there are more than 11,000 international schools globally, and over 5.6 million students attend such institutions. However, they do not only cater to the children of Western diplomats and expatriates. Today, international schools also function as a pathway to Western higher education for local, wealthy families. As such, admission into Western higher education institutions is a symbol of success, and one many local students in the Global South aspire to.

Access to international schooling in the Global South, however, remains financially exclusive. Most annual international school tuition fees are comparable to annual tuition fees of universities in the United States, which are notoriously high and unaffordable. In comparison to the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in most countries in the Global South, international school tuition fees are simply not feasible for the vast majority of its citizens. Thus, international schooling in the Global South is primarily reserved for the upper class. In effect, the international school system both contributes to and exacerbates global inequality, as only a select few in the Global South are afforded what is considered to be a world-class education.

Sociologists William I. Robinson and Jerry Harris understand this phenomenon as the formation of the transnational capitalist class (TCC). Robinson and Harris contend the TCC transcends national borders. Under the transformative forces of globalization, this shift in ruling class is distinct: “global class formation has involved the accelerated division of the world into a global bourgeoisie and a global proletariat, and has brought changes in the relationship between dominant and subordinate classes” (Robinson and Harris 2000:17). As such, it is paramount that international school students and alumni acknowledge our privilege not only on a local or regional scale, but also on a global scale. We must contextualize our opportunities and achievements within a global context, as well as understand how we benefit from global systems of inequality.

For those with ties to the international school community in the Global South, we must face the reality of our curated existence in the global cities we resided in; we existed in a parallel universe to most, one completely unrepresentative of the lived experience of those less fortunate than us. We found ourselves able to enjoy the thrills of the global cities we resided in without having to acknowledge the staunch wealth inequalities, racism, and structural injustices which also characterized said cities. The gates delineating the school grounds acted as a protective barrier, leaving our campuses untouched from the issues and inequalities that plague our respective societies, which, in turn, allowed us to exist in our constructed racial paradise laden with economic privilege.

In the context of race, international schools in the Global South are often advertised as sites of racial diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. Thus, many in the community believe there is little to no work to be done in reckoning with the racism that exists on international school campuses. This, of course, is false. Worse, it engenders a culture of bystanders to racism, allowing overt and covert racism to exist and remain unchecked. As such, instead of educating a cohort of youth who are more likely to stand up against acts of racism and commit to being anti-racist, international schooling in the Global South creates a culture of complacency, of youth who believe “this doesn’t pertain to me,” who may fail to identify racist acts as such because it was never explicitly discussed in their educational institutions.

International schools, then, become susceptible to colorblind racism, where folks claim to “not see color.” This gives way to racist behavior from those who are either consciously or unconsciously committing acts of racism. This often leads many students of color in such settings to suffer at the hand of racism by their peers, but to stay silent on such issues, as they may lack the language to identify and articulate their experiences.

Other students of color, who may not have personally suffered from racism during their years at their respective international schools, may have experienced their first racist encounters at the Western higher education institutions they attended. They may have been asked, “Why do you speak English so well?” or had racist slurs and epithets directed towards them by their peers. Sometimes, they may have been unaware of the racism directed towards them behind their backs. Regardless of how or when, many students of color have experienced racism firsthand. We should thus be aware that we do not live in a post-racial society, and that the shelter of our international school campuses can only do so much for us. Conversely, this shelter has failed us, as we were unequipped to handle acts of racism head-on, whether directed towards us personally, towards our friends, or towards a stranger, oftentimes while we watched as bystanders.

On the other hand, White students in international schools in the Global South have benefited from the celebration and prioritization of their Whiteness. Many thrived in this very niche space as they were able to draw attention to themselves for traveling to “exotic” islands and countries, the ability to hold basic conversations in their host country’s language, or even for having friends of color. Many saw themselves as non-racist for these very reasons, amongst others. The fact of the matter is that the educational institutions they attended were built for them. They were able to enjoy select parts of their host country’s culture while still existing in predominantly culturally White spaces. To ignore the social, cultural, and economic privilege of Whiteness in the niche space that is the international school system in the Global South would be entirely negligent, and would fail to acknowledge the structural racism and inequality embedded in such institutions.

In the same vein, many White folks might define themselves as “global citizens” or “third culture kids.” However, blurring racial identities under the umbrella of vague terms, such as the aforementioned, fails to acknowledge the variegated lived experiences of international school students, especially in the context of race. It trivializes the privilege of Whiteness in the Global South. For White folks: students, administrators, and teachers, it is important to deeply interrogate what opportunities your Whiteness has afforded you and why. The same is true of half-White folks who are able to adapt and switch when they choose, who have also similarly benefited and continue to benefit. I contend it is essential to avoid using such terms in international spaces, and instead, acknowledge our varied positionalities and how they function to benefit some while harming others.

For the author, as a half-White individual and a product of international schooling in the Global South, I enter adulthood continuing to disentangle the false narratives I’ve been fed over my years of schooling. Instead, I am committed to acknowledging the international school system as an inherently racist and Eurocentric one. Further, I continue to actively reckon with my own racist beliefs and behaviors, and my own internalized racisms.

To those who may be reading this, we must do better. We must do the work and commit to being anti-racist, as opposed to just “not racist.” As you post your graphics on social media, attend your marches, and demand justice for the many innocent Black Americans murdered by a vicious and racist police force, remember your own role in these events. Many of us have comfortably said the n-word, either while singing along to a popular song or in casual conversation. Many of us have expressed racist sentiments against Black people. Many of us didn’t know why this was wrong. Some of us still don’t. The fact is, the systemic oppression and brutalization of Black people is not a problem specific to the United States; it is a global one, one in which we are all complicit. Black people continue to be discriminated against in Thailand, in South Africa, in Australia, in the United Kingdom, in Germany, in South Korea, in [insert your home country here].

The question we should ask ourselves when we watch the powerful protest of a community angry, hurt, and exhausted over the news of yet another Black life stolen by an inherently corrupt and racist system is not, “What does this have to do with me?” Instead, we must ask ourselves: How am I complicit? How can I grapple with my own racist behaviors and beliefs? How can I further educate myself on this global phenomenon? How can I do better?



Rachel Engel

Sociology PhD student studying the impacts of globalization, colorism, and race/ethnicity in Southeast Asia.