Black and Abroad: Unpacking Race vs. Ethnicity

// Sojourner White (she/her/hers), 2020 Seeds of Power Fellow

“Sí, pero de dónde eres de verdad — qué parte de Africa?”

“Yeah, but where are you really from — what part of Africa?”

On a sunny day, in the beautiful city of Granada, a random Spaniard asked me this question I did not understand. As a 20-year old study abroad student, it was my first time outside the U.S. and learning Spanish outside a classroom. Overjoyed to be in Spain, I wanted to make it a semester I would never forget and maximize my time during the five-month adventure. My plans included going to class, making new friends, volunteering, siesta time with my host mom as we watched her favorite telenovela, and traveling throughout Europe to see as much as possible. Simple, right?

Well, no.

In the midst of late nights eating tapas, drinking sangria, and admiring sunset views of the Alhambra, I was constantly reminded of my ancestry — and what I didn’t know about my history. Inquiries about my ethnicity arose whether in casual conversations at cafes and bars, or walking down the street. Pedestrians often stopped me to stare and marvel at my hair and skin. Every time someone asked where I was from, and I responded with Estados Unidos (United States), they looked confused. Some even argued, saying they didn’t believe me and that I needed to tell them what part of Africa I was from instead.

To say I felt confused is an understatement and it didn’t stop there. The more Europeans I interacted with, even as I frequently traveled post-study abroad, the more my confusion persisted. In Hungary, a souvenir store owner disputed my ethnicity and told me I had to be from Nigeria or Ghana because of the shape of my nose. When I later moved to Spain, a Scottish man argued with me — in my own apartment — about why it was ok for Europeans to use the “N” word. He claimed it’s “different” in Scotland and that they don’t “have the same issues as the U.S.” Stunned, I removed myself from the conversation.

The emotional labor kept piling up. Encounter after encounter, the eager 20-something student was long gone and a jaded explorer, who felt overwhelmed by the inquiries of the world, appeared. I felt sick of deciding on if I should invest in strangers I would never see again by explaining the history of slavery or colonialism in Spanish, or ignore them and be on my way. Drained, I often looked to venting with family and friends about the situation because back home we’re just Black — and that’s that.

Except, not quite.

Those encounters abroad wouldn’t be the last time someone questioned the language around race and ethnicity. While hanging out with friends post-Spain, a fellow Black American inquired, “okay, but why do we say African American when we have no connection to Africa?” My stomach swirled in confusion again as I pondered the language of calling ourselves “African Americans.” I always thought of it as a way to honor the history and sacrifice of our people. Was I wrong? Between being questioned on my travels and now at home, I began to wonder who created these terms and what was their intention?

In the U.S, we are not truly cognizant of, nor taught the difference between, race and ethnicity. On one hand, it’s because U.S racism doesn’t care where you’re from. Whether you are Nigerian, Jamaican, or African American, Black is Black and you will be treated as such. On the other hand, for African Americans such as myself, our ethnicity was erased and stolen from us by white people who enslaved our ancestors. Due to the brutality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the lack of documentation of our ancestors’ lineage, we became generalized with the term “African American” despite Africa being an entire continent.

Think about it. When using the term “African American,” what part are we referring to? East Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, or West Africa? Which countries in particular? Is my friend’s question right? Since we refer to ourselves as “Black,” should we be called “Black Americans” instead? Even though U.S. history books will have you believe African American history started during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, there is a wealth of history before that too. We only learn a very small part of history that was written by white historians who painted white colonizers as heroes of everyone’s stories.

So once the questions subside, the emotions arise.

I am angry at colonizers who took my people from their homeland.

I am anxious to know more about my history and where I come from.

I am annoyed at those questions as I travel because I have no answers.

Yet, most importantly, I am amazed at how Black people in the U.S created our own culture, customs, and traditions when racism, colonialism, and white supremacy have tried to tear us down every step of the way.

Since these encounters, I’ve been grappling with ways race and ethnicity are constructed in U.S. society. Prior to going to Spain, my global perspective was limited to what I saw in the media and learned in the classroom. I’ve identified as Black my entire life — there was never any question about it or where the label came from either. I was also under the assumption that the rest of the world understood the label as well. Apparently…I was very wrong.

The blurred lines of race and ethnicity add an extra layer to my life and to my travels. But let me be clear, I love my Blackness. I love being a Black American woman from the U.S. I love seeing the world through this lens and connecting with Black people across the diaspora and beyond. Being Black, African American, Black American, or whatever label I choose for myself is not the issue. Navigating the present-day racism, history of colonialism and remnants of slavery attached to it is the draining part. As the saying goes, I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. I know I am a part of a lineage of resilient survivors and I wear that with pride every single day.

I also realize the yearning I have for answers will never go away, and neither will the questions from curious Spaniards, travelers, or the many people I’ll meet in my lifetime. Race and ethnicity are complex topics as they were designed to uphold racism and white supremacy. This I know. But as people who are living within these systems, we have to check our understanding of them somehow, some way. And I think it’s about time we start asking more questions, don’t you?

Ready to unlearn your own assumptions about race and ethnicity? Tell us how you were socialized to understand race and ethnicity through your own life experiences.

Equal Space

Equal Space is a publication of Creative Reaction Lab.

Equal Space

Equal Space is a publication of Creative Reaction Lab. Creative Reaction Lab educates and deploys youth leadership to address racial inequities impacting Black and Latinx populations.

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At Creative Reaction Lab, we believe that Black and Latinx youth are integral to advancing racial equity and developing interventions for their communities.

Equal Space

Equal Space is a publication of Creative Reaction Lab. Creative Reaction Lab educates and deploys youth leadership to address racial inequities impacting Black and Latinx populations.