Moving Freely: Experiences Abroad as a Black Woman

by Janelle Grant, July 4, 2017

As a junior in college, I didn’t think much of my study abroad experience at the time. My thoughts were that it’d be fun for the moment, but fleeting in the long term. I relocated to Strasbourg, France for a little over 5 months and while I was there I went to school and held an internship as an English TA in an International Middle School. I didn’t know that this move would change the way I perceive myself and the ways I could function in the world as a Black woman. Thankfully, I have learned that most experiences do not touch you only to be washed away like a footprint next to a shoreline, but they stay.  

One major inspiration for experiential change is my friend, Tyler Berry, an African American man impeccably functioning abroad as a professional and scholar. Tyler was the first African American outside of my study abroad group that I met in Strasbourg, and his demeanor struck me as an individual who was poised and sure of his position in society.  At the time, I was still clumsy around French people, nervous to speak in French, and couldn’t quite see myself as someone who belonged in this particular space. On the other hand, I saw Tyler navigating multi-lingual conversations and confidently giving advice of where to find best products for Black hair. His confidence in this society was intriguing, and I thought I could achieve it.

I told Tyler that even though I might be culturally inept with some French language skills, surprisingly, I did not feel totally displaced in Strasbourg. Maybe it’s because I already came to France as an outsider, so I was expected to speak with a different cadence or behave in a unique way, but I never felt as if I was completely displaced from the whole of society. In other words, disadvantages and injustices based on a darker skin tone weren’t salient to me. Then, I began to feel free to move and explore my place in Strasbourg’s community, which was mainly through my internship as a TA and meeting French friends who graciously hosted. At this point, there wasn’t much hesitation as to what I could or could not do as a Black woman.

Tyler continued to inspire my temporary relocation to result in a permanent shift in how I viewed myself. He told me, “I live abroad as a manifestation of our humanity. We, descendants of enslaved Africans, have not had freedom of movement in how many centuries and generations? I think of myself as somewhat cool and cultured, but I can’t help but think of our ancestors. I often think of the ones who were actually artsy badasses or astounding engineers, but who couldn’t manifest it because they were occupied trying to survive crimes against humanity. So, living abroad for me is an active way of getting back a most basic of human liberties: freedom of movement.”

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Janelle at Pont des Arts in Paris, France.

While I was a foreigner, or outsider, it wasn’t the same type of “outsider feeling” that a Black individual can easily experience in the United States. I was completely submerged into a new culture and I could more freely decide how I would function within. However, this culture didn’t have the same historical systems of oppression that empower discourse and certain action in the United States. It’s true, at times I felt uneasy in France, but not because of my skin color. It was because I had no idea why foie gras was so delicious or how to faire la bise. Day by day, I was shedding pounds of United States culture and acclimating to a new culture. More often than not, I preferred the new. I felt lighter as I dropped certain U.S. norms of a Black woman, which allowed more space for choosing more comfortable lifestyles.

France felt like a bit of a rebirth. So, like Tyler told me, I chose to settle and try on this new country and new lifestyles. I was able to move away from my already-established-U.S.-version of myself and simply be myself. My U.S. self appeared very “cookie cutter” and riddled with societal norms. In particular, as a Black woman living in the United States, I’ve always heard The Strong Black Woman complex, which felt exhausting and hard to live up to. In France, I found myself moving away from that societal ideal. French culture taught me to take my time enjoying things in life and to take a few naps in between those enjoyable moments. It’s important to note that this feeling of being reborn when experiencing a new culture can be applied to individuals broadly, but it is important to understand how the history of racism pervades the United States today, which then, makes my personal “liberation” abroad all the more unique and magnificent. All of a sudden, there was no need to show the world how strong I could be.

Of course, I’m only a speck when compared to the amount of movement Black individuals faced and tolerated. Movement is a large part of Black culture in America. We were moved to this land. Then, later some of us migrated North in hopes that Northern America was more just. Unfortunately, some of us have had to move out of the United States because of injustice. But, sometimes when we move, we flourish. Today, we move for education, jobs, relationships, etc.

Movement does not have to relate only to the physical or geographical. We can experience a shift in cultures, which can also shift our state of mind. In the diaspora, we are susceptible to many stereotypes and prejudices. While I moved abroad, I didn’t realize that I would be leaving behind some of those stereotypes as a Black woman. I felt like I was moving away from an already-established version of myself. For those who are able, undertake an extended stay abroad. Once there, try to truly feel a physical movement and then an idealistic movement. Being immersed into a new culture far away from home allows us to start to peel off what we don’t like about who we are, who we are expected to become, or how people perceive us to be in our home culture.

The longer I stayed in France, it felt like I was getting lighter; stripped to being simply me and learning how to function in society all over again, this time, without historical baggage and my own will to bring a new life to fruition. While new societal norms and boundaries still applied to me abroad, I was able to dance around them either because of ignorance or I simply didn’t like it. Now, that’s privilege. People may have looked at me funny, but my weird notions were waved away with a simple, “Oh, she’s not from here.” I moved freely.

For those who cannot take a physical hiatus from the United States, movement doesn’t have to be only physical. While it’s harder to move past boundaries in America, we are able, perhaps, to push forth to a different state of mind. It’ll take feeling like a foreigner on American soil instead of in a new country. Truth be told, Black individuals can be treated like foreigners anyway in our own home territories. Allowing yourself to accept what society and history has placed upon you, but choosing how it will shape your lifestyle and actions. It can be as simple as finding a new organization or foundation that resonates with a personal ideal, becoming a scholar, mediating on artwork, eating food a different way, associating with new groups, and/or establishing new personal norms that make you feel at ease. Allow yourself to try out new lifestyles that have the potential to permanently change how you function in your own space. We don’t have to physically move to feel free.

Janelle Grant received her Bacherlor of Arts this June in Psychology and Religion from Kalamazoo College.




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