The Token Black Girl: Protecting and Celebrating Your Identity Abroad

By Raphaella Brice. Photography By Deun Ivory. 

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often though, they hurt.”- Anthony Bourdain

Traveling is exceptionally holistic. The food, cultures, traditions, languages, people, and the astounding landscapes encountered can be undeniably inseparable. The journey itself is a massive part of the experience; an experience that can and will easily defy description. I traveled to a total of 10 countries throughout the duration of my study abroad in Belgium and since my return home, I can barely find the words to elaborate my 10-month escapade.

For a while, it was daunting to search for a narrative, or even an explanation to effectively detail my voyages and memories to those who vicariously lived through my Instagram feed and personal blog. Sometimes I explain my experience in vain, not because I want to but because I don’t know where to begin.

In the midst of my college career I got the opportunity to enjoy life beyond measure and encounter genuine people along the way whom I now consider lifelong friends. Given the chance to set my life on pause to explore the world past the exterior borders of the Land of the Free was enlightening. But past my casual solo-adventures across Western Europe, the heart-warming locals I’ve connected with, the erotic food I’ve hastily gnawed at, and the breathtaking landscapes I’ve witnessed, my blackness felt misrepresented in travel space.

Often times, I found myself on display during social interaction; being the first black person that locals encountered or being a representation of the black community left me doubtful and at times, in a reoccurring conflicted position. Occasionally, it welcomed uncomfortable situations, even possible danger. Although Western Europe is marked by cultural diversity and foreign-born populations, it still lacks common social awareness and diversity in various parts of the region. I found myself frequently trying to explain my identity to locals (that were oblivious about Black people) than minding my business and living in the moment. It got to the point where I wanted to be left in peace. No explanations, just me.

While you can’t change the lack of representation of Black people or avoid unwarranted fetish/sexualizing comments from ill-mannered men, you can still travel with ease without inflicting your well-being. After all, awareness of self surpasses well beyond mainstream positive affirmations; it’s begins with both self-protection and celebration.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ― Audre Lorde

Below are my five affirmations that helped me endure my healthy 10-month isolation:

Be Clear of Your Intentions and Personal Head Space

To be black is to move throughout the world with resilience. I intended on studying abroad in Belgium to obviously attend school, but to grow personally. I intentionally removed myself from a toxic environment to breathe easy and to have personal head space. When I first arrived on European soil, I was taken aback when approached with scenarios where my blackness seemed doubtful. I often found myself as a token black body: apparently, I was the direct source for demands and inquires of the diverse, black census. How you define yourself as a black woman doesn’t concern anyone but yourself. We are more than the half-naked video girls or fighting each other on reality TV. The recurring scenarios motivated me to ask questions like, What does it mean to be a black woman? What defines your identity? Reminding yourself of your purpose is key.

Know Your Tolerance for Ignorance

Some people are merely curious, but others have ill-intentions that can lead you to feeling guilty for simply being who you are: black, female and proud. Limited exposure to black people are the root of this ongoing global issue and as time flew by during my study abroad, the best alternative I've found is to differentiate educating someone who is willing to learn from someone who’s aim is to ridicule. Calling attention to racist, homophobic, or sexualizing comments is the first step to educating the perpetrator, but choosing your battles will save you time and energy. You choose what you want to spend your time on. You do not have to respond to ignorance. 

Accept the Frustrations That You May Be Feeling

It’s human nature to feel annoyed at certain periodic scenarios; at times you want to throw in the white flag. Be willing to accept the challenges, the ignorance, and even the denigrating comments that may come your way. Accept that your travels will not always be astounding. To refuel my social meter, I used my weekends to explore new places. That way, I kept myself from suffocating in deja vu and allowed myself the space and time to mentally recharge. Some days are difficult mentally, but be willing to accept the memories that are not surprisingly satisfying.

Surround Yourself With People Who Understand How You Feel

Although you’re escaping from home, you will always meet people who will remind you of home. Even if you don’t meet a fellow sister from the States, you will most likely meet a sister from that country who can potentially relate to how you’re feeling. While abroad, I met a black woman from the States who was also studying at the same university but lived in-between Belgium and Netherlands. I often confided in her whenever I felt lost, frustrated, and unmotivated to continue to study abroad. As a result, it improved my experience abroad and we became extremely close due to our similar experiences. Although your journey is yours alone, you shouldn’t have to be alone.

Use Your Creative Outlets to Express How You Feel

Nothing feels better than expressing how you feel through art or anything you love to do. For me, I wrote about the experiences I’ve endured. It always helped to clearly understand how I genuinely feel about my current position. Reflect on your feelings or any uncomfortable experiences that initiated self-doubt and run with it. Check in with yourself and use your creative outlets to express inner sentiments that may be weighing you down. Resisting negativity is always the first step to obtaining a positive mindset.

What kept me from giving up was the spontaneous positive experiences that I’ve encountered. On a solo trip in Budapest, I met friendly foreigners from all walks of life that opened my eyes to how interconnected humans are. In Amsterdam, a local and I briefly chatted and he gave me a free weed lollipop after I told him I was from New York. After getting pick-pocketed in Barcelona, I encountered four lovely exchange students who helped me sort out my bizarre situation. The world has its good and bad, ups and downs. Travel is rewarding for anyone who embarks on a journey and guaranteed, the positive always out shadows the negative.

Allow your blackness to radiate and surpass stereotypes the media portrays us to be wherever you go. Remind yourself that, “When they go low, we go high.”

Raphaella Brice is currently a senior at Manhattanville College double majoring in International Studies/Communications and minoring in French. She’s a Contributor Intern for Undeniable Life and  and her work has also been featured on Shut Up & Go and Huffington Post. A very expressive person with an exuberant personality, she believes in advocating for silenced black voices, especially for black women. On her down-time she loves to journal, travel, dance, and read anything she could get her hands on. You can find Raphaella Brice @rvphchang on both Instagram and Twitter and on her blog, personalraph.com