The Forgotten Identifier: Being American Abroad

Abby Stephenson is a rising senior at Bryn Mawr College. She is studying Voice with a minor in Chemistry and a concentration in Vocal Performance. Abby currently directs Counterpoint A Capella teaching music, and performs in Bryn Mawr's Chamber Singers chorus both as a soloist and a chorus member. She hopes to continue teaching and performing after finishing her degree this upcoming year. 

I originally set out for Vienna, Austria with the purpose of studying Music Performance in one of the most well known music capitals of the world. While there, I was also privileged to not only stay in Vienna but also travel to six other nations throughout my time abroad: Budapest Hungary, Prague Czech Republic, Paris France, London England, and Stockholm Sweden. As I applied for the program, applied for the scholarship to go, and booked my trips, I was faced with multiple friends and family members who warned me that some European nations had racist people. They warned me that Austria and some of the other countries did not have a lot black people and had a mass of people who were not comfortable being around those with darker skin tones. Being in the countries both affirmed and disproved these statements.

Throughout my time abroad, I was faced with both good and bad racial experiences. I was treated as an equal human but also disregarded as something that was non-existent. I was placed in boxes from prostitution to black American stereotypes of twerking culture. I was both stared at and hyper-sexualized for my unique skin tone and look, and also celebrated and accepted as any other human being.

But even in these circumstances, I found myself falling back on my identity as an American. Being black and abroad is one thing to think about, but being American abroad comes with powers and internal struggles you never realize until you step outside of the U.S.--power that you forget exists. Being American abroad adds a level of privilege that is immeasurable. This power is a combination of self-assurance in your level of education, but also self-awareness about your privilege abroad. People abroad can sometimes become more accepting toward you because you are American. It insinuates that you have a level of exposure and power that could fill you with confidence, or overwhelm you with guilt because others don’t have this privilege.

The key is to not let this American identity make you too confident or too self-conscious. Do not get caught up in the guilt that could drive you away from embracing a culture, or the confidence that could be mistaken as elitism. Embrace the identity channeling that privilege into a motivation to make a difference. Use that drive to further your education so you can educate others. Become a new representative of your own identity as an American. I found myself representing my Caribbean-Afro-American culture everywhere I went as a way to educate others that America is a mix of cultures and not just blackness that is made up of perceived stereotypes from television and pop culture. 

In fact, you should go abroad because you are American. Go abroad to take advantage of the privilege you have to experience the world from your own perspective and to find ways to create that privilege for others. But most importantly, go abroad because your identity and story is unique and something to share. Go abroad to learn about a different culture and to properly educate others about your own culture. Your story as a Black American traveling is more valuable than you could ever imagine.