Disclaimer: I am only sharing my observations, feelings and experiences. I cannot and do not speak for everyone.
"Are there any boys?" one student said aloud.
"Are there any minorities?" I thought to myself.
As I stood in front of the place I would claim as my college for the next 4 months, a familiar and dreaded sensation hit me. I may be the only minority in this program. IES Abroad had it's own orientation and I was meeting other IES Abroad students, who I would share majority of my classes with, for the first time. As more girls began to show up I realized I was searching for familiar characteristics of minorities in America. I was searching for someone who could resonate with my struggle as the token black student and minority. I was searching myself into disappointment.
From what I can tell, in my IES Abroad program there is maybe one other minority and for the entirety of the US programs, maybe 6. There is about 54 in the Galapagos Program and about 7, including me, are minorities. I'm the only black student as well (unless someone is white passing and I don't know). In a Latin American country, where mixed people, Afro-Ecuadorians (or black Ecuadorians if you will) and indigenous people are all over, I'm still the token black person. I'm still the token minority. There's 15 courses to choose from, the odds of me being the only minority in a class is high.
While my IES Abroad peers openly voiced their concerns over the gender diversity, I quietly dealt with the turmoil of being the only black person in this program, even if I expected it. I make jokes about my skin color and not needing suncreen as much as the other students but it's honestly my way of coping with my distress over being the only black person. With being one of few minorities. I attend a PWI and while it's not a surprise that I'm the token minority in a lot of academic and social situations, it still doesn't make the reality easier to swallow. 3 weeks prior I was in a conservation research program and students of all races were apart of it. I was surrounded by people of color and whites. I ate with people of color, I brushed my teeth with people of color, I experienced Ann Arbor with people of color. For once since middle school, I wasn't the token minority or token black person. I knew someone understood what it meant to be a minority. I knew someone lived my culture.
I guess that program spoiled me. Here I am, plunged back into an uncomfortable situation that I face everyday at my home institution. After coming to terms that this was going to be life for the next 4 months, I did what I always do. I tried to make friends and enjoy my experience. However, I ran into a couple of speed bumps that surged the resentment inside me for being a token black person.
During the orientation, we were going over the demographics of Ecuador. When sharing the percentage of people who identify as Afro-Ecuadorians, someone commented, "Their great athletes. Just like black people in America." Initiate eye roll. This comment is perpetuating a stereotype that all black people are great athletes and it must be genetic. This is a microagression; I'm sure the commenter didn't mean any harm by saying but he in doing so he degraded a marginalized group.
I was going to brush this comment off but soon came along my next speed bump. My Spanish professor liked to play games during class. In a three hour long class, I was excited to break the monotony of lecture. The game was simple: one team writes the name of a celebrity and picks someone from the other team to guess who it is. The guesser's team can give them one hint each. You have one minute to guess correctly. Instead of going for the well-known and obvious celebrities, I decided to go with Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. He was the first person to successfully perform an open heart surgery and he’s black. Yet, when I presented this to my team members, everyone responded with "I don't know who that is" or "That's too hard". It really upset me that because they didn't know who it was, we weren't going to use them.
Then I began to question: why don't you know who this is? We're mostly science majors and he performed a vital surgery that has saved countless lives. Why don't you know him? Why do you only know famous black athletes like Michael Jordan or famous black artists like Michael Jackson or Beyoncé? Why can't we use my person because you don't know who he is?
These three things made me angry. I avidly participated in the game while controlling the frustration inside me. I'm tired of being the only minority and tired of people not knowing black history unless it's sports or music. It's not the programs fault and it's not the students fault. It's an unfair situation. There are many reasons why people of color don't study abroad. The main reason is finances but another is not feeling welcome. Not fitting in. Not wanting to stand out because their skin color is a dead ringer for, "Hey, I'm different." Not wanting to be the token minority that must navigate microaggressions or blatant acts of racism in a new culture and country.
I’m no expert as to why few people of color go abroad. I only know my hesitations to go abroad and why I didn’t let that stop me. I’m excited to spend my first semester of junior year living in Ecuador and immersing myself in another culture. I’m excited to experience ecosystems I only read about in books and natural areas I’d never view in Chicago. This weekend I traveled to Quito to see historical monuments and climb mountains. However, no matter how many miles I travel away from my home, I still find myself in a situation in which I’m the token minority. Honestly, it’s becoming harder to brush off.