Being Black Abroad: When Your Home Country Doesn’t Feel Like Home Anymore
While racism isn't anything new to me, I have sadly experienced it more times than I can count, and the events of the past few weeks have affected me at my core. After months of being on lockdown alone in my studio apartment, the George Floyd murder set the United States in action, catapulting it to the forefront of world news yet again. And yet, when I remotely logged into work on the Tuesday after the rallies and protests began, I felt shame and embarrassment for the reality of my home country.
You see, as an American abroad, I get teased about, “All of the things wrong with the U.S.,” this and, “Your crazy President,” that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of work that America has to do, now more than ever, but living abroad can feel a bit like constantly playing defense as so many people have an opinion on the U.S. I remember I was traveling in the UK, pre-COVID of course, and the London Transit worker selling me my train ticket detected my accent and immediately started questioning me about what I thought about Trump. “Must be happy with that choice, huh?” he chuckled. “I’m thrilled,” I deadpanned and took my ticket.
While everyone is entitled to their opinion, there’s a lot of emotional processing that I do as an American abroad. Most days, it’s a light load, but lately it has been unbearable. The blatant racism in America is indefensible and the questions I have been asked have been thoughtful but exhausting. Reliving past traumas has been taxing and the work that needs to be done is extensive.
When the protests broke out it left me feeling as if I didn't have a home country to go back to. I mean, why would I go back to a country that so clearly does not support me or my people—that has willfully imposed laws and systems to bring us down? Why would I want to support that economy? Perhaps, the saddest feeling is that my home country simply doesn’t want me. Of course, I have family and friends in the U.S. that make living there great, but when the system is largely against you, what does that actually mean for my future? Is America still my home?
But also, is Germany my home? It feels as if I’m in an emotional tug of war with where I belong in the world. As a Black American woman walking the streets of Munich, I get looks. (It's hard to know the exact percentage of Blacks living in Germany as they don't account for race in the national census, but it's fair to say that Black individuals are a true minority.) Most often it feels like people are trying to place me—figure out my story; figure out where I’m from. Or it could just be that they’re enamored with my beauty, right? That's what the optimistic side of my brain thinks (and uses as a shield).
This isn't my first time living abroad. I lived in London for close to two years, and one of the things that I loved was that I felt seen there. Not only as a Black woman, but as a woman. If anything, there was more emphasis on me being an American woman, more so than being a Black woman. This is largely the same in Germany. (Or at least, it was.) Imagine how freeing that is to not be identified immediately by your race when in your home country it’s the very first thing people notice?
All of these questions of identity and belonging have been percolating in my mind for weeks and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Somedays, I do. But, I’m working to find the balance and consistently tweak and refine what works for me and what feels good. Here are a few things that have helped me find balance and bring me inner peace, in hopes that they could help you find the same and bring clarity to big life questions and movements.
1. Therapy. I’ve been working with my New York-based therapist for over two years and we’ve maintained our relationship even while I’ve been abroad. She is amazing. We video conference twice a month so that I can check in with how I’m feeling. Having this close relationship with someone that knows me is, at this stage in my life, a non-negotiable. I encourage everyone to find a therapist that works for them whether it’s through text therapy, video sessions, or in-person meetings. The emotional unloading and rebuilding of oneself is priceless. (If on your journey to finding a good therapist you encounter someone that doesn’t vibe with you politely dump them. It’s okay to try out different therapists until you find the right one for you.)
2. Social media distancing. I’ve had to really limit the time that I spend on all social media platforms. The videos of police brutality, the graphic detail of racist acts, and the blatantly ignorant comments can be too much—and that's for anyone. Even comments on LinkedIn, the platform for professionals, had me baffled. (Remember that racists are racists everywhere—even on "professional" platforms.) Protect your space and your mind. Your body will tell you when it’s time to stop scrolling and if you want backup, put time-limits on apps that can be triggering.
3. Hold joyful moments close to your heart. The other day the weather was perfect, 76°F and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. I was on my bike coming back from the grocery store with fresh bread and flowers in my basket. In that moment I smiled to myself and saved the moment of pure joy in my mind. It’s easy to feel like these moments don’t exist right now but trust me, they do.
4. Know that you don’t have to have all of the answers right now. If you’re a white reader, it is okay if you feel overwhelmed—I promise. While it shouldn’t by any means stop progress and action, it’s okay to say that you don’t have all of the answers but that you’re working to understand. For me, I keep reminding myself that it’s okay that I don’t know where I will end up or if I’ll move back to the United States any time soon. When we feel like we have to have everything figured out we steal joy from the process of learning.
5. Fresh flowers once a week. For me, this is always and forever.
I don’t know where I’ll end up and that’s okay. But no matter where I live, wherever I’m choosing to call home for the time being, I will always work to fight racism in America and abroad. I will always be an advocate for equality, it’s the only way our world will ever have a chance.
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