What I Learned As a Black Woman in Europe

Nana Cann is a student at Mount Holyoke College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

“Where are you from?”  After nearly 22 years in the United States, I’ve come to attach this question with some mild form of anxiety.  No matter my answer, it never seems to be enough for the person interrogating me about my nationality.  If I respond with “New Jersey” they refuse and say, “No, where are you REALLY from.”  If I say “I’m Ghanaian,” they say, “Oh when did you move to the U.S.,” which of course, I then have to respond by saying, “No, I was born in New Hampshire and spent my formative years in New Jersey.”  In order to avoid confusion, I’ve settled on the response, “I grew up in New Jersey, but both my parents are from Ghana,” and that usually seems to do the trick.  My Ghanaian heritage is a large part of my identity and representing that is important to me.

Studying abroad has always been a dream of mine.  I longed to travel the world, expand my global perspective, and of course eat…everything.  After struggling to find an academic purpose in my sophomore year, I intended to spend my semester abroad finding myself and discovering my passions.  I poured over Instagram accounts, articles, videos, and travel blogs showcasing the beauty and merits of studying abroad.  I looked up every link and resource that I received through IFSA-Butler and my home institution, but I struggled to really find anything specifically targeted towards women of color.  As a Black woman I was apprehensive when it came to studying abroad.  I had heard horror stories of racist encounters from friends who spent time in Europe and was nervous to leave my support system of other Black women I had met at Mount Holyoke.  Nevertheless, I cast my fears aside and left for the UK with an open mind.

Studying abroad was one of the best decisions I made in my college career.  My worries regarding traveling abroad as a woman of color fell to the wayside as I entered Brighton, England.  For the first time in my life, I felt that my identity was not on display and not at the forefront of every conversation and experience I had.  I was able to learn so much about myself all while asking, “who am I if I’m not a Black woman?”  It was both liberating and terrifying.  I walked through department stores without feeling the glares of storeowners following my every move.  I felt safe to walk the streets of Brighton by myself at 2 in the morning.  For once, I felt free of the negative connotations that came with being a Black woman in the United States…and that scared me.

For the first time in my life, I felt that my identity was not on display and not at the forefront of every conversation and experience I had.

When people in England would ask me where I’m from, it didn’t seem sufficient to answer with “The States”.  For 21 years, I had grown up in a country where saying that I was from that country wasn’t enough.  I was raised in a country with systems in place to make people like me feel like second class citizens, where people like me were reminded daily that we were in someone else’s home, where people like me were told to “go back to where you came from”.  In England, I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place.  As an American-born citizen of Ghanaian immigrants, I felt too American to identify as simply Ghanaian, but had also spent my entire life being conditioned to believe that I was not “American enough.”  So who am I?

I felt that I had been stripped of my identity.  So what did I do?  I started from rock bottom.  My initial goal for studying abroad was to find myself.  At the time, I figured that meant taking a cool class and discovering a new found passion.  Fast-forward four months, and I was rebuilding my identity from scratch.  I discovered that I love cooking for friends and trying new foods.  I apparently hate blood sausage.  I love taking walks near the beach so that I’m close enough to hear the waves crash on the shore, but far enough to avoid the crowds of people.  I have a horrible sweet tooth and hate English Froot Loops because they’re not nearly as sweet or colorful as the American ones.  I love ale.  I hate beer.

Being in England completely changed the way I think about how I see myself.  It wasn’t until I left England and traveled further east in Europe that I began to think more about how others see me.  I quickly noticed that the further east you travel in Europe, the less representation you’ll see of Black women in the media.  I distinctly remember going to visit family in Switzerland and being told by my aunt, “don’t be surprised if people stare at us when we get out of the car, you’ll get used to it.”  She wasn’t wrong.  People really craned their necks to get a glimpse of this family of four Ghanaians out and about in the Swiss air.  Most people looked confused, myself included.  It occurred to me that maybe this was the first time some of these people had even seen a Black person, let alone four of them in the same space.

Spain was a little different.  There, the silent gawking turned to aggressive catcalling.  Men shouting from across the street, “negra bonita,” following me for blocks, asking me out for coffee, then when I rescinded, asking me out for tea.  It was a little bit funny, a little shocking, but wild.  Again, the representation of black women, or lack thereof played a large role in how I was treated.  In Switzerland, Black people are almost like mythical creatures, like a unicorn or leprechaun, where you only ever read about them or maybe saw one in a music video, but never in real life.  Spain was a different story.  Spanish people are familiar with Black women, they may even see them often, but often times, the only ones they ever see are sex workers. When the only experiences Spanish men have to reference when they see me, is a prostitute of a similar complexion they immediately come to hypersexualize and fetishize my body.  It was unfortunate to be the receiving end of their damaging predisposed notions, but telling of a larger cultural and social structure.

Upon reflecting on my experience, it’s interesting to think about what my body represented in various European countries so close to each other.  In England I felt that I was able to build what it mean to be a Black woman.  In Switzerland, I was able to show others what it meant to be a Black woman.  In Spain, I was subject to their culture’s beliefs of what a Black woman is.

Studying abroad and being stripped of my identity forced me out of my comfort zone.  I pushed myself to try new things just for the sake of trying them.  For the first time in my life, I was able to explore the different parts of what make me, me.  Being abroad taught me that my identity is more than what I mark on a box in the census, it’s more than how others see me.  My identity is less of a two-dimensional box, and more of a mansion, with different themed rooms each representing my various interests.  Although I may still be subject to negative stereotypes about my identity I was able to confirm that I am so much more than what others perceive based on their cultural perspectives.  So, who am I if I’m not a Black woman?  I’ll let you know when I find out.


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2 thoughts on “What I Learned As a Black Woman in Europe

  • February 20, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Your story is an insightful glimpse of your “Americanah coming of age” experience as beloved Black woman of Ghanian heritage. We define ourselves; albeit in a harsh world of negative stereotypes in the United States & Europe. Yet, “and still I rise” as the late Maya Angelou eloquently reminds us. Black girls soar like a phoenix from the ashes of racism. You are an Uncommon Woman like my daughter who graduated in 2013. Be strong and carry on!

  • March 3, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    Such a wonderful share about your self discovery! I love the examples of your experiences in different parts of Europe, especially travelling farther east. I’m so glad you didn’t allow your fears to keep you from studying abroad. It’s important that we explore the world and absorb all the riches it has to offer. Continue sharing your story!


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