Nearly 80% of UW-Madison students who study abroad identify as White (2019-2020 Annual Report, p.5). White students constitute a majority of the UW-Madison student population, and a slightly larger majority of study abroad participants. While in a predominantly White community, you may not be forced to consider or contend with your racial identity on a regular basis.
Experiences abroad may lead White students to learn about or confront their racial identity in a way they never have before. Study abroad may be the first time you experience being part of a racial minority. Even when you find yourself in the majority, your encounters with people abroad may inform or challenge your understanding of systemic racism, social injustice, and White privilege.
It is important to recognize that being White does not mean you lack a racial identity. ‘White’ might be simply defined as having pale or lightly pigmented skin, and European, Middle Eastern or North African ancestry, (“White”, Oxford Dictionary; “White”, 2020 US Census). But ‘White’ carries as much meaning and significance in a culture as any racial identity.
Know Who You Are, and Where You Come From
- America has a history and existence shaped by systemic racism. Understanding what being White has meant for you and your life in the U.S. can be incredibly helpful. Learning about White privilege in America should not be a source of guilt, but allow you to meaningfully engage in conversations and help bridge divides between people.
- In America, mixed-race individuals are often not considered White. The “one-drop rule,” meaning that a person with one drop of Black blood makes them Black, is unique to America. For students who can ‘pass for White,’ people abroad may identify you as White.
- American media is everywhere. American movies, TV shows and music often inform what people think about Americans, and can perpetuate stereotypes. Think about how White Americans are portrayed in media, particularly your age-group and gender. People abroad may assume young White Americans are wealthy, ignorant, and arrogant.
- UW-Madison is a predominantly White institution. If you are participating on a program that has other UW students present, the odds are that most of them will be White. Consider how this might influence your individual and shared experiences, as well as your group dynamic.
Get to Know Your Host Community
- Your host community will be shaped by its own unique racial make-up and history. Learn as much as you can about these, and the role White people have had. Where White colonialism has played a role, seek to understand its impacts.
- If you are stared at, approached, or harassed for being White, think through how you might react in a way that is comfortable to you and that keeps you safe. Your non-White peers may have first-hand knowledge about being targeted as a minority, but recognize that your experiences are not the same. Be respectful of their comfort level in discussing these issues with you.
- If your peers are stared at, approached, or harassed because they are not White, how might you serve as an ally? Think about how you can offer your support, while respecting their agency in the situation.
Insights from your fellow Badgers about being White in…
Because of the historical injustices and oppression of the Kenyan people at the hands of the British by people who look like me, there was initial apprehension by local communities to me and my other White peers. However, through conversation and the Kenyan people’s kindness, these barriers were overcome. – Kenya participant
Being a White American is an impactful status here and it can be overwhelming. It is a very socially, economically, and racially segregated country, and my Whiteness contributed to that simply with my presence at the school. Educate yourself, squash your own ignorance as well as squash ignorance that other people may have about you. – South Africa participant
It was a new experience for me to be looked at because of the color of my skin. However, let me be clear, I did not experience racism in any way – that is very different. You’ll be looked at because you are different, but this does not mean that you then know what it’s like to be a minority in America. – Uganda participant
I was shocked that just because I am White, people wanted to take pictures with me and were constantly staring at our group. Our professor explained that many people around were tourists from very rural areas of China, who had likely never seen a White person. It can be a little tiring to always have people looking at you, but keep in mind that you are very different from them and that they might not have ever experienced the diversity you have. – China participant
I think it was very healthy for me to be a minority for once and I was humbled in all the right ways possible. It made me reflect a lot, because I am from a small town in Wisconsin that is predominately White. In talking with locals and students, it really didn’t affect my experience in any crazy way, but personally it made me just view the world in a better light and relaxed me, oddly enough. – South Korea participant
I was one of the only White people. Everyone looks at you and wants to take pictures with you. They also treated me like a celebrity which made me a little uncomfortable. Advice to others: Remember how you felt while you were abroad when you encounter diverse individuals in the U.S. – Thailand participant
I found that I was much taller than people in Bangkok and being White, I stood out. It was the first time I had experienced looking different than most people in a population and I found this experience very humbling. – Thailand participant
I am Arab-American, and so being able to mingle with many other Arabs was a great experience for me, as the U.K. has lots of Arabs due to its proximity to the Middle East. – England participant
As an Iranian, I don’t necessarily look very Spanish or “American,” and many Spaniards at first thought I was Moroccan. As my accent improved and I began to dress more “European” this went away. Now people usually guess I am French. But it was a challenge that I think dissuaded the Spanish students from approaching me at first. – Spain participant
It humbled me and helped me view life from another perspective as I was the minority. Respect the culture and don’t be afraid to fully embrace it. The locals are very kind and welcoming. – Costa Rica participant
Being White in a country that was plagued by colonialism and slavery for hundreds of years lead to some discomfort for me because I felt like I was being viewed as exploiting them for their culture. I cannot stress enough how important it is to remember you are a guest and history plays a big role. Having a White identity in a space that was historically exploited by White people means you need to be aware of your privilege and that people might have ill feelings. It might also mean the opposite in that you get more attention. Always be kind and try to understand the nuances of culture that might be different and uncomfortable. – Trinidad & Tobago participant
This site offers tips and insights related to multicultural issues while studying abroad.
Resources for White Allies
By UW-Madison, for White UW–Madison community members.
Social Justice Education Programs
By UW-Madison, for everyone.
We ask students to share their experiences on how various parts of their identity impacted them while they were abroad in their program evaluations. The quotes above are tips and advice given by Badgers about their individual experiences and thoughts. These do not represent all experiences in a location. Our staff is happy to talk with you about any questions you may have.