Are black expats freer abroad than in the USA?

During the International Film Festival in Panama last month, the acclaimed documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” was shown. I went to see it with a few friends, expats and Panamanians after we had all heard stirring reviews from movie critics and friends alike.  I acutely remember feeling the oppressive weight of all that the U.S. represented as I watched it. Baldwin summed up this feeling at one point by saying, “In America, I was free only in battle, never free to rest, and he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.”

Thus, I wasn't surprised when James Baldwin then went on a self-imposed exile to Paris, France in the 1970s. After the movie, I told a friend that my steps were lighter in Panama, I did not have to engage in the constant battle that Baldwin describes in poignant detail throughout the documentary. However, I didn’t want to assume that others shared my feelings, so I reached out to friends and acquaintances, all black people who have become expats, or exiles, l and asked them a simple question: Do you feel freer outside of the US? 

Here is a snapshot of the responses I received:

Female, 42, Honduras

I definitely feel less of the weight that being a black woman in the U.S. can place on you. I find it difficult to pinpoint why exactly...I do feel safer outside of the U.S., and that's saying something given that I live in the former murder capital of the world, Honduras. When I used to live in the States, I tried to limit my interaction with the police. It was just too risky and far too easy for things to end up with my dead- or at least that was perception. The deaths of Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and so many others cemented for me that, simply by being a black person in America, I was a threat.

 I am not naïve enough to believe that I am immune to police misconduct here in Honduras but, unless I am involved in narco-trafficking, there is no reason to suspect that the cops will shoot me. On the other hand, being black in this country does carry stigmas. Here people make assumptions about my level of education, income, and other socioeconomic factors because so few blacks have been able to rise to success in Honduras. However, @@I do not miss the systemic racism I regularly fought in the U.S.@@ I have traveled to Europe, Asia, and Africa and I always feel safer than I ever did in the United States.

Male, 40 years old, Brazil

Yes, I do feel different living abroad than in the US. As a black American, Brazil isn't the easiest place to live. Race, color, and especially class issues all play a part in my daily interactions. For example, I had to walk somewhere today with my housekeeper. She is “preta” (afro-descendent). When a white person came towards us, to my surprise, she immediately stepped off the sidewalk!  I live in a wealthy neighborhood and, while it wasn't apparent to me when I moved here, I am the only black person here, other than housekeepers. I wouldn't say that I'm treated better but, at times, I am treated differently as an American. There is always an underlying level of respect that I get here as a lawyer that was missing in my interactions with people in the U.S. It's that fundamental level of respect that, as a black man, you feel like you must fight for in the States. Even in certain professional "bubbles” (DC, NYC, etc.), there are a lot of people who don't believe that you are who you are as a black professional with means.

I have experienced racism here, but nothing like what I’ve lived through in the US because of my socioeconomic status and nationality. For example, on election day, I hailed an Uber. When the car arrived, I sat in the front as is customary here. When I got in, I noticed a certain look on the face of the older white driver at the sight of me. He asked me brusquely if I’d bothered to vote that day. When I told him that I couldn't vote because I'm American, his attitude and demeanor completely changed and he became pleasant with the realization that I wasn’t a black Brazilian.

Male, 41, Haiti

I was born in Haiti.  I came from a middle-class Haitian family in Port-au-Prince. At the age of 13, I was sent to Washington D.C. to finish my studies. I moved there when Haiti was constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. As a result, my high school experience was challenging due to constant bullying, xenophobia, and ignorance. However, I eventually realized that it didn't matter where you were born. What mattered in America was the color of your skin. Being black in the U.S. meant that I was going to be followed in stores and harassed by the police.  

The first time I traveled outside of the U.S. was as a college student visiting an African American friend studying abroad in Chile in the 90s. From the moment I arrived to when I left, people seemed to treat us with fascination. As black males, we stopped traffic at times because people had never seen black people before. We were even invited on stage to sing along with a famous Chilean band because black people must know how to sing, right? A few times we were called mono (monkey in Spanish) and were told to go back to Africa. 

Whether it’s being called a monkey in Chile or having an egg thrown at me in Barcelona, I never really felt truly threatened by anyone abroad though. Any racist acts towards me were committed in the shadows or passing. There was never a confrontation that could escalate into something more. In contrast, racism at home in the U.S. is so direct, virulent, and always has the underlying possibility of becoming a life or death situation, making America a stressful environment to live in for me. So, to answer your question, @@I do feel freer abroad than I do in the U.S.@@

Female, 30, North Mariana Islands

I definitely do feel freer and safer outside of the U.S. I have lived abroad for six years. I have lived in China, Japan and the Northern Mariana Islands. I am not saying that I have never encountered racism in these places- I have- but not as frequently as I did while living in the States. I  dealt with so many microaggressions in the office in DC that I tried to avoid associations that would add fuel to the fire,  such as eating chicken or watermelon at work events.  While in Japan, I learned that the Japanese love fried chicken (who doesn't)! There was fried chicken everywhere, even at the 7-11. I bought it and sat on the curb eating it with a friend- just free. No one batted an eye! It felt great! @@I have traveled to a lot of Asian countries and have felt both free and safe in action, spirit, and mind.@@ Now though, I feel a draw to return home to the States after being gone for so long. I want to try again and see what happens. I know I can leave again whenever and if ever I want to, and that comforts me.

Male, 45 years old, South Africa

For all South Africa's problems, I like living in a country where it's not illegal to be black. This country does have its version of the "Mexican problem" with regards to immigrants from Malawi and Zimbabwe. However, @@when I turn on my television, most people are black, meaning that the default positive role models are also black.@@ All the politicians that I either support or complain about are black. My doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, are also more than likely to be black,  an alien concept to most black people who have only lived in the West. I strategically chose to be in a black environment. It’s given me peace of mind and has had a significant impact on how I raised my youngest son. Raising a child with healthy self-esteem and positive associations with blackness trumps almost any supposed benefit of living in a white or non-black country. 

Female 34, Colombia

I definitely feel freer living in Colombia. Instead of that ever present "black people don't belong here" glare we receive in places in the U.S. (or just being outright ignored), in Colombia I feel welcomed. I've never felt uncomfortable here simply because I'm black. There are obvious race issues here. However, it's mostly a "live and let live" culture. You could break into song and dance or walk around with a crown and cape on and no one would blink an eye. 

I went to a new hipster coffee shop in Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina to meet a friend while I was visiting the U.S. this past December. I walked around the whole place, and not one employee greeted me, the only person of color there. Even when we placed our orders, the cashier barely bothered to speak or make eye contact. Back in Colombia, however, a group of friends and I walked into a restaurant and were greeted with free shots from the owner moments later. Last night in the Poblado neighborhood of Medellín, I went out with some friends to a lounge, and the staff treated us like royalty. The night also ended with me walking around with a plastic tiara on my head. Free AF.

Male, age 42, Philippines

I feel like I get more respect living in Asian countries than the U.S. I think it's because so few of us travel and live outside of the U.S. that it elevates the few black people in Asia to almost celebrity status. The usual images of blacks abroad are of actors, rappers, or basketball players. I'm 6 feet tall so I tower over most Asians and I'm usually asked if I play basketball- I don't. Regardless, I feel welcomed by the host countries a lot more than the US. Once when I was stationed in Japan with the Air, I had to go back to the States for a temporary duty assignment for about a week. You often hear the term “culture shock” from people that travel outside of their home country, but I experienced culture shock when I returned to the U.S.! Our nation, to put it kindly, is very rude. My shock at being subject to certain behaviors, poor customer services, and racism in the U.S. feels more pronounced after living abroad. I couldn't wait to leave. 

38, Female, United Arab Emirates

I have been living in Dubai for almost four years. It has been a good experience for me. My life is so much more comfortable here. There are times that I dread the idea if having to return to the U.S. to live there. The U.S. doesn't feel like home to me anymore; the environment seems toxic. Oddly enough, I feel safer here in the Middle East than I do in my hometown. @@Being American almost entirely overrides race, an uncomfortable reality.@@ Thus, I'm less likely to be a victim of crime partly for that reason. I can leave my door unlocked without fear. I left the convertible top down on my car with the spare key in plain sight. I lost my wallet in a taxi at the airport. They found my work ID, emailed me and held onto it for eight weeks. None of this would have happened in the U.S. But, being away from the U.S. also causes me to have some mixed feelings: relief that I am at least semi-removed from many of the aggressions that others are experiencing but, also guilty for leaving others behind to deal with it.

black in saudi arabia

Female, 36, Saudi Arabia

I lived in China and now I live in Saudi Arabia.  I've felt safer in both places than living in Chicago or Philadelphia. I don't worry about my personal safety in the same way, even when I go out at night. I certainly don't worry about getting shot. Right now my biggest concern is returning to the States for the summer and getting treated like a terrorist because I have so many stamps in my passport. my mind isn't at ease even though I live abroad because my family is still in the U.S. I feel as if the situation is deteriorating, but they won't leave until it's too late. 

Female, 28, Uruguay

For the past four years, I've been living abroad. At first, it started out as a way to "get away from it all." The pressures of the U.S. can make you question your worth as a black person. The first time place I lived abroad was in the Dominican Republic in 2013. Initially, I felt a sense of ease because I saw more black and brown people daily than I had growing up in San Diego. After just a short period, however, I realized that there was still some resentment and stigmas towards darker skinned people there. Even as a fledgling natural hair movement challenged the status quo, with my natural hair and brown skin, I was mistakenly called “Haitian” on countless occasions as a slur. On one occasion, a group of my black friends and I were denied entry into a club due to our skin color. 

When I moved to Panama two years later, the colorism was less blatant than in the DR. In Panama, I maintained a community to negate any negative experiences.  This sense of community- being surrounded by other multilingual and cultured black people who share my worldview and experiences- is a big part of what has kept me living abroad. @@I feel a deep connection to the people and places that I’ve encountered@@, even as they struggle with the same adverse effects of colorism and colonialisms that we too have been trying to overcome in the U.S. It makes me feel as if I am not alone. 


All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”