Five Black Voices on the Importance of Discussing Racism with International Students

In a series of interviews, five professionals in the field of international education discuss their experiences and the role international educators can play in addressing racism. 
Photo: Shutterstock

Since late May, as protests against racism and police brutality spread across the United States, conversations in the public and private spheres have spurred many international educators to confront their own biases and actions. International Educator spoke with five professionals in the field to discuss their experiences as Black international educators and why talking to international students about racism is important.

In these short interviews, a few themes emerged: 

  • How a person self-identifies is the biggest factor in how they experience and perceive racism and bias. 
  • A role of the international office is to create a space for international students to learn and find resources.
  • Conversations around these topics should be structured, while also allowing students to be in the driver’s seat.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to an audio version of this interview on the International Educator podcast below.

1. Kaloki Nabutola, PhD

Former international doctoral student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

For a lot of international students who are of African descent, they haven’t really experienced the kind of racism that happens here. I grew up in Kenya, where it’s not really a thing for me to believe the system could be slanted against me because of my race. Coming over here, that was brand-new to me, and it was hard for me to understand. 

headshot of Kaloki N
Kaloki Nabutola, PhD

In that respect, systemic racism is a piece that a lot of international students just don’t learn about until they first get to the United States. And with that comes things like police brutality and the whole narrative about Black people or people of color being killed at a disproportionate rate or being harassed. It’s generally harder for international students to grasp the fact that it is because of—or at least it’s perceived to be because of—race. 

I am Black. I struggled a lot when I first moved here; there was a lot of culture shock. I’ve had somebody call me the N word from across the street. And honestly, it meant nothing to me. But the White friend of mine who was standing next to me was extremely offended. So I don’t know that it helps to have international educators educate their students on these microaggressions or [even] blatant aggression. Because for me, I almost don’t know [if] it’s better that I knew that this person was really trying to insult me. For me, it was nothing. But my friend was really, really insulted. To some extent, ignorance is bliss. 

Part of the problem is that social media gives people a platform to say whatever they want without any consequences. There could be a lot of misinformation out there or somebody just sharing their opinion and making it seem like it’s a true fact. Maybe some international students somewhere will pick up on that and think that this is really how things are. There’s a lack of credible sources, and there are a lot of people who are really trying to find a credible source and trying to find a good way to catch up with everything that’s going on. But there are so many different opinions. There are so many different sources. They’re all saying different things.

I think the role of international student services is, first of all, to spread awareness about what is actually going on in the United States about these topics. When it comes to Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, instead of just saying their names, tell more about the background, some more about the story. [The international office] should be able to educate international students on the cause of the civil unrest, and not necessarily in such a way that they tell international students how they should feel about it—but giving them the appropriate sources to find this information for themselves and be able to form their own opinions. 

"[The international office] should be able to educate international students on the cause of the civil unrest, and not necessarily in such a way that they tell international students how they should feel about it."

There are definitely instances where I’ve had certain interactions with law enforcement just because of my race. I feel like I’ve been pulled over because I’ve been driving next to a cop [and I was] doing absolutely nothing. Then the cop looks over and then a few seconds later I’m being pulled over. I don’t want to say it's international student services [advisers’] responsibility to let students know that they’re going to be racially profiled, but I think it’s important for them to spread awareness that it does happen to some people. 

[International offices should] be receptive to the fact that international students may actually not want to know more about what they’re seeing because it’s uncomfortable. They’ve just moved here from wherever they are [from], and now they’ve got to deal with everything else that comes with being an international student. 

2. Andrew Gordon

Founder and CEO of Diversity Abroad

When we think of education abroad and talk to American students, we tell them we want them to learn about the history of the place, and we try to find the resources that prepare them for the situation on the ground. It’s the same thing with international students coming in. We talk about visas, insurance, and health and safety, [but] what often doesn’t happen are these conversations about race and equity and inclusion within the United States. 

headshot of Andrew Gordon
Andrew Gordon

Racism exists everywhere, but racism in the United States is a unique part of the founding of this country. And there’s never been a reconciliation. The media and entertainment industry too often put out images [and] narratives about Black and indigenous people and people of color in the United States that further marginalize such groups, and for many international students, that’s their first connection with U.S. society and culture. So they could be coming in with their own views on certain groups of people. 

One of the first things you want to ask is, “Are we as international education professionals prepared?” We as professionals have to learn how diversity, equity, and inclusion impact us as individuals, our role, and the students we serve before we can prepare international students. 

Only then can you ask, “How are we preparing international students to learn about U.S. diversity and inclusion?” Information is ubiquitous; knowledge isn’t. One of the tools that we’ve just begun to use is called Abroad 360. It helps students learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion through a global lens. A U.S. student going out might go through a learning module on navigating microaggressions abroad. For international students coming in, it helps them learn about diverse populations in the United States, [and explore] their own identities and how to navigate that. 

"There’s a pre-COVID-19, pre-George Floyd way of approaching diversity, equity, and inclusion that in many ways was much more performative. It seems that we are moving beyond that to accountability."

It’s a very, very challenging conversation, but an important one...for some students to realize that now they’re in this context where there are people that will judge them only by the color of their skin. And so you’re thrown in with Andrew Gordon, who grew up in California as a Black man, and you grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. What does that mean? What does that mean for how you’re interacting around campus? What does that mean from a policing standpoint? This is the conversation that a lot of Black parents have with their children, particularly young Black males. When we talk about the security of international students coming to the United States, is that [the] kind of conversation that we’re having? 

This moment, this heightened awareness of racial injustice, is part of the reason why Diversity Abroad exists. There’s a pre-COVID-19, pre-George Floyd way of approaching diversity, equity, and inclusion that in many ways was much more performative. It seems that we are moving beyond that to accountability. So what are we actually doing to advance equity and inclusion in our work? How are we being held accountable to that? 

3. Tonija Hope Navas, PhD

Director of the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center at Howard University

[The discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion] at Howard, and probably many other HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities], looks different than it would at a predominantly White institution [PWI]. Because, specifically at Howard, social justice is ingrained in everything. For us, it’s not something that we need to address in a moment that something is happening because we address it every day. By mere virtue of attending Howard University, you’re going to get that in your freshman seminar, immediately. I think it looks different at most PWIs because they don’t do it that way. 

headshot of Tonija Hope Navas
Tonija Hope Navas, PhD

I think we’re right now seeing a reckoning of everything. Every industry, every field is taking a moment to step back and look in the mirror. And what they’re finding more often than not is that they have dropped the ball. So, now what they’re doing is trying to figure out a way to pick the ball back up again and run in the right direction. In the last 2 to 3 weeks, I’ve fielded several calls from companies [and] organizations that want to partner with Howard to figure out how to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their own space. And we’re definitely open to that. We’re here to do that work as well. 

What is happening now, I have called this the “great awakening.” But it’s a great awakening for White people. It’s not a great awakening for us, because we’ve been saying this forever. It’s something about this moment, this confluence of a global health pandemic and all of the ways that it has laid bare the disparities of people from different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And the murder of George Floyd on top of that. It was literally a perfect storm because we all were forced into our homes, and it forced everybody to just stop what they were doing and retreat. Everybody had nothing but time to think about it. As we begin to emerge, what I think is happening is this great awakening. Everybody’s slowly coming back into the world, realizing that things are not as they should be, and reflecting on how we can try to begin to correct that problem. 

"This needs to be a collaborative effort that involves the student voice, so that students can talk to each other about the movement and what is going on. Students and young people are leading this. Their voices should be centered." 

[Support for international students at this moment] needs to be born from the student body and not necessarily from student affairs or the international office. This needs to be a collaborative effort that involves the student voice, so that students can talk to each other about the movement and what is going on. Students and young people are leading this. Their voices should be centered. 

There is an unspoken tension that exists between African Americans and other Black people from the diaspora. And I think that is going to need to be addressed, but not necessarily in regard to Black Lives Matter. Whether you are Black and born in Brazil, you’re Black and born in Colombia, or you’re Black and born in Kenya, if you’re in the United States and you are Black, you are going to have the experience of a Black person who was born in the United States. At least until you open your mouth, and then it might be a little bit different. But if all we’re working with is the visual, you’re going to get treated the same way. I think [students] generally realize that it is their reality. 

For international students of African descent, I don’t think explaining [that] to them is going to be the heavy lift. The lift might be to explain it to students from Russia, or students from China, or [students from] places that don’t have large populations of African descent. But I think once you come to the United States from pretty much anywhere else in the world, you are immediately othered. Obviously, if you’re White with an accent, you’re going to have a different experience than if you’re Black with an accent. I think this is a great opportunity to have many conversations that address all of the nuances that are happening. It’s an opportunity to confront a lot of things that we never really do talk about.

4. Michael Reid

Independent consultant and former director of global outreach, engagement, and international recruitment at Eastern Washington University

One of the most important things to do [when talking to international students about race in the United States] is, as we would call it in teaching, scaffolding. Create that conceptual framework so that international students can understand what they’re seeing, the issues that are being dealt with, and why people are approaching them the way they are. Because regardless of whatever that student’s positionality might be, if they don’t have a fairly deep understanding of American history and American culture, a lot of what they’re seeing, they’re not going to have the full context to understand it. Giving international students opportunities to educate themselves around the history of these issues, why this is kind of a flashpoint, and why people are reacting the way they are—that’s the first step. 

headshot of Michael Reid
Michael Reid

I’ve seen some international students say things like, “Why can’t we all get along? It upsets me so much that there’s this kind of racial animosity in the States.” I don’t blame them for that. They don’t have the context for that, so they certainly can’t be faulted. It’s therefore really important to help give them that context. 

I think what international offices should do is, if there is somebody who is African American working there, reach out to that person. But you need to be careful, because what I’m seeing a lot of people doing is basically going to their one Black employee, and [that person] winds up having to do a lot of heavy lifting. All of a sudden, they’re supposed to be DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] educators. But there’s a way to do it where you can approach that employee and say, “You probably have an understanding of this that I don’t. And so I want to talk to you about it first and give you the opportunity to be the voice of this, because I think it’s the most appropriate.” If there is no African American person in the international office, which is very, very likely, hopefully there’s a diversity and inclusion office [at the institution].

What’s really important, and I see this lacking a lot in international offices, is being able to approach [the issue] with humility. There are so many international offices predominately staffed by White people, especially in leadership, who...don’t have this lived experience but have done these ally trainings. But for example, I am a cisgender straight man. I am not LGBTQ, so I don’t have that lived experience. Can I say I’m an ally? Sure. But if you need to talk to somebody from inside the experience, don’t come to me because that’s not my positionality, and I don’t have the right to speak to it. In that case, it’s my job to be humble and say that this isn’t something I know about as well as some other people do. 

"Giving international students opportunities to educate themselves around the history of these issues, why this is kind of a flashpoint, and why people are reacting the way they are—that’s the first step." 

The other thing is that there are Black African students who don’t identify the same way as African American students do. Sometimes they don’t want to—they’re actively antagonistic to the idea of identifying the way African American students do. And conversely, there are students who wouldn’t necessarily code as Black in the American context, who identify more with that. 

Black, African American—those are things that have a particular meaning in the United States. You have to understand that meaning, and this is where that scaffolding comes in, and again, understanding the weight that those labels carry. I was just thinking of the show Ramy on Hulu [which features an Egyptian American protagonist]. The last episode of the first season where he’s in Egypt, he’s at a party with his cousin who keeps saying the N word. Ramy is like, “You can’t say that, it’s incredibly offensive to Black people.” And his cousin is like, “We’re Black.” So here are two people, both Egyptian, and one [is] coming from the perspective of being born and raised in America, realizing he can’t claim Blackness in that way. The other, being born and raised in Egypt, exposed to the pamphlet of what America appears to be—not what it actually is—feeling like he can claim Blackness but not realizing all the baggage that comes with that.

There’s a lot of education to do about that. It’s not simple. It can’t be done quickly. And if you’re going to do it, you have to really lean into it and get ready to take the time to do it.

5. Jewell Green Winn, EdD

Executive director for international programs and deputy chief diversity officer at Tennessee State University

You can have as much diversity on campus as possible, but if you are not providing an inclusive campus environment, those [international] students are not going to want to be there. And they are going to feel the difference. The beauty of it all is that when we do come together and find ways to bridge those cultural divides, it can be a beautiful learning environment for those students. 

headshot of Jewell Winn
Jewell Green Winn, EdD

[At a recent event] Muslim students [had] the opportunity to have the platform to talk—just among women, so they can tell us some of the struggles that they have to deal with just for being Muslim females. Or when we look at some of the students who are strong in their beliefs and are struggling with their sexuality, they come to the United States [thinking] “This is the land of the free, I can do anything here!” It’s finding ways to get past our own bias, whatever that bias is. It’s allowing our students to express themselves and really figure out who they are. Those things are where DEI comes in. They need safe zones on their campus. 

What is our role as senior international officers, or leaders on campus, or faculty members on campus? What is our role in respecting these individuals for who they are?...There’s so much lack of education and awareness on our campuses nationwide, [and] the diversity office can help with that. Whether it’s a faculty member, a staff member, a custodian, whoever it is. All of this is important for our campuses to continue to make all students feel included. 

"You can have as much diversity on campus as possible, but if you are not providing an inclusive campus environment, those [international] students are not going to want to be there. And they are going to feel the difference."

Our international students were scared when George Floyd got killed. They were emailing and calling, “What is happening in the world? What is happening in the United States? Do we try to go back home?” They saw all these protests and everything. They didn’t understand. And I said, “You know what, we’re going to have a coffee and conversation,” because that’s one of the things we do once a month. “We’re going to have a coffee and conversation, and the theme is going to be racism in America and George Floyd.” We have to be open to having those difficult conversations that people just don’t want to have.  •

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International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

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