As a white student studying at Queen Mary, University of London, one of the things I have noticed is that a huge portion of students on campus are, well, not white. Compared with my home university, Trinity College in Hartford, CT where 35.7% of students are non-white, more than 50% of QMUL’s students are non-white. One of the biggest shocks I felt when moving to London was the sheer diversity of the city. Of course, in the United States there is diversity as well, but London is such a multicultural city with so many different people, that it is impossible not to take note. I was struck for the first time in my life with a real sense of vulnerability… for once I felt like the odd one out.
This feeling that I was sticking out like a sore thumb rescinded after a few weeks, but its impact made me think about whether minorities in the United States experienced a similar feeling. Being white, I had never been able to fully understand what it must be like for the one black student in my class or the few on campus, or what it must be like to be hyper-aware of your identity in those moments. I decided to talk to my friend Austin, who is studying abroad at Queen Mary from Washington, to talk about his experiences as a student of color in the U.S. and in London.
“It doesn’t feel as hyper-racialized here.”
When Austin decided to study in London, his identity as a black man did not factor into his decision; instead, he looked at more practical elements, such as choosing a university which would cater to his unique double major in English and Economics. His main goal when he first moved to London was to become more independent, rather than focus on shaping his racial identity. But for him, the difference between studying in the United States and London is that “it doesn’t feel as hyper-racialized here.” He is less conscious of his skin color. For many students of color coming from the U.S., this is one plus to studying in a more diverse university such as Queen Mary. They feel less conspicuous. Austin describes his experience here as different because he does not have to think about his race all the time. He said, “I haven’t really had to think about it as much except for trying to find a place to get my hair cut.” I found it interesting that while Austin had become more at ease with his identity in this diverse environment, I had become more aware of mine. It was like switching mindsets from back in the U.S. Much of what Austin liked about London versus the United States was that in the city people did not notice his race; it was not his main feature. By no means was London a perfect city, but certainly, in the East End especially, he felt comfortable being himself.
What I drew most from my interview with Austin was that for him, Queen Mary was an environment in which he no longer had to think about his racial identity. It was not something constantly on his mind. While I had suddenly felt like I was sticking out on campus, he felt like he could blend in. I think both our experiences have been important ones. I understand now what it is like to be painfully aware of my skin color, even if I only experienced it for a week or two. And for Austin, as a student of color, his time studying abroad allows him to finally let go of that awareness and to focus and grow in other aspects of his identity.
Tessa Reading is an English major at Trinity College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Queen Mary, University of London in 2017-2018. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.