Black expat life : a lesser heard side of the story

Do you know what it feels like as a Black person living abroad? What is Blaxit? Is the label ‘expat’ racist?

Needless to say, I don’t know. So I’m handing the platform here to a woman who does…

Sunnei, a.k.a. Katrina, hails from Detroit, Michigan in the USA. She has lived abroad in the UAE, and now calls the small Korean island of Jeju home. She is founder of Black Americans Living Abroad, (BALA) ten years ago. It is an organisation focused on the expatriate experiences of Black Americans, which today counts over 11,000 members.

Here she shares a slice of her life abroad as a person of colour, and sets the record straight on expat life as a Black American.

Black American expat woman interview

Blaxit isn’t a new phenomenon 

Blaxit is the mass exodus of Black people from the US because of the racial injustices that we have endured for centuries. For many, the murder of George Floyd was a tipping point. The violence and systemic racism that we experience in America is unparalleled (barring some of the other white majority states that were involved in the triangular trade).

In our 400 years, the violence has not disappeared or even dissipated, but it has simply taken on different forms. However, this is not why the majority of Black expats in our generation have moved abroad based on the metrics of our group. Unfortunately, the media has spun this narrative as if we haven’t moved or lived abroad prior to the George Floyd incident.

Although the politics of our nation did drive many people to leave this year time will determine whether the move of those who moved because of racism is temporary or permanent. Those of us who have been expats for several years know that moving abroad is not to be taken lightly and to suggest that a president or vice president should be the reason why a person should remain in the states or not is a bit ludicrous as the president doesn’t necessarily control what happens in someone’s local community.

People tend to forget that the United States is the third largest country in the world in terms of population. In many states and cities the lifestyle that some Black people lead is antithesis of what is represented in the media. This doesn’t mean that life is without racism or oppression; however, there are people who are thriving.

Additionally, many of us have strong ties to our community and are dedicated to making positive change and fighting the ills of racism.  We are not a monolith and this idea that Black Americans are leaving the US in millions because of racism is misleading. We are leaving and we have left, but it’s for a plethora of reasons. Personally, I want to be clear that I am not a part of the Blaxit movement. Racism didn’t push me out of the country. I left because I wanted a new adventure.

Racism didn’t push me out of the country. I left because I wanted a new adventure.

Sunnei and family

Moving abroad doesn’t mean moving away from the fight against racism

In the fight against injustices of our people, we all have a role. Some are the foot soldiers who are fighting hand to hand. Others are leading and guiding them, while there are others who are helping through providing finances.

It is possible to continue to fight for equality in your home country even after moving abroad. James Baldwin and Josephine Baker are both examples of Black Americans who moved abroad and continued to fight against injustice.

Many living abroad continue to support their home country and communities. Many of us experience a bit of financial freedom abroad and we try to ensure that we support initiatives or people in the US by providing financial support.

Black expats aren’t just running away from the US

As for my BALA members who now number 11,000+, I can tell you this: After taking a poll in our group a few months ago, 90% of our members move abroad for better opportunities and/or a new experience. While moving abroad for better opportunities is the focus, a byproduct of the move is the fact that we don’t have to encounter the American brand of racism. For me, I can send my 18-year-old son to the store at 2am in the morning on our late family weekends without a worry. I can live without feeling as if my sons are in danger for simply existing. Now, is that about race, or simply the fact that many countries worldwide are simply safer than the US? It is a mix of both.

Racism against Black people is a global issue that we can’t escape, even in majority Black countries at times. However, for many of us, there is a sense of freedom when you know the police aren’t automatically making the negative assumptions and that the probability of being attacked randomly based on ethnicity is lowered exponentially.

With that being said, our BALA members and Black people in general have experienced isolated incidences of extremely violent racism abroad in various countries. Take for example Bakari Henderson in Greece or what happened with Black people in Guangzhou during the onset of Covid-19.

American unity

White supremacy runs deep, and it’s not in everyone’s interest to change that 

White supremacy is a global issue and many people ascribe to that ideology. In various parts of East Asia, it is made clear that white faces are preferred without considering depth of experience or education. As an international educator/leader, it is disheartening to see that most of the institutions that label themselves ‘international schools’ lack diversity.

It is beneficial for many of the white leaders/ teachers, so it is not something that they make an effort to change. This idea is not only reflected in international education, but in the corporate sector as well. I have a friend who was transferred from his company’s location in Geneva to Dubai. When he arrived in Dubai, many of his employees thought he was there as their subordinate, instead of team leader. They could not have imagined a Black man as the boss.

We all need to check our superiority abroad 

Our Americanization also means that we have been taught American superiority which we sometimes bring with us when we move abroad.

We have to understand that while we may be able to help a community, we need to move abroad as members of the community that are there to respect the needs, values, and cultural norms of the community.

Sunnei and family

Black expats are not all running to Africa

Many media articles suggest that Black Americans are only moving to Africa, but this is yet another false narrative that mainstream media spins. There are communities of Black American expats in various African countries, however; there are thousands more of us widely dispersed throughout the globe. This is why it is important for us to shape our own narratives. I have been approached by media outlets that don’t want to hear that we are moving worldwide, nor do they want to hear that we are anywhere outside of Africa.

Our movement has varied throughout the centuries. It is dependent upon various factors including international job markets, entrepreneurial opportunities, and cost of living. Of course, the level of violent racism dictated our initial moves throughout history, but that shifted.

In 2012 when our group was initially formed, the UAE government was actively recruiting educators in the states, specifically urban areas. Other gulf states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait also recruited educational professionals from the US. Additionally, South Korea, Japan, and China offer ESL (English as a second language) teaching opportunities for anyone with an undergraduate degree and a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification being the only requirement. Nurses and doctors were heavily recruited within the Gulf region as well.

Over the years, as our group expanded, we began to represent various career paths and countries. We now represent over 100 countries with large numbers in the Middle East, East Asia, West Africa, and West Europe.

Let’s stop talking about Africa as a country

It’s important not to speak about Africa as if it is a country. This is an extremely important aspect of the discussion regarding moving abroad for Black Americans. There certainly is a romanticisation of Africa, especially as it relates to Black Americans ‘coming home’.

It is important that even Black Americans understand that most of our African heritage is from the west coast, not the entire continent. Our ancestors were African; we have African genes; however, four hundred years in the US means that we are not African in the sense that we know our specific roots, language, culture, etc.

Additionally, we have built our own culture in the states that is popular around the world. Ultimately, we are seen as foreigners in most of the places our ancestors were stolen from and we have to understand that.

USA flag

The label ‘expat’ isn’t the problem, it’s how we use it

A lot of people and media outlets prefer not to use the word ‘expat’ as they feel it is associated with colonialism and white privilege. However the word ‘expat’ isn’t the problem. The problem is that westerners don’t use the word expat for expatriates in their home countries.

There is a tendency to label anyone in the west who is not a citizen an immigrant. That is ultimately the problem. Everyone who enters a western country is not trying to emigrate.

The word ‘expat’ isn’t the problem. The problem is that westerners don’t use the word expat for expatriates in their home countries.

Racism isn’t the only thing Black people should consider when moving abroad

When I consult with people who desire to live abroad my first question to them is what are your non negotiables? Some want to finally live in a place where the color of their skin is not something that is different from the rest of the community members. Black affirming spaces are important for many of us, although there are many who have learned to adjust and thrive in spaces where we are the sole Black faces.

If you want to move abroad, do it. Just make sure you do your research and reach out to people who have traversed the spaces you’re interested in. Join Facebook, Instagram, Clubhouse and groups that have people who can help. Be willing to invest in personalized consultations, if necessary.

Living abroad is a possibility, but it is not without its own set of challenges. Understand the cons of being an expat as well, it could certainly shift your path.


To join Black Americans Living Abroad, or for more information, visit the BALA Facebook group page. 

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