For Black Expats, Adjusting To Life Abroad Means Facing White Travel Privilege

Culture shock is easy. Familiar biases aren’t.


Few of my life experiences can be accurately described as “jaw-dropping.” But whizzing down the coastal road from Istanbul’s Old Town past the ornate Dolmabahçe Palace gate and the glittering turquoise Bosphorus, my jaw did indeed drop. I live here now, I thought. 

But soon the culture shock set in. Oh, I adapted easily to Turkish norms. It’s the too-familiar privilège sans frontières of white expat culture that, after a decade abroad, I still can't get used to. 

As a Black and Puerto Rican American, I’m already used to adapting to the expectations of a dominant cultural group made up of people who don’t look like me. It comes with the territory. And so, too, does dealing with white expat privilege.

Let me explain: Expats tend to be white, partially because white-majority countries have the most fluid passports. (I use the oh-so-loaded term “expat” to acknowledge my own “white passport.”) Most receive higher compensation than local hires for comparable work, particularly in development and international teaching. And despite often having very limited experience in diversity, these expats are frequently unflinchingly confident in their multiculturalism. They perform a special brand of white wokeness, displaying naiveté and privilege in how they talk about and interact with people from historically marginalized groups.

How is it that this behavior knows no borders?

Many expats live in company compounds or, like my partner and I, on the school campus where a household member teaches, resulting in entangled social and professional lives. Our campus community is composed almost exclusively of white foreign faculty, a fragile ecosystem where calling out problematic behavior means risking my partner’s standing with his colleagues. Forget rocking the boat: As a Black woman and second-generation immigrant, it’s damn near impossible not to capsize it with my presence alone.

After five years here, I intentionally avoid large gatherings. The larger the group, the more likely someone is going to say something problematic, making me the exasperated de facto racial educator. How the hell do you speak multiple languages but not know that mimicking African American vernacular isn’t cute? And how is it that this behavior knows no borders?

Being a Black expat also means navigating how local people perceive foreigners and how they view Black Americans. 

Black and brown women are treated like aliens at home, so being a yabancı in Istanbul never really phased me. And the Turkish quirks that seem so jarring to white women -- staring culture, being followed in stores -- feel bizarrely normal, yet far less off-putting than in the States. 

That being said, locals in every place I’ve lived do filter Blackness through the lenses of global pop culture and local prejudices. When I lived in Chile, one of the payasos that performed on buses for change heckled me by calling me “Celia Cruz” -- a famous Afro-Cuban singer -- because she was his only frame of reference for people who looked like me. In San José, Costa Rica, I once found myself in a crowd of soccer fans who monkey-chanted at the visiting Kenyan team.

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Here in Istanbul -- where extreme hospitality, curiosity, and zealous cleanliness often mirror my Boricua experience -- street performers in Native American-inspired costumes play the didgeridoo on the main shopping thoroughfare. A few years ago, a local international primary school had an “Africa Day” and a “Native American Day,” which were no doubt intended to build cross-cultural awareness. Teachers showed up in blackface and feathered headdresses.

Zenci örgüsü (box braids) are trending among young Turkish women. Zenci refers to a region of Africa where the Ottomans sourced slaves, and some of their descendants bear the word as a surname. That said, when someone points and yells “zenci!” at you on the street, it is an epithet. 

Some Turks claim racism is an American problem, something that conflicts with the experiences of Black expats here. In a country where English is not widely spoken, when you hear that a Turkish business owner referred to a friend as the N-word to her face, or a student used the term at your partner’s school, it is downright shocking.

Still, these relatively isolated incidents pale in comparison to the onslaught of microaggressions by white expats. As in the US, these typically take the form of negating or questioning my lived experience of race. As if after nearly 40 years being Black on this earth, I don’t know what racism looks like.

When I wrote about racialized incidents, like being called “Venus Williams” by Spice Bazaar vendors or having my picture taken because I’m Black, white friends seemed unable to fathom that even these relatively small acts of othering can hurt, and that they themselves will never experience the same.

Despite all this, I love being an expat and I think other Black Americans would, too.

At a neighborhood book club meeting, where a bi-racial woman confessed that she felt like she attracted undue attention when out with her mixed-race children, two white women insisted this had nothing to do with her race.

In the expat world, white women love to point out how James Baldwin escaped old-school racism by coming to Istanbul in the 1960s in an effort to explain away my current experience. They’ll unhelpfully say that, at least here, people won’t call the cops on me because of my skin color.

Tone-deaf comments are frequent and jarring. So too is the fact that, more than the locals I’ve met in various countries, it’s my compatriots that make me feel like I just don’t fit in.

Despite all this, I love being an expat and I think other Black Americans would, too. For one big reason: we’re damn good at it. We show up empathic and agile, with a lifetime of knowledge about how to adapt to a majority culture.

Black people are traveling more than ever before, and the upswing in Black expat Facebook groups and blogs suggests that many of us are choosing to live abroad, not just visit. Istanbul now has a burgeoning population of Africans, many from Nigeria. I’ve grown close to a group of Black and brown expat women, and they are making Istanbul, finally, feel like home.

Ruth Terry is a Black/Puerto Rican freelancer based in Istanbul who covers the intersections of race, identity, culture, and travel. You can read more of her work about Istanbul on Tenderly, Asparagus, and Culture Trip. Follow her on Twitter @Ruth_Terry.