5 Tips for Raising Black Children Abroad

More Black Americans are moving abroad, and that comes with unexpected emotions for parents and children. Here's some advice from Black parents who are raising their Black kids outside of the U.S.

Family sits for a portrait outside
Photo: Nia Mendes

My first move out of the United States was to Spain at age 15. I joined School Year Abroad, a program that allows American high school juniors and seniors to complete up to one year of study at an American school in Spain, France, or Italy. I left my family behind, lived with a wonderful host mom, and learned to speak Spanish fluently as just a junior in high school. Although I expected to be the only African American student in our class of 60, I was one of nine girls who identified as Black and nearly 20% of our class identified as BIPOC.

This first taste of travel independence was the start of two decades of nomadic living. Eventually, it led me to a career as a migration scholar and expat, which the Oxford dictionary describes as "a person who lives outside their native country." Since then, I've lived in India (where I met my husband), Mozambique (where my husband is originally from), Angola, South Africa, and now Peru—where we are raising our Black third-culture kids. While this might seem scary to some, we've found raising our children abroad to be both a rewarding and challenging experience.

Often, parents of color assume that moving their kids to another country—especially in non-White majority countries—would be a welcomed adventure. But Black families, especially Black Americans, might be surprised by the roller coaster of emotion it brings. If you're moving to a place where you have ethnic roots, you may find the current reality to be different from what you remember or imagined. If you're moving to a place you've never been before, you may find the Black community to be smaller or bigger than you're used to. It may be more diverse and subject to distinct social pressures you're unfamiliar with. Even languages and accents take on new meanings. And within all of this, Black kids experience distinct challenges to "fitting in."

Whether you've already made a move or you're just toying around with the idea, here are five tips from me and other Black moms who've successfully raised Black kids abroad.

1. Process What Your Passport Means in Your New Home

Don't be shocked if your child isn't complaining about being the only Black kid in school but instead about being the only kid from their country or the only one who speaks their native language.

If you're moving from the U.S. or Europe, your passport yields a lot of privilege, including not having to get a visa for a short stay and sometimes being able to work on the local market without a hitch. While younger kids might not register the impact, older kids might get called out for their nationality. In some places, being able to fly "back home" during school breaks might turn them into the cool kid. But in others, it could make them stick out like a sore thumb.

For many Black kids, this concept of privilege and difference might be new and uncomfortable. If you've got a tween or teen, work with them to understand how race, class, and opportunity differ in your new home.

Logistically, if you're moving to a country that requires visa renewals or departing the country every so often to stay in compliance, think about how this might affect your children's experience - school attendance, friendships, and their sense of identity.

Don't underestimate the disruptions and plan ahead to minimize them.

2. Seek Stress Relief and Mental Health Support

"My main advice in raising kids abroad is to be your kid's best friend. Listen and take them seriously when they open up about their own struggles with culture shock and fitting in. Seek professional help if your child is showing signs of anxiety and stress," says Nyari Ranganai, a single mom from Zimbabwe raising her 17 and 4-year-old daughters in Canada.

When they moved two years ago, at the peak of the pandemic, her younger daughter adapted well to being at home making funny videos. But, virtual learning made it hard for her teen to make new friends and stay motivated in school. "You need to realize the mental stresses you face are not only unique to you as a parent," Ranganai says.

Anticipate how you'll handle your kids' stress by pre-planning relief. This could mean signing them up to join a league for their favorite sport. Or, it could mean maintaining mental health support with old providers until you identify new, local ones. For kids coping with learning disabilities, as well as behavioral and emotional challenges, don't expect moving abroad to make difficulties go away. Instead, use resources in both countries to manage stress and anxiety about everything from puberty and friendships to homesickness.

3. Build a Community

Finding spaces where your children feel they belong is really important for their well-being and yours. "Do your best to find a community of people who resemble your family and children. Seek them out and center them in your world. Do what you can to ensure your children don't feel 'othered' in their day-to-day and be aware of microaggressions they may face," says Jessica F. Norwood, a North Carolina-based mom and children's book author who was born and raised in Germany.

Surrounding your children with people who make them feel loved may take a bit of extra effort when you're living in a completely new place. Seek out faith communities, athletic clubs, expat groups, neighborhood hangouts, hair salons, or even online communities that can be safe spaces for your kid to connect with people who see them for who they truly are.

If that community doesn't exist yet, make it. Reach out to co-workers or online groups like Internations to crowdsource options. Chances are that there are others like you who are also craving meaningful connections.

At the same time that you're building community, Norwood reminds parents not to let enduring optimism turn into gaslighting. It is easy to dismiss kids' complaints and encourage them to "try harder" to adjust to their new home. Not so fast, parents.

Kids can have a delayed or prolonged adjustment period, so "when they tell you about their experiences, believe them, support them, and help them navigate," she encourages.

4. Keep Your Culture Alive

You may be eager to adopt new habits and customs when moving to a new environment. This is wonderful and highly encouraged. But holding on to certain practices and traditions from home can help kids stay connected to their ethnic roots so they can still appreciate where they come from. Whether it's listening to popular music, cooking family recipes, or wearing traditional outfits on occasion, find ways to normalize connecting with your heritage. "We need to keep our culture alive, constantly speaking about our beautiful continent and what makes it home," says Ranganai.

If you move to a country with a Black majority, this tip especially applies. Your culture is more than your color. It can take a little time to realize which parts of your culture are missing in your new country.

If you're Black American but living in the Caribbean, for example, this might mean cooking soul food dishes, hosting Thanksgiving in your new home, and celebrating Black History month—all things that might seem otherwise mundane but that can help your children understand what Black culture is like where you're originally from. Similarly, when living in sub-Saharan Africa, keep in mind that Black cultures are wide and diverse. But aspects of your culture might still be missing in local society.

If possible, have your kids call relatives on the phone, speak their native language at home, and do whatever else feels right for your family.

5. Prepare Your Kids to Answer, "Where Are You Really From?"

No matter where you go, your kids will be asked to explain where they are from. The truth is that the question is overly simple, and there's no good answer. Either way, they may still struggle with guilt, confusion, and annoyance when this comes up over and over again. Over time, parents can help kids craft an answer that feels authentic, honoring the parts of their heritage that they want to share.

First, let them know that they don't owe anyone an answer. If the question was asked in a nasty tone, it's ok to walk away.

Second, if they're feeling bullied or threatened by the questioner, their safety comes first. They should focus on getting away from the aggressor and seek help from you, teachers, or another trusted adult.

But, if a curious friend asks, they'll likely want to respond with something that feels complete. Help them practice different variations until they feel comfortable.

"I have moved around a lot" or "I moved here from X country" are perfectly sufficient answers.

If they want to get specific, try something like, "I was born in W country, my parents are originally from X and Y countries, and I have been living here since I was Z years old."

The best thing you can do is to teach them that there's no wrong answer and reassure them that it is ok if their answer changes depending on the situation.

Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American migration scholar based in Peru.

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