Caira Jordan

Student photo

My name is Caira Jordan and I’m a Film & Digital Media major. I studied abroad with UCEAP at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia in spring semester 2023, and I will be attending the upcoming Film History & Preservation Global Seminar in Bologna, Italy in summer 2024. Studying abroad as an African American student from a low-income background who had never even owned a passport before was an exciting and equally terrifying experience. I was ready to experience a culture different from my own, but I was also so scared to live 7000+ miles away from everyone I had ever known for five months. I ended up having an amazing and life-changing experience abroad, but it was not without its own unique set of challenges due to my identity. 

Immediately upon arriving in my new host country, I noticed that people looked at me in a way I couldn’t quite decipher. Before even setting foot outside of the Brisbane airport, an employee stopped me to ask what I do to my hair to make it look the way it does and how she can get hers to look like mine. She was sweet about it so I didn’t mind the question, but I never quite know how to explain why that would be unrealistic. As someone with 3c curls, I’m no stranger to questions and comments about it, but my curl pattern is natural, and being stared at and asked the same question so many times by Australians with pin-straight hair made me realize how little my culture was understood across the ocean.

 I was confused and surprised at first to learn that I now had to explain my identity a little differently than I was used to. Early on in my journey, I was asked by a local about my ethnic background. When I responded that I was half Black and half White, just as I always had, I was genuinely shocked to be then asked what ‘Black’ means. I’ve been Black my whole life, and I grew up in a country where that’s neither here nor there, so it had never occurred to me that not everyone would have the same level of understanding behind the meaning of that label. It wasn’t until I switched my approach and told him that I was African-American, which he understood, but immediately began regurgitating back to me any instance of American Black culture he had seen as memes on the internet. He asked if I was ‘light skin’ and other out-of-touch and offensive questions that irritated me, but I knew he meant well. Additionally, growing up in rural Australia he hadn’t ever been around many Black people before let alone any Black Americans. Hence, Black representation in the media was all he had to go off of.

 It wasn’t until my Australian studies course I took at the University of Queensland, that I realized that in Australia, the term ‘Black’ was often used to reference Aboriginal people, as well as the N-slur which surprised me. It was so crazy to think about such a hateful term that I always assumed was local to the United States also being used against the indigenous people who are also the ethnic group most discriminated against in Australia. It feels like history repeating itself in the worst way, but that information greatly widened my worldview and understanding of cultural tensions within Australia.

This was my first time being somewhere where I felt like I didn’t experience much inherent racism because people weren’t even sure how to be racist to someone who looked like me. You have to be somewhat educated on a culture to know how to be racist against it, so I would say I was more often met with ignorance and treated like a bit of a spectacle everywhere I went. The hair thing came up a lot, and there were definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. When my friends and I visited Indonesia during our mid-semester break, my friend Matt (who is Afro-Latine American) and I were stopped and asked if we would take pictures with locals because they had never seen hair like ours before. This attention didn’t feel negative because they were always polite and we understood that people were just curious so we didn’t mind too much. Back in Brisbane however, I remember being stopped by a random drunk man outside Hungry Jacks who asked if my hair was natural, and when I replied yes, he called me a ‘good girl’ which felt majorly icky. Another time in the grocery store a woman (with straight hair) stopped me and told me her husband had seen me and asked her to ask me how I make my hair look the way it does because he wants her to try and get hers like mine. They both were significantly older than me and it just felt awkward and sort of creepy, especially knowing that there are no amount of haircare tips I could ever give that woman that would make her hair look the way mine does naturally. People just didn’t understand that.

I loved my experience abroad and meeting different people from all over the world was my favorite thing ever, however after so many months of rarely seeing anybody who looked like me or could understand my identity, I gained a deeper appreciation for the melting pot that is my home country. I never realized before how much I value being able to look around and see other people I can relate to and be myself around because they just get it. Being in Australia, I experienced the strangest juxtaposition between not really being understood culturally, but also not really being discriminated against due to that lack of understanding which I guess was nice, in a way. I couldn’t truly appreciate that feeling knowing that I was benefiting from a sort of privilege simply by not being part of the Aboriginal community, and knowing that in Australia, they get treated a lot like Black people do in America. 

While I went abroad to study film and design mostly, it’s what I learned through my experiences that taught me the most and made me more culturally aware. I learned not to go in with assumptions about anyone’s understanding of my culture while traveling because what’s common knowledge to me may not be for people who grew up in different social and political climates than I did and vice versa.

Last modified: Jun 04, 2024