International Students and Experiences with Race in the United States

International Students and Experiences with Race in the United States hero image [1]

Discussions about diversity and inclusion within U.S. higher education typically revolve around domestic students, particularly racial and ethnic minorities. International students are overwhelmingly spoken of as adding diversity of nationality to the American higher education landscape. Rarely are there substantive discussions about other facets of international students’ identities other than nationality, such as race, and the special challenges that race can bring to certain international students.

This article explores some of the scholarly and professional research on international student experiences navigating race (and ethnicity, to an extent) in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent in Canada). We will also take a look at a few helpful practices for creating a more inclusive and aware campus experience for international students.

Most of the research on this subject has consisted of small-scale qualitative studies, often at just one university—which perhaps limits our ability to generalize their findings. But many common themes have emerged. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that every international student has his or her own unique journey and story, even when students come from the same countries or similar backgrounds. However, the topic of race is certainly relevant in international higher education today, particularly in an era of both global and American populist nationalism, with its signature traits of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice.

Nationality, Race, & Ethnicity

While it is common to classify individuals by race or ethnicity, these identities are social constructs which vary widely, depending on the context. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau uses five racial categories [2] (though survey respondents can report more than one): White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The term “ethnicity,” however, is reserved for whether an individual is “Hispanic or Latino.”

These classifications are specific and particular to American conceptions of race and ethnicity.  They are deeply rooted in the sociological and historical context of American race relations and have, at most, a tenuous relation to any objectively meaningful criteria for differentiating people. While international students are viewed through the lens of national origin from the perspective of the admissions office, once they arrive on campus they are often viewed through the prism of American racial and ethnic classifications. Since these distinctions differ from the students’ own understanding of differences, they can be jarring and alienating.

Race [3] refers to a categorization of people based on physical characteristics (or phenotypes), such as skin color. Race is widely acknowledged to be a social construct, something formulated and understood differently in different national and other social contexts based on different histories and cultures. In the U.S., race is often described as being a “white/black binary,”[1] [4] informed heavily by the country’s history of slavery and racial segregation focused primarily on black Americans.

Ethnicity refers to categorizations based on cultural differences, such as language, customs, and beliefs, as well as ancestry. This would include groups such as Chinese (or Chinese American), Jewish (or Jewish American), Cherokee, and so forth. Many countries around the world have more than one ethnic group living within their borders, all of which would be classified as the same race in the U.S. For example, in Nigeria, the largest ethnic groups are Hausa, Igbo (Ibo), Yoruba, and Fulani, according to the CIA World Factbook [5]. Each group has its own language, history, culture, and traditions. Of course, race and ethnicity can have complicated overlaps, and there is no full, universally agreed-upon distinction between the two.

Negotiating New Racial Identities, Prejudice, and Discrimination

When students are part of the majority people group in their home countries, and even more particularly if the country is relatively homogeneous, race may not have been an important marker of identity or have factored into their identities at all. Only when they come to the U.S. does race become salient. Students may suddenly become “black” or “Asian” or “Middle Eastern” or “Latino”[2] [6] in an American context when previously they never saw themselves as such before.

Black international students, such as those from Africa or the Caribbean, can sometimes initially be confused for black Americans.[3] [7] The fact that race is based mostly on physical appearance can cause greater confusion. One student in Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta’s study of race among black and Latino international students[4] [8] looks visibly Asian (and is of Asian heritage). However, she grew up in Latin America and identifies as a Latin American, but she notes that Americans label her instantly as Asian.

For many international students of color, suddenly becoming a minority within the racialized environment of the U.S. is often a lot to process. They experience “discomfort” from many different sources.[5] [9] The privileged position that many international students occupied in their home country may make them extra sensitive to their new minority status and the discrimination they experience in the U.S.[6] [10]

Bardhan & Zhang,[7] [11] in conducting 22 interviews with students from the Global South[8] [12] at a midwestern university, found that race is often not a facet of identity for many international students of color when they enter the U.S. and that race is sometimes seen as a “Western phenomenon.”[9] [13] In particular, “the experience of racialization seems most intense for participants from sub-Saharan African or mainly black countries who struggle with ‘becoming’ black in the United States,” they note.[10] [14]

In their qualitative study of race at various U.S. universities (conducted from 2004 to 2009), Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta[11] [15] found that the majority of the mostly African and Caribbean students they interviewed said they didn’t really understand race when they first arrived in the U.S. It had little meaning to them. One Senegalese student explained it this way:

Oh, it’s just funny when people speak of race. I don’t know how you guys felt, but when I first came here I knew nothing about race. I knew how to spell racism but that’s as far—I didn’t even know what it really meant. I never looked it up in the dictionary.[12] [16]

Many of the interviewees, in fact, were surprised at how much race was a consuming factor society-wide in the U.S.

The research also shows that international students typically arrive here with their own views on other races. According to Ritter’s study conducted at UCLA,[13] [17] East Asian international students appear to have developed a certain sense of global racial hierarchies: whites, followed by East Asians, Latinos, and finally African Americans[14] [18] and Southeast Asians at the bottom. The bottom ranking of the last two groups tends to be attributed to their darker skin color.

Many of these students had little sense of Latinos or Latino culture before coming to the U.S. and sometimes couldn’t differentiate them from white Americans, particularly Latinos who appeared more European in heritage.

The belief among some Asian students in Ritter’s study that whites were somehow superior to East Asians appears to have originated in the dominance of Europe and the U.S. worldwide over the past several centuries. It is, however, unclear if this perception is widespread among East Asian international students in the U.S., given the small scale of this study. Yet, it does reveal that international students are not necessarily “blank slates” upon entering the U.S. when it comes to race.

Most of the students in this study learned about race in the U.S. through the media and their own day-to-day interactions, which can provide a skewed view. For example, many internalized the view that African Americans are dangerous or suspect. Most said they held negative views of African Americans coming into the U.S. As one South Korean student from Ritter’s study said of her knowledge of black Americans before coming to UCLA, “I was scared of them.… I thought only black people are violent and aggressive.”[15] [19] In general, the media seemed to be a main source of information on race for many of the students who were interviewed.[16] [20]

Some of the research[17] [21] indicates that many international students of color try to avoid taking on race as part of their identity, at least initially. Many do not often see themselves in the specific context of race in the U.S. Several of the students in Bardhan and Zhang’s study[18] [22] expressed challenges in keeping their pre-U.S. identities while negotiating their new identities as racial minorities in the U.S. Many remained proud to be where they were from; “they resisted centralizing U.S. conceptions of race in how they defined themselves.”[19] [23] Yet, as Fries-Britt and colleagues point out, various interactions forced their study participants to tangle with the issue of race: “…their experiences in the classroom with peers and faculty, being pulled over by police on campus, being called the ‘N’ word, and responding to comments about their hairstyles and dress.”[20] [24]

International students of color can, of course, face discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions based on their race and ethnicity. In a survey of 640 international students from around the world enrolled at UCLA, Hanassab[21] [25] found that Middle Eastern and African students reported the most discrimination on and off campus. A survey conducted in 2016 by World Education Services (WES) [26] on international student experiences in the U.S. also found that sub-Saharan African and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) students, followed by Chinese students, were the most likely to cite discrimination as a top challenge.

Microaggressions are particularly insidious forms of prejudice and discrimination. They are defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.”[22] [27] Houshmand, Spanierman, and Tafarodi,[23] [28] in their qualitative study of East Asian and South Asian students at a university in a major Canadian city, catalogued six types of racial microaggressions that their participants regularly faced: Being excluded and avoided, being ridiculed for their accent, rendered invisible, having their international values and needs disregarded, making assumptions about their intelligence, encountering environmental microaggressions (structural barriers on campus)[24] [29]. These are described in the table below.

International Students and Experiences with Race in the United States table 1 [30]

These microaggressions show again the complex interplay of race, ethnicity, and nationality when it comes to discrimination. In particular, the way some international students of color speak—their accents, their general English-speaking abilities—is frequently cited as a particular microaggression.[25] [31] Likely for many East Asian international students, for example, their particular accents and styles of speaking may be stereotyped as “Asian.” In this way, the microaggression demonstrates subtle (or not-so-subtle) discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and nationality. Asian Americans, even when native speakers of English, often face the common microaggression (even when well-intentioned) of, “You speak English very well,” indicating the assumption that they are foreigners or not truly American[26] [32] (known as the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype [33]). This microaggression is based purely on assumptions about race, often without any knowledge of their specific ethnic background or nationality (American or otherwise), or of their linguistic ability.

Relationships with American students of the same racial or ethnic background are also sometimes complicated. Several studies mention that international students can sometimes face prejudice or lack of acceptance from Americans of the same race, or simply be seen as  “foreign.”[27] [34] Some of the African students in Constantine and colleagues’ study[28] [35] expressed that they experienced discrimination from black Americans, particularly when it came to dating. In Constantine and colleagues’ study, a Kenyan male student said:

I think some [black Americans] see themselves as better than Africans. You find a lot of [light-skinned] black people [in the United States], and I think they don’t want to date us because they think we’re too [dark-skinned]. One black [woman] I asked for a date told me I was ‘too black’ for her and [that] she had to think about how our kids would turn out if we ever got married. I only asked her for one date [and] not marriage.[29] [36]

Additionally, international students may come to the U.S. with or develop their own views of Americans of their same race. Ritter’s study[30] [37] found that many East Asian international students had mixed views of Asian Americans, often viewing them as neither completely Asian nor completely American.

Chrystal A. George Mwangi[31] [38] conducted a study of African and Caribbean international students at an HBCU (historically black college or university) in the Mid-Atlantic region. She found that some black international students come to the U.S. with preconceived ideas about black Americans, both negative and positive. These perceptions are typically formed by the media, particularly negative notions about the number of black Americans in prison and on government assistance.

Some of the positive perceptions revolved around hip-hop, including its creativity and countercultural nature. Several of the students in the study mentioned that while they could empathize with black Americans to an extent, they couldn’t fully understand the racial issues that black Americans regularly face. The international students came to feel connected to black American students through race, but typically didn’t view race as their primary form of identity. Nationality (for example, being Trinidadian) was often more important, particularly in the context of an HBCU, where generally most students are black. According to these students, black Americans quickly saw them as different because of, for example, their accents. Participants also cited that sometimes black Americans held stereotypes about them.

Coping and Thriving in American Higher Education and Society

International students of color cope in various ways with stresses related to racial experiences in the U.S., including discrimination, prejudice, and microaggressions. One study[32] [39] found that participants did everything from directly confronting a situation, to keeping problems to themselves, to even sleeping. Few relied on counseling services, in part because of cultural reasons.

One way of coping and thriving is relying on a strong support network, which can include a combination of family and friends back home and in the U.S. The African students in the study by Constantine and others[33] [40] typically found support from family back home (and sometimes residing in the States), and from fellow African students on campus and even across the U.S. (likely via social media and other online venues, at least in part). According to Bardhan and Zhang,[34] [41] one way international students of color cope is by spending time with those whom they view as nonjudgmental, whether fellow students from their home countries or others.

Despite the challenges, some of the research indicates that some students may use their experiences with race in the U.S. as a cause for deeper reflection or even as a motivator. Becoming a racial minority in the U.S. has caused some students to become self-reflective, often allowing some to understand any positions of privilege they occupy in their home countries or ways that they participate in prejudice or discrimination or help in perpetuating the status quo.[35] [42]

Malcolm and Mendoza[36] [43] found in their study of Afro-Caribbean undergraduate students at a public research university that their participants used issues of race and ethnicity to explore their own identities, often confirming their ethnic and national identities and reaffirming their values, while at the same time learning new viewpoints. Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, and Peralta refer to this as “integrative awareness,” when students are able to understand their “racial/ethnic positioning” in the U.S. and maintain a solid sense of self.[37] [44]

Good Practices for Creating Inclusive Campuses

As Lee and Rice exhort,[38] [45] it is important for institutions to develop awareness of the issues that international students face in terms of discrimination and integration around issues of race. From that awareness, institutions can begin to meaningfully address the racial issues that international students face.

Teach the American racial context

As has been demonstrated, many international students come to the U.S. with little understanding of the historical and contemporary American racial landscape. They do sometimes arrive with stereotypical or distorted ideas based largely on media portrayals of certain races, particularly black Americans, in the U.S. They also come here with their understandings of race and ethnicity based on their own national and cultural contexts, which may be very different from those of the U.S.

As a result, institutions need to think about how and when to adequately educate international students about race in the U.S. While a one-off session during new student orientation may be a start, it is likely not enough to help students get a fuller picture of this highly complex topic. Institutions have used various methods [46], from discussions in Intensive English courses, to including sections on race in the international student handbook, to courses for credit on the subject—specifically for international students.

Ritter’s study of East Asian students at UCLA found that “diversity course[s]” and having roommates of different racial backgrounds seem to help students “begin to question the racial hierarchy script delivered in media.”[39] [47] All institutions need to decide what would work best in their given contexts, including geographic location [46]. For example, a university in the rural southeast, with its particular history of race, may need to take a different tack than a university in multicultural New York City, San Francisco, or Miami.

Help students develop support networks

The research shows that international students of color use various strategies to cope with the stress and discomfort of being confronted with race and racism, and with needing to negotiate their identities in a U.S. context. Relying on personal support networks, particularly family and friends, is often a primary form of coping.

While it’s important to support integration by encouraging international students to make friends with American students and students of other nationalities, it is also important to recognize the primacy of friends and peers from their own countries or regions. A network of national peers can help students cope with the stresses surrounding racial identity in the U.S. Supporting clubs for students from various countries and regions, such as an Arab student club, can help in this. It may also be worthwhile to encourage organizations for students of color to make sure they intentionally seek out individuals from other countries.

Engage the wider campus community

While individual students may ultimately be responsible for their own integration into the host society, helping international students integrate meaningfully into American campuses and host communities means engaging all stakeholders—faculty, administration, domestic students, and (when possible) local community members. It means truly internationalizing the campus [48] to allow international students to be valued and to contribute meaningfully, particularly as many international students of color may view the curriculum as “Eurocentric.”[40] [49] The American Council on Education’s (ACE) Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement (CIGE) notes [50] that effective internationalization requires strategic planning and a committee or task force to work on the issue. It needs to be intentional.

Domestic students engaging in racially hostile acts or attitudes toward international students is nothing new. Incidents at prominent institutions [51] such as Ohio State University and Kansas State University in recent years show that the problem has not gone away. Inclusion of international students of all races means in large part engaging their domestic peers.

Provide training and resources for professors and teaching staff

Professors and other teaching staff may need assistance in understanding how to make sure international students are not marginalized but included fully and meaningfully into classroom discussions. Additionally, how can the curriculum itself include diverse perspectives that don’t always rely on American—specifically white American—and Western points of view? In other words, the curriculum itself should be internationalized. Training for faculty is one way to broaden the scope of the curriculum. The training can include various topics, such as how to increase international student participation to tap their global perspectives and knowledge.

It may also help to have materials and resources for professors in an easily accessible and digestible format. The International Affairs office at the University of Kansas maintains a webpage geared at professors [52] that offers brief bullet points and resources for understanding the unique challenges of international students. It includes a section titled “Creating an Inclusive Climate,” and tips such as “Identify social/cultural differences as being valuable resources that can facilitate classroom learning.”

The goal of institutions is to find ways to create an inclusive environment in which international students of color can learn, integrate, and thrive.


[1] [53] Bardhan, N., & Zhang, B. 2017. A post/decolonial view of race and identity through the narratives of US international students from the Global South. Communication Quarterly, 65(3), 285-306.

[2] [54] There is wide disagreement over whether “Latino” should be considered a race. In many contexts, it is considered an ethnicity, as Latinos can be of various racial backgrounds, including Mesoamerican (those indigenous to the Americas), European, African, and so forth.

[3] [55] Malcolm, Z. T., & Mendoza, P. 2014. Afro-Caribbean international students’ ethnic identity development: Fluidity, intersectionality, agency, and performativity. Journal of College Student Development, 55(6), 595-614.

[4] [56] Fries-Britt, S., George Mwangi, C. A., & Peralta, A. M. 2014. Learning race in a US Context: An emergent framework on the perceptions of race among foreign-born students of color. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(1), 1-13.

[5] [57] Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. 2007. Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher education, 53(3), 381-409, See p. 396.

[6] [58] Ibid.

[7] [59] Bardhan & Zhang, 2017.

[8] [60] The term “Global South” [61] is used frequently in international studies and other related disciplines, including international education, to refer to developing countries throughout most of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the South Pacific, which are mostly in the southern portion of the globe. By contrast, the “Global North” refers to the more developed regions of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of East Asia, namely Japan and South Korea, which are highly developed and mostly in the north. The exact parameters of these terms are not always fully agreed upon.

[9] [62] Bardhan & Zhang, 2017, p. 294.

[10] [63] Ibid., p. 294.

[11] [64] Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, & Peralta, 2014.

[12] [65] Ibid, p. 5.

[13] [66] Ritter, Z. S. 2016. International Students’ Perceptions of Race and Socio-Economic Status in an American Higher Education Landscape. Journal of International Students, 6(2), 367-393.

[14] [67] Ritter’s study specifically identifies “African Americans” and not black people of any nationality. This may be due to Asian international students’ lack of familiarity with black people from outside of the United States, such as students from sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean.

[15] [68] Ritter, 2016, p. 378.

[16] [69] E.g., Ritter, 2016; George Mwangi, C. A. 2016. Exploring sense of belonging among black international students at an HBCU. Journal of International Students, 6(4), 1015-1037.

[17] [70] Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, & Peralta, 2014.

[18] [71] Bardhan & Zhang, 2017.

[19] [72] Ibid, p. 296.

[20] [73] Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, & Peralta, 2014, p. 6.

[21] [74] Hanassab, S. 2006. Diversity, international students, and perceived discrimination: Implications for educators and counselors. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(2), 157-172.

[22] [75] Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271, p. 273.

[23] [76] Houshmand, S., Spanierman, L. B., & Tafarodi, R. W. 2014. Excluded and avoided: Racial microaggressions targeting Asian international students in Canada. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(3), 377.

[24] [77] These categories are slightly reworded from Houshmand, Spanierman, and Tafarodi’s categories.

[25] [78] Hanassab, 2006; Lee & Rice, 2007; Houshmand, Spanierman, & Tafarodi, 2014.

[26] [79] Sue et al., 2007

[27] [80] Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, & Peralta, 2014, p. 6.

[28] [81] Constantine, M. G., Anderson, G. M., Berkel, L. A., Caldwell, L. D., & Utsey, S. O. (2005). Examining the cultural adjustment experiences of African international college students: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(1), 57-66.

[29] [82] Ibid., p. 61-62.

[30] [83] Ritter, 2016.

[31] [84] George Mwangi, 2016.

[32] [85] Constantine et al., 2005.

[33] [86] Ibid., 2005.

[34] [87] Bardhan & Zhang, 2017.

[35] [88] Ibid.

[36] [89] Malcolm & Mendoza, 2014.

[37] [90] Fries-Britt, George Mwangi, & Peralta, 2014, p. 8.

[38] [91] Lee & Rice, 2007.

[39] [92] Ritter, 2016, p. 382.

[40] [93] Constantine et al., 2005, p. 60.