Are you an expat or an immigrant?

Episode 21: Amanda Bates, founder of The Black Expat

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Black people live abroad too. You wouldn’t know it from a lot of the expat narrative out there. Amanda Bates is changing that.

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I am an immigrant. I never thought much about it before starting Borderline. I was a foreign student, a transitory expat, a global citizen roaming the planet. I was where I was, and I’d probably be somewhere else in a year or two. Brexit and age changed that. The years went by faster and roots drove into the ground in spite of myself. Rules and attitudes changed, forcing me to confront that the animosity I now felt was a standard for most immigrants. My skin color, my passport and my wealth had shielded me. Borderline guests over the past few months have shown me the kinship between the many variations of immigration and the necessity to resist forces that would separate our experiences to better silence our voices.

This week Amanda Bates is one such guest who really brings that message home. Amanda was born in Washington, DC to Cameroonian parents. When she was 10, the family repatriated to Cameroon and the francophone capital of Yaoundé, though they were from the anglophone minority. She then returned to the US for university. She is the founder of The Black Expat, a multimedia platform telling the stories of Black global citizens and challenging an expat narrative that often only shows one version of global living. (You know, you’ve seen them on Instagram.) We talked about who gets to be an expat and who’s labeled an immigrant, about the connections between third-culture kids and first-generation college students and about the importance of telling joyful, ordinary Black stories. And about the weirdness of watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in French.


Next week on Borderline

Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk and co-host of Oh God! What Now? (formerly the Remainiacs podcast)


In her own words

Here is a condensed version of my conversation with Amanda Bates. For the full story, listen to the podcast (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms) or read the transcript.

Listen to the episode

What was it like landing in Cameroon, stepping into an environment that your parents are from, but is very different from your reality growing up in America?

Like all third-culture kids, those who basically have spent childhoods crossing borders, it was definitely a challenge. My sixth grade year, I was in a local school. That was a really hard transition. Culturally, I just didn't understand a lot of things. In seventh grade, I was put into an international school. And that's where I think I finally found my space because for all of the kids there, the stories were not exactly the same, but we're all flailing in a place where we're not quite 100% a fit. And that's where I made some of my best friends, lifelong friends.

There was still tension outside those walls. Because you look like the population, your names are like the local population, but... I think like all good TCKs, you learn how to adapt. And I think that's a skill that I've taken with me as an adult.

One you honed again returning to the US for university at age 17.

Once again, sound like the local population. Could be part of the local population. Didn't understand any of the cultural references because at that point, I've been out of the country for seven years. What's different now for third culture kids is the internet. Information didn't travel the same way it does now. Even to this day, people will make references from stuff in the nineties here, assuming I would know, and particularly about Black culture, and I would say, "Yeah, I was in Africa. I don't know what you're talking about." It was hard. When people say college was the best time of their lives, I'm like, "What are you talking about?" College was terrible.”

How did you cope? Did you have strategies?

Not at all. There was unresolved grief, which is common with third-culture kids. Didn't know it at the time. There was a certain degree of depression. My friends who were going to college in the US were all scattered throughout the country, and most of them, if not all of them, were going through some form of that because we weren't really prepared for the transition.

This is what actually made me a really good person for a job I got down the road, which was working with students who were the first ones in their families to go to college. Even though I was American, even though my parents were college-educated, I understood what it meant to be an outsider. What it meant for someone to step on a college campus and completely not know what's going on, even though outwardly, they look like they're part of the community.

As a kid who grew up between spaces, I always try to find ways to help the students have reference points so that they can make smart decisions, but they also understand what's happening around them. Because I remember what it was like to be 10 years old and all of a sudden being in this country and not know what's happening around me. And then to be 17 and to be back in the country that I supposedly knew and not understand what was happening around me.

How did that translate into founding The Black Expat?

I was working predominantly with high school students who were going to university and I would say, "Hey, when this is all settled and you get your bearings, you should study abroad.” 95% of my students were students of color, and they would say, "Miss Amanda, I don't know anyone who looks like me, who studied abroad."

For them, their reference point was the military. That was the only way they knew someone who went abroad. Part of the reason I created The Black Expat was to normalize that Black and Brown folks go abroad for a variety of reasons all the time. And it doesn't necessarily just have to be tied to military and warfare, right? And it doesn't necessarily have to be a refugee situation. Sometimes people move to Germany because they want to learn German. It happens. And you can be Black. And it's done.

The Black Expat is a multimedia platform where we really focus on Black identity and international living. When you look at the narrative of expatriation, there's very little that really considers the experiences of non-white individuals. And we're not specifically Black American-focused. We're just Black and in a very inclusive sense. There's so many cool people who have really cool stories that are just normal. It's not trauma, it's not drama. It's just, you know... they move somewhere!

I want to talk about the name of your brand. The word “expat” can be loaded. What made you embrace it?

I wasn't naive, but it's funny how much I have to explain the title. And it's because, you've said it for all the right reasons: Calling it The Black Expat was so political. The reason I called it The Black Expat is because if I didn't call it The Black Expat, Black people wouldn't find it. That was my baseline.

And then two fascinating things occurred. I had non-Western Black folks say to me, "Oh, this is for Black Americans." If you grew up in a predominantly Black society, you don't think about being Black, right? You think about your tribe, your ethnic group. You don't think about being Black because we're all Black. And so they thought it was Western.

The other part is that I'd also say: “Expat” applies to you as well because you fit this category. I remember talking to a guy originally from Mali who had grown up partially in Saudi Arabia and then went to the Netherlands, then France, the UK and somewhere else, and now lives in Senegal. The man is a quintessential third culture kid. He was like, "I never thought of myself as an expat." And I'm like "right, because they always call you an immigrant." No, I want Black folks to understand that this term applies to them as well.

If you moved within five African countries, you're an expat too. I don't care why you 'expatted.' I don't care if it was for education, for love, for religious reasons, for persecution or war. You just crossed borders. You're an expat.

All I'm trying to say is: Black people, if you move around the planet, the site is for you. Let's be honest: If I call it the Black immigrant... right?

Sadly, your brain immediately goes to a very different kind of brand.

Oh, totally. I think it's hilarious, but if I call it The Black Immigrant, the glamour and the allure wears off. And here's the thing: the glamour would wear off even for Black folks, right? Because we act as if we all haven't been, for lack of a better term, indoctrinated with some of the same ideas, right? We have. And I think that's part of the challenge too when Black folks from the West then move to predominantly Black places in the global South. There's a lot of things that you're coming with that are very Western and colonialistic and a little imperialist that you might have to let go of.

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Isabelle Roughol

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.


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