I’m Not Uncomfortable Enough: How American Expats Can Dive Deeper Pt. I

Our newsfeeds bring us a different calamity every week. The corruption of the DNC is old news, there has been more violence against transgender people this year than any other year, more evidence surfaces of international corporate corruption, and with Russian Facebook pages organizing dueling protests in the USA, it can become easy, if not habitual to focus on the calamities around us. It can be easy to react, to engage in whatever action possible just to maintain a semblance of involvement. However, I recently found myself wondering how often, with all the injustice around me, am I willing to look inward and see how I perpetuate oppression in my daily actions and how I am culpable in the oppression of folx in the very “overseas” community where I live now. More importantly, am I willing to change?

As an American Resisting Overseas, I feel a need to support activism in my own country, by supporting POC-led social justice organizations and by asking U.S. representatives to support important causes. But have I considered how my activism, even while living in another country, is still very U.S.-centric. Am I so entirely focused on my own country that I have forgotten that systems of oppression function internationally? Shouldn’t I be involved in fighting oppression on all fronts, lest I become an activist with tunnel vision, one that only cares about my own country’s struggles and not the struggles of humans with different identities than mine, including nationality.

Am I becoming the equivalent of a white feminist in my approach to transnational activism? 

I have lived abroad for the past 4 months and admittedly, I have had the leisure privilege of checking out from politics from time to time. A common theme amongst American travelers I have met has been that they are not interested in going back home. Lest they be immersed in the political tension that is mounting in our country. In fact, many online expat communities have explicit rules against posting anything “political.”  This is Privilege 101.

Now I am reengaging in this movement the only way I know how: digitally. Operating from overseas in a new city without a local network, I am staying updated with the work of my activist colleagues in the U.S. and engaging in digital campaigns as the pop-up: a petition here, a phone call campaign there, perhaps even donating to different mayoral races in the U.S. However, the thought struck me, “Why do I center U.S. politics in my understanding of international activism?” Specifically, how has nationalism as an ideology shaped my consciousness and how I engage in activism? As a colombian-american citizen, my whole life I felt I didn’t belong until I read the work of other “third culture kids.” However, even while living in Colombia, getting to know my international family for the first time in my life, I am still entirely U.S.-centric in my understanding of activism.

Why is this and what can I do to become a better transnational activist?

The greatest sages and activists of the world have emphasized the need for internal reflection. From Rumi to Christ, from Aristotle to the Buddha, the sages and saints of the world have affirmed the need for our own self-examination. More and more research is confirming meditation as an incredible practice for becoming happier, reducing stress and cultivating compassion. I also wonder what does a process of introspection look like in regards to international activism? Or rather, what is the meditation of anti-oppression?


Something that is not explicitly discussed (or at least not often enough) is the difference between being reflective and reflexive. Critical reflection on all facets of oppression is absolutely necessary if we are to move towards a stronger and more intersectional movement of transnational praxis. White supremacy and racism, transphobia, misogyny, heteronormativity, ableism, classism, and all of their manifestations are important to study and reflect upon. Indeed, we can also reflect on the ways that we have perpetuated oppression in our own lives. However, we must also employ a practice of reflexivity if we are to move towards a more critical consciousness and a more holistic praxis.

Reflexivity is the practice of “bending back on oneself” in regards to observing the held values, ideologies, beliefs, opinions, and positionality of any given observer, whether it be a researcher, an activist, an organizer or an american expat. While critical reflection can be focused externally, reflexivity is a practice of gazing inward into every interaction that we hold especially as it pertains to power. In turning back upon ourselves, our journey becomes more intimately connected to our own process of internal change and not solely the accumulation of facts and experiences to build-upon our already established ways of thinking. In a very real way, reflexivity is a process of critical self-examination that occurs moment by moment and one that deconstructs our notions of self and other, especially as it pertains to power i.e. race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, etc. We may even begin to see how even the concept of objectivity is to be questioned since our understanding of knowledge is disproportionately formed by western epistemologies. We may begin to examine our discomfort when speaking about race, about gender and facing our own privileges. But we must do it! Lean into the discomfort and examine ourselves as agents of oppression. Reflexivity is also an inherently political process, as we begin to unpack the power dynamics and social constructs that shape how we view “self’ and “other” and our respective places in the world.

For me, reflexivity has helped me acknowledge a pattern in how I view activism, with the most U.S.-centric action being the one that I gravitate to most. Here is where my own self-examination begins:

“Why do I think U.S. centered campaigns to be most important?” and “Am I acting in accordance with oppressive ideologies that may in fact be perpetuating western-centrism at worst, and limiting the effect of my activism at best?”

Reflexivity may also help some of us begin to answer the question, Why did I become politically active when I did, and how does that show the privilege and power I hold as an American expat?”

It’s common knowledge that the majority of American expats engaged in active resistance in the wake of the recent election.

The majority of us are completely inept in our ability to reflect on our own behaviors and actions, and way of thinking. In fact, research suggests only 15% of the U.S. adult population engages in reflexivity at all. We are a product of the western narrative, one that espouses knowledge as something that is found entirely outside of the observer.

For more on reflexivity:

Forum on “What is the difference between Reflectivity and Reflexivity?”

In the contexts of social work and anti-oppressive practice (AOP)

In the context of Education

In turning the gaze inwards, we are arriving closer and closer to some semblance of critical consciousness.

Great, so we are now realizing the need for an internal process of unlearning and learning, of a critical need to examine ourselves in our relation to the world (positionality) and for us to be willing to be uncomfortable in the process. What could be missing…

Community. We do not exist in isolation from the world and thus, our learning should be staged within a political context and held in dialogue with others. It is important that we begin to educate ourselves. I would never ask someone else to educate me, as so many white people have done and continue to do (the same goes for cis-gendered men, do your research guys!) However, that doesn’t mean we have to do this alone. Engaging in a co-education with others is how we grow as a community of resistors.

POPULAR EDUCATION and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (full text linked here)

Before I started organizing full time in Colorado, a community organizer from Denver told me, “before you do anything, read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.” I cannot tell you enough how grateful I am for that piece of advice, because it completely changed the way I viewed activism and the process of social justice.

Popular education is education as a practice (or praxis) of freedom. It is an approach to education where participants  engage each other and the educator as co-learners to critically reflect on the issues in their community and then take action to change them. ~From PracticingFreedom.org

In reading Freire, and learning more about the praxis of popular education, I felt I had struck gold: the direct challenge to hierarchical power, the empowerment of students as student-teachers, and a dialogical methodology in tandem with action directed at transforming oppressive ideologies, institutions, and individuals. Popular education is the process of coming into our own as agents of change with a new consciousness that examines oppression and our role in dismantling it. It is deeply political, it is radical, and it is needed. No matter where we may be in our journey we can find immense value in popular education.

So my call to all American expats that are engaging in resistance and anti-oppression is the same call that I am asking of myself. To turn the gaze inwards and look at our own behaviors, actions, ideologies, implicit biases and begin the uncomfortable, if not painful, process of changing ourselves. For anyone not yet familiar with Progressive Action, Global Exchange (PAGE), I would highly recommend checking out their anti-oppression guide, as a place for American expats to begin the process of unlearning/learning. And, in Freirian spirit, I would also call on us to engage in a dialogue on oppression and liberation with each other, engaging in a process of co-education where we can deepen our understanding of oppression, collaborate together in physical spaces (when possible) and support each other in a process of critical self-examination.

From here, we can begin to dive deeper.

Stay tuned for Diving Deeper, Pt II.

Questions, comments, concerns? We love critical feedback! 


Bio: Michael is a Colombian-American organizer, meditator and freestyle poet living in Medellín, Colombia. Raised in Albuquerque, NM, he is also proud to be Burqueño and almost misses Hatch green chile more than his own family.

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