Why young people of color are getting the hell out of the U.S.
“Something clicked for plenty of Black Americans like myself. We asked ourselves, ‘What are we actually doing here?’”
Being a minority in the U.S. is the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. Growing up, everything from my cultural values to my appearance seemed to be at odds with the dominant culture. Anyone can have anxiety around not belonging, but being a person of color in America makes that anxiety inescapable. When I was younger, I thought about my race all the time, because people around me were constantly pointing it out. I was the “Asian kid” or the “Mexican kid” (depending on how people perceived my race), and before I entered any room in my predominantly white Texas school, my first thought would always be: I hope they’ve seen people like me before.
“Being the representative of one’s race or ethnicity is a lot of pressure and causes stress,” Dior Vargas, a mental health activist who provides education and resources to communities of color, tells me. “It makes sense that people of color would move where they feel more supported because psychological safety is extremely important to one’s quality of life.”
That’s exactly what many young people of color are doing — and as increasing numbers of Gen Zers and Millennials become expats, many of them are taking to social media to discuss it. On TikTok, the hashtag #movingabroad has more than 172 million views, and some of the top creators — like Krys Tha Sis (@beyonceibnidas) and Amber (@thedreamerslens) — are Black and brown people talking about how moving out of the country was the best thing they’ve done for their mental health and trying to persuade the rest of us to leave.
“I saw that grass, in fact, was greener in other places, especially as a Black woman.”
Of course, while this may be a relatively new trending conversation on social media, there’s a long and illustrious tradition of people of color, especially Black people, leaving America for a better life abroad. Over the course of decades, Black female celebrities including Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and Tina Turner all relocated to different countries, as PBS reported — and they were all quite clear about why. “I ran away from home. I ran away from St. Louis, and then I ran away from the United States of America, because of that terror of discrimination, that horrible beast which paralyzes one's very soul and body,” Baker said in a 1952 speech upon returning to her hometown of St. Louis to perform after having relocated to Paris.
30 years later, James Baldwin told The Paris Review that he left America because of racism; and 15 years after that, Turner told Larry King in an interview that she moved across the pond because “my success was in another country,” and “Europe has been very supportive of my music” — significantly more so than the U.S. More recently, Ta-Nahisi Coates, who wrote Between the World and Me, moved to Paris in 2015 because he felt the French respected him more and because he wanted his son to live in a country with less gun violence, he told the Financial Times.
There’s a sense that they’re fleeing an insidious form of persecution, one that forces them to look over their shoulders when they walk down the street or carry a feeling of perpetually being one paycheck away from financial ruin.
Although we’re supposedly living in more progressive times, the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic have raised new questions about whether staying in America is even worth it. Gen-Z is the most diverse generation of Americans so far, yet they live in a country overwhelmingly run by aging white men — who aren’t exactly doing a great job (see: mass shootings, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and soaring inflation, in recent months alone). According to a Harvard poll from December 2021, more than half of young people feel democracy in America is under threat, and one-third believe things are bad enough to lead to a civil war (in fact, right-wingers have been actively threatening just that lately).
In response to the state of U.S politics that feels increasingly oppositional to their existence, people of color are reverse migrating to their parents’ homelands (according to the Wilson Center, 29% of reverse migration to Mexico was a result of ‘nostalgia’) or moving to countries they’ve never been to.
For anyone who grew up believing in or being taught the lie of American exceptionalism, the idea that things could be better elsewhere may be a novel one. But for young people of color, this doesn’t feel like a radical idea. Part of that comes from a feeling that there’s no real upward mobility in the U.S. Almost one-third of people ages 18 to 25 live with their parents, according to a 2022 Credit Karma study, a product of soaring rent and wages that simply aren’t keeping up with inflation. Janelle "Jash" Cooper, a 25-year-old teacher and influencer, can relate. Cooper was born and raised in the U.S., and has lived in Italy, Senegal, South Korea, Haiti, and Mexico since graduating from Tuskegee University in 2019. She has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, but tells me none of the jobs she applied to post-graduation offered the wages or benefits she wanted, so she took a leap of faith and left the country.
“As a foreigner, I didn’t carry the weight of the [systemic] oppression that I once did in the U.S.”
“I saw that grass, in fact, was greener in other places, especially as a Black woman,” she says. Cooper, who currently lives in Mexico and managed to get visas abroad by working as a teacher, says her work/life balance leans more toward the “life” part, because the cost of living in most places is actually manageable.
That’s not to say everywhere outside the U.S. is a utopia. Cooper admits that each country she’s lived in has its share of problems, but she’s felt more at ease everywhere else than she did at home. She says there’s a certain and immediate sense of calmness and freedom she experiences as a Black person abroad that she can’t access when she’s in the U.S.
For one, racism in other countries doesn’t always take on the deadly form that it does in the U.S. Widespread access to guns disproportionately kills Black Americans — and 1 in every 1,000 Black men in the U.S. can expect to be killed by police, according to a 2019 study published in the journal PNAS. Living in countries where that isn’t a concern can free up a lot of mental headspace. “Leaving the States was not me running away, but rather, running toward the lifestyle I always dreamed of,” Cooper says. “Seeking out the things that seem unattainable for people that look like me.”
Others are leaving the country in search of things as pragmatic as universal healthcare. The American healthcare system is known globally for all the wrong reasons: In 2020, we spent $4.1 trillion, or $12,530 per person on healthcare, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and let’s not even dwell on the fact that a single ambulance ride averages $940. We live in one of the only countries in the world without socialized healthcare, and the U.S. ranks dead last among wealthy countries when it comes to healthcare.
“Something clicked for plenty of Black Americans like myself. We asked ourselves, ‘What are we actually doing here?’”
Vanessa M.W., a Mexican-American who lives in Germany and has an Instagram dedicated to teaching people how to live abroad, believes living abroad allows people to build wealth much faster than in the U.S. because of robust safety nets that don’t exist at home. Since leaving the U.S., M.W. — who works remotely for a tech company — lived in China and the U.K., before moving to Germany and obtaining a work visa. “One awesome benefit in Germany is the amazing sick leave policy,” she tells me.
Germany requires employers to pay for up to a staggering six weeks of sick leave; if someone is sick for more than six weeks, they get fired, right? Nope — if they can prove they’ve had the same physical or mental illness, they can get an extension called Krankengeld, or paid sick leave for up to 72 weeks. Compare that to the U.S., where there’s no federal law requiring companies to provide paid sick leave. And although Germany is a predominantly white country, M.W. admits there’s some real passport privilege: When people learn she’s American, they treat her with a respect that she doesn’t get back at home. She also tells me that, even when racism does rear its head, it mostly manifests itself as passive-aggressive behavior as opposed to violence.
Finding reprieve from violent racism seemed to be a huge motivating factor for most of the people I spoke with, many of whom chose to move to Mexico specifically. For people of color, Mexico exemplifies so many of the allures of leaving America: It’s a predominantly non-white country, the cost of living is relatively low, and it’s rich with culture. Nasir Fleming is a 25-year-old content manager from Connecticut who moved to Mexico City in 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Fleming, who is Black and queer, tells me his mental health was at an all-time low when he decided to make the move. “Something clicked for plenty of Black Americans like myself,” he tells me. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are we actually doing here?’”
“Leaving the States was not me running away, but rather, running toward the lifestyle I always dreamed of.”
When he left the country, much of the depressive fog began to lift. “When I moved to Mexico, I could truly just exist,” he says. “I could breathe. I didn’t have to worry about getting assaulted or shot by the police solely on the basis of my skin color.” Among the things that helped him breathe easier: access to fresh fruits and vegetables, affordable healthcare, housing, and transportation. “Granted, Blackness isn’t particularly highly regarded in Latin America, but as a foreigner, I didn’t carry the weight of the [systemic] oppression that I once did in the U.S.,” he says.
Disengaging from politics in a new country is a privilege, of course, but it’s a privilege increasingly more Americans have the desire to exercise. The places they’re moving to are far from perfect, but relocating abroad is less about finding a place without problems than it is about looking for a better quality of life — oxymoronically, the very thing immigrants come to America for. Jonathan Perez, a 36-year-old Mexican-American who was born in New York City, currently helps run his family’s East Harlem restaurant, Ollin — but he says running the business has become increasingly complicated, thanks to soaring food and rent prices. For the past two years, Perez has been scheming a move to Mexico; once he gets his finances together, he tells me, he’ll get the hell out. His parents are also planning to go back to their hometowns in Mexico once they retire. They all feel like they’ve hustled enough in America and are ready to move on.
People of color are moving to the types of places where they don’t have to worry about being “the only one,” being profiled by police, or having to choose between decent healthcare or a decent place to live. Although they have the privileges of U.S. citizenship and remote jobs paid in U.S. dollars, there’s also a sense that they’re fleeing an insidious form of persecution, one that forces them to look over their shoulders when they walk down the street or carry a feeling of perpetually being one paycheck away from financial ruin. “[In the U.S.] we have to work twice as hard to get half as far, and it is exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Cooper says. “Deciding to move abroad was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”