Last updated on August 8th, 2021 at 11:54 am
Juanita Ingram stars alongside her family in an unscripted series, The Expats: International Ingrams, which follows her, her husband Kynon Ingram, Sr. and their two kids as they live an expat life amidst a global pandemic and international uprising in support of Black lives. While Juanita did not initially imagine the journey abroad looking quite like this, she is confident that living abroad during such a historical moment is a great learning experience for her children. She also believes it is an important opportunity to show the world a side of Black families – particularly Black men – rarely showcased in mainstream media.
A Calling to Travel
A native of the small, Southern town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a graduate of the Historically Black Tennessee State University, Ingram’s exposure to international travel was limited growing up. She recalls, “I did not leave this country until my honeymoon when I was twenty-seven years old.” While she had opportunities to travel throughout the US through the YMCA’s Black Achievers program and the INROADS internship program, she felt called to venture beyond the domestic borders of the United States.
Of her calling to live abroad, Juanita says, “I am a Christian. I had an inclination in my spirit that we needed to travel internationally to prepare ourselves for something. I did not know what, but I promise it was there.” Despite skepticism from family and friends who encouraged them to stick closer to home, she remained confident that she and her husband – who had also never been outside of the US – should set their sights on foreign lands. Their first international trip was to Rome and Florence. That trip sparked a commitment to travel abroad every year to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
A few years and two kids later, they took the big leap across the pond for their first expat experience in London, England. Juanita says she’s not sure they would have had the courage or the confidence to make the big move had they not first traveled abroad. “Those international trips to Europe really prepared us. We were horrible travelers in the beginning. Had the fanny packs that we kept everything in, we overpacked, didn’t have the right luggage. But we evolved. And getting exposed, as Black people, to other minorities in different countries gave us the confidence to know that we could live abroad. It demystified things.”
Her commitment to broadening her children’s horizons stems from being responsible for shaping “two little beings” and instilling a value of life having greater meaning beyond self. The decision to share this experience with the world via reality television was informed by the lack of representation of what Ingram feels is a relatable narrative about Black families. She notes that she did not have examples of what it is like to live abroad as a Black American, so it’s important for her to change that. Seeing positive images on a global Black scale “not only impacts how we’re handled in global spaces, but also how we avail ourselves of the opportunities presented. That’s a calling for me. It’s the reason I named my production company Purpose.” Of course, friends, family and colleagues questioned why the attorney would walk away from her ‘good job’ at Rolls Royce, leave the country she shared with them and move thousands of miles away, but Juanita was confident she and her husband had made the right decision.
Purpose and Inspiration
Despite the luxe lifestyle portrayed on the show, living internationally wasn’t smooth sailing at first for the mother of two. While she and her husband feel it is a calling to live outside of the United States, there were moments when she wondered how she would transition her career as an attorney into a new opportunity. Admittedly, Ingram was unprepared to become the ‘trailing spouse’, sharing that it took nearly a year to settle into life in London. “I spent the first four months sitting in this single chair. I would drop my kids off at daycare, I would go and pick them up. In between that time, I sat in that same chair and cried. Every day for four months.”
She later gained the understanding that the ‘lead spouse’ goes into an international move “with immediate purpose: they have a job, they know what they’re going to do when they get up the next morning. I needed to feed the side of me that I was electing to starve in a particular way. Black women are dynamic; we are not a monolith. We are multidimensional people and you have to give yourself permission to be multidimensional in this new space, in this new season, in a new way.”
Feeling it was time to start truly living her purpose, Juanita sought the guidance of a life coach. “When you can’t navigate through something that’s so new,” she explained, “sometimes as Black people, we don’t reach out for help. We don’t raise our hands and say ‘I’m drowning over here’.” Her life coach helped her realize that, while she enjoyed sight-seeing with her husband and their children, the lack of local connection in their absence weighed heavily on her.
Juanita, who had previously competed in Mrs. Pageants in the US, was contacted by the Mrs. World organization with the opportunity to compete in the Mrs. UK Universe competition. “What got me up off the couch was there’s a swimsuit portion. You have to walk towards and away from the judges. So you gotta get up and work out.” She was now pursuing a new purpose, motivated this time by the opportunity to raise awareness and support for her charity of choice, Dress for Success. On this new journey of self-rediscovery, she found that the ethos behind her every decision is empowering women and youth.
The former Mrs. World also found new ways to put her legal knowledge to good use, handling all legal matters for her production company. She cites Iyanla Van Zant and Clive Davis as examples of lawyers who successfully pivoted into creative spaces, passionately describing how she gave herself “permission to expand as an expat. It was the best thing for me professionally because it […] pushed me to think broader about who I was, my self-worth, and my capabilities.” Her strategy of embracing the opportunity to reinvent and explore – rather than focusing on what she was giving up – proved very successful. It led her to write inspirational books for women, a Christian book series on diversity for children, and land her first role in an indie feature film (for which she received a Best Actress nomination from the British Urban Film Festival). She says she really stepped into her new life and “learned how to thrive in this new space of being Black and abroad and fully being myself. I didn’t even realize I had hindered myself. This gave me permission and a platform to be the fullness of who God created me to be.”
The View From Afar
One part of the fullness of Juanita Ingram is her identity as a Black woman and HBCU alumnae. Growing up in predominantly Black environments, from nursery school through her undergraduate schooling, exposed her to the broadness and diversity of the Black diaspora beyond the Black American experience. “Living abroad gives you the ability to see how others see you, how others see America, how others see African-Americans.”
A particular moment Ingram says affirmed the need for her brand of reality programming was an interaction with a Black British woman. The woman had seen an American reality show about Black sorority life and asked Ingram why she behaved so poorly. Ingram, who is a member of a Black Greek organization but was not a cast member on that show, says that reaction from a stranger showed her how the world views African-American women. “Unless you’re exposed to other people internationally, you don’t know how other people are viewing these issues.”
When asked about what it is like being Black in Taiwan amidst social unrest following the string of murders in the US of unarmed Black people by police officers and civilian vigilantes, Ingram described the far-reaching support of the Movement for Black Lives. There was a “Black Lives Matter Taiwan peace solidarity rally. It wasn’t a protest rally because there isn’t police brutality that occurs here against Black people the way it does in the US.” While the country has its fair share of microaggressions and racist violations (like groups that perform in blackface), events and forums, like Taipei Is Listening, create “community safe space events and the formation of action plans to tackle issues Black people face in Taiwan” (KetagalanMedia.com). Juanita says these forums impact the way people navigate conflict and issues of race. They also underscored the importance of a series showing positive, stereotype-breaking images of Black people. Ingram goes on to explain that she believes mistreatment of Black people at home and abroad is often linked to stereotypes and the dehumanization of Black people.
A Global Narrative
Juanita remains committed to altering the narrative around Black life, not only for international audiences, but also for her two children. The younger Ingrams – Kinsley and Kynon, Jr. – may not have been on the planet for very long, but their lived experiences and exposures are more than some people live in the span of eighty years. As Third Culture Kids, they’ve seen twenty four countries, but their parents are intentional about explaining what it means to be African-American. Ingram used the tragic events of summer 2020 and the subsequent rallies as an opportunity to educate her daughter on what it is to navigate the world in a Black body. Her mother has also recounted incidents Stateside, such as a police officer placing his hand on his gun when he pulled her over during a simple traffic stop and a neighbor calling the cops on her children who were selling lemonade at the neighborhood pool. Having these difficult discussions while living abroad, however, allowed Juanita’s children to see things from a global lens and to understand that they are not the only marginalized peoples in the world.
The multi-hyphenate goes on to describe her appreciation for the experiences of people she has encountered in her time abroad. On an evening stroll in Taiwan, her family bumped into a Black man from Atlanta with whom they shared the universal ‘nod’. She explains the importance of that moment of connection in an environment that is very homogenous. “What I’ve found here is that there are so many people who are open to exploring different cultures and learning about one another and celebrating [each other’s differences] that it is beautiful. Even in this setting where the differences are far more extreme than what they were in London, the commonality of the spirit of people is something that unites us globally, more often than we think.”
The actress, producer, lawyer, pageant participant and nonprofit director says she will always be a mother and a wife first. When asked what advice she has for families looking to follow in the footsteps of the International Ingrams, she emphasizes the importance of knowing that “you always have each other and that, fundamentally, home is wherever you all are. Be flexible and remember that there is strength in the family unit and you can get through any transition, any change, as long as you stick together and know that there’s power and solidarity in family. Be open: change presents opportunities, not always obstacles. Yes, it will be challenging, but change is a good thing. The only things that aren’t growing are things that are dead. So be open to the opportunity for growth in these moments.”