July 05, 2020

Racism Here and There


Racism Here and There
People's Friendship University in Moscow. ROMANYEL (cc)

I would not have decided to write on this topic, were I not directly impacted by the notorious problems facing minorities of color in both Russia and the US.

When, seven years ago, it became known that my family was moving from Moscow to Madison, dozens of people asked “Why?” In an attempt to explain the situation, I simply showed them a photo of my family: we all were born in Moscow, but the whims of Fate decreed that two of our five members fall under the ridiculous designation “Afro-Russians.” And back then many reacted by saying, “Oh, c’mon, it’s not like people are chasing you with axes, are they?”

Well, all sorts of things were possible in Russia, especially 15-20 years ago. Some Muscovites may recall how serious the problem was with groups of Nazi-skinheads back then. We had rented an apartment not far from People's Friendship University (named for Patrice Lumumba), and visited the club there for parents of “mixed-blood children.” And we followed the city’s statistics on racially-inspired attacks with some interest (one had to be particularly alert on days when there were soccer matches).

Yet something else was even more important: it was both strange and discomforting to be, from birth, a foreigner in one’s own country. You don’t know how to answer when you are regularly and constantly asked – normally good-naturedly – about your nationality. Because, excuse me, there is no nationality known as “black” or “Afro-Russian.” And yet, if you answer “Russian,” then people’s reaction will be amusing. And, should you counter with a question about the “Afro-Russian” nationality of Pushkin, it will be met with a condescending smile.

To pass one’s life like a foreigner surrounded by what should be one’s own people is not only unpleasant, but also not always safe.

When we arrived in Wisconsin, we chanced to rent an inexpensive home in a nice section of the city and my son once again was the only black on his street. Yet it was an entirely different feeling. And although for me moving to another country had a very high cost, as a father I had to accept that, for this change of feeling alone, moving was worth it. We were quite pleased that there were no longer any suspicious glares or strange questions.

Of course, the 2017 Nazi marches in in Virginia opened our eyes to the fact that, thanks to the American custom of smiling charmingly, a confirmed fascist could even look like Santa Claus. It is strange to think that any pleasant person one meets on the street could be hiding a swastika tattoo under their shirt. Yet, when you pass them on the street, they do not blurt out, “kill the blacks,” and we are quite fine with that. And the theoretical possibility of running into a maniac-cop is not quite the same as the daily habit of having to check the Moscow metro car before entering it with your wife and child, to make sure there are not any aggressively inclined, shaved-head groups on board.

In recent days on the Russian internet there have been far too many statements to the effect that racism in modern America is an invention of the blacks, and that this is something that could not happen in Russia, thanks to its perceived lack of racial diversity, which is, by they way, far from true. The craziest tirades typically begin with the words, “I am not a racist, but…” It seems that most Russians’ misunderstanding of the complexity of this topic, and of the deeper roots of the American unrest, stems from the fact that discussions on the modern nuances of the struggle for human rights have only just begun in Russia.

Here is just one example of the many statements I found in Russian language social media:

“I am not a racist, but take the example of blacks in Italy. They are all healthy, yet they don’t work, asking for handouts and trading in drugs, and I understand well that God forbid you should meet more than one of them in an uninhabited place – in a best case they would eat you… It’s not for nothing that nature separated us onto different continents.”

On the other hand, here is a simple example of how modern standards of decency are regulated in practice in the US. My American neighbor, Andrey (formerly a Muscovite who lived near Taganka), had his garage robbed just before Christmas. The thieves took a whole bunch of his tools. A theft like this is a rarity here, so he posted about it on Facebook. And one of his Moscow acquaintances replied, “Migrants? Black guys?” And then on that very same day there followed a post from a representative of the neighborhood association:

Andrey Solomon. In this country, everyone is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, regardless of ethnicity, or race, or religion. So it’s best just to answer the questions the police have for you about the possible crime. In other words, it’s not considered helpful to speculate on the ethnicity or race or religion of whomever may have committed the possible crime. Cheers! May you have a good holiday season.

One of my acquaintances said of this, “Not bad, Komsomol committee! And where is your Comrades’ Court and public censure?”

Yes, there is a bit of that. And yet such attentiveness reliably insures us against obscenities such as, “Apartment for rent to a Slavic family,” or “We offer the services of a ‘Slavic driver,’” or, to quote from a text from the famous Russian actor Ivan Okhlobystin, “I am doing my damndest, and I will educate my daughters such that they never bring home a black man.” Okhlobystin remains famous and his career has not been hurt by this or by his many other hateful statements.

Madison has repeatedly ranked highly in popular ratings of American cities for its quality of life, and yet Wisconsin is one of the top states in the nation as regards to racial inequalities. The black population here is just 6 percent, and is basically unrepresented in the local middle class. As they say, there is plenty to work on here, yet it is encouraging that the public is taking that work on.

My Soviet-era secondary school was just so-so, yet I am grateful to it for giving me the firm belief that class prejudice always outranks racial prejudice. On a video shot in New York during the recent tense nights of protest, a good looking Russian-speaking guy said, “We simply want this all to end, so that we can walk the streets, smile at one another, go into a store and make our purchases.”

This is how it is, and I am certain that if the children of today’s black “hooligans” are given a chance to make purchases in that way, they too would be smiling no less sincerely.

Tags: expatsracism

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