Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In Russia, Caucasians are Black

I was asked to comment last Sunday on whether racism in Russian was
worse or better than racism in the South (of the United States). And
I really couldn't answer the question with anything other than – it's
different. For one thing, I haven't been in Russia for a long enough
with enough language comprehension to have picked up on racially
structuring in Russia in anything other than a throughly academic
manner. (After however many years living full-time in Petersburg our
baby-sitter has picked up on the racial constructs, he went around the
room during orientation and picked out who might run into problems
because they do not fit the Russian, Orthodox ideal. Incidentally, my
Southern socialized mind would have classified all of them as white.)
Academically, I know that persons from the Caucasuses are referred to
as chernyi -- literally "black." It's a rude term, but not beyond the
pale, I've heard my eight year old host sister using it in a
discussion about her classmates with her grandmother, and while I
didn't catch all the implications it wasn't so much hateful as it was
entirely dismissive. (I had an awkward moment when my host mother and
grandmother asked if Memphis was a dangerous city, and when I said
that it was somewhat dangerous, one of them automatically followed up
with: "Well, don't you have a lot of blacks there?")

However, Russia has confirmed that yours truly is not color-blind.
I'm used to Memphis. Even if Rhodes remains mostly upper middle class
and white, I am used to Memphis. Russia is surrealistic in its
whiteness. All of the advertising features white people. Smiling
white Russian families – not necessarily blond haired and blue-eyed,
but definitely white (with rosy cheeks). A subtle difference from
American advertising which seems to shoot for a more pluralistic
ideal. (Gender stereotyping is just as bad, if not worse in Russia.)
The vast, vast majority of people I meet in the streets are white to
my mind. I have a sneaking suspicion that not everyone I would
classify as white is "white" by Russian standards. And on the
reverse, if my host sister were suddenly transplanted to Memphis, on
first glance, I think many people would decide she was Mexican, not
Russian. I saw a black man in the streets a couple weeks ago and felt
relieved at some odd restoration of normalcy. If I lived more toward
the center of the city, I think the surreal effects would be worse.
I'm in a working-class neighborhood, so there are more immigrants
living here than might be elsewhere.

So, yes, I'm quite aware of "race" in my white Southern-bred way. I
knew that, but now I know that.