Saturday, January 20, 2007

Low class behavior or racism?

Where does lack of class end and racism begin? Reading the entire furor about the behaviour of Jade and co. on CBB has given me a lot to think about in the last few days.
The issue of people not being able to pronounce or write your name properly, even though they pronounce Polish names with ten consonants after the other without battling an eye has always annoyed me. I saw a post by the editor of a German Expat newspaper about a couple getting married. The father of the bride, I think, was not German. So, basically, when the official at the registry was calling out the names- she prefaced saying the bride’s name with “ now here comes the tongue twister”.

Subtle racism at work

I get that at work all the time, with people giving excuses like “you know that is an unusual name for our European ears”- (yes idiot, your own name is also unusual for my African ears, yet I say it properly), or “Whoa… please spell that out”. My colleague, with whom I shared an office for a year, still spells my four-letter first name wrongly.

I moved cities for work, and had to go get registered at the city council, and my then boss said something like “ it might be a bit difficult, they might think you are an asylum seeker”. Now, I’ve lived in several countries and faced more than my fair share of racial abuse (see previous post Xenophobia in Russia) but nobody has ever seen me and thought I was a refugee ( nothing personal against geniune asylum seekers). So, I took offence to his words and he excused himself by saying that “I’m only trying to prepare you for the “public servant mentality”, your other east European colleague also faced this at the airport”. Well, I went to the town hall and registered and was done in five minutes, with no stupid questions asked. So, who has a mentality problem?

Relationships and racism

One of the reasons why I’ve been interested in seeing people’s reaction is that C.K. always says that I’m overreacting. Most of the time, I never react at those people, but get home and talk with him about what happened and why it upset me. And he says, you are overreacting, they are just badly brought up people and don’t know how to behave, or he says, ah, just ignore them. When I expressed my lack of enthusiasm about visiting his sister, whose favourite topic of discussion is black people (I am tired of being the conversation)- for him I’m just being too sensitive. They are only trying to learn, and I’m always too sensitive anyway and he has never met anyone as sensitive as I am. When I refused to attend the 80th birthday of his uncle who just sits and stares at me though, he didn’t make a fuss and just said he knew I wouldn’t go.


Now, C.K. is the least racially prejudiced person I know. Even I am more prejudiced towards black people who are illegal for no reason other than the fact that they think that in Europe the streets just flow with milk and honey. But his way of burying his head in the sand when it comes to racial issues scares me. Will he be able to stand up for our unborn child if that child gets taunted in school, or will he just tell him to chin up?
I mean, if someone calls a black person a Negro around him, he immediately says a sentence about "yeah and we europeoids..." or something like that, to sort of alert the person to the fact that he thinks its wrong, but still his usual reaction to racism is to become cool and snobbish with the person acting in the offensive way. Unfortunately, that only extends to strangers. For closer people, he always has an excuse.
This attitude worries me when I think about our life together on the long term.

Wie bitte?

Having lived in Russia, I do think racism amongst the unexposed is based on ignorance. A lot of my Russian classmates used to apologise before asking a question. They would say “you know we have no clue about these things, that’s why we are asking you. Please don’t be offended”.
I have an Ukrainian friend here, my main reason for becoming close with her was because I wanted to get the opportunity of speaking Russian on a regular basis so as not to forget the language. She saw some movies at my place one day and decided she wanted to borrow them. Two days later, she called me on my mobile and told me she had finished watching one of the movies and had found it extremely funny. So, I asked which one, not in my wildest dreams expecting what came next. “ The one with all those ni**ers”, she said. I was like “ wie bitte?” (as in “ excuse me?”). I guess she knew she had made a big blunder then, because I am very level headed and never react so violently. She then said, “ I mean the one with the mulattoes… with the coloured people… I don’t know what to call them!!!” she finally said, sounding very distressed. Now she is a bush girl. A literarily very bush girl, from the backwoods of Ukraine, so I sort of understood that she was uneducated about blacks etc, but, that was no excuse in my opinion. About a week later, she and her bf came visiting and I was cool with her. Close to the end of their visit, she called me aside and apologized for having offended me. She said “you know where I’m from and how ignorant I am about such things” .Of course I willingly forgave her and when I look back now, I find her distress and misyarns really funny.


Now, people like C.K.'s sister, who thinks she belongs to the crème de la crème and who still finds it okay to discuss race and colour condescendingly at every diner party in other to show how open they are, I have no excuse for them. C.K. says, they are not racist, see how they opened their home to you, they are just very open people, blah, blah- don’t take it like they are racist. One evening, this sister really overdid things in the presence of her other sister visiting from Canada. And at the same dinner, a childhood friend of theirs (in her forties) said in my presence that “we have always called black people Negroes, and I don’t see why we need to change now, after all, whether I call them black or coloured or Negroes, I still mean the same thing. Now, in German, the word for Negro is Neger, so you can see how a black person might find that offensive. The next day, his elder sister came to my house and apologized for her sister’s behaviour saying that the problem is with her not with me, as in she has always lived in this town and is unexposed to the outside world and that it was unacceptable (this sister had made her own blunder in the past though, more about that some other time). I think she must have had a talk with her sister, because there has been no recurrence since then. Although it could also have to do with the fact that I go there less frequently. Yet my darling C.K. still defended her behaviour. That occasion really made me see him in a different light. Even though he is ashamed of their behaviour (he admitted once, very long ago to being ashamed of his sister’s behaviour), he still feels the need to defend them. So basically, now, I’m very sensitive and too proud and always take things wrongly. See me see trouble o. I am the one who has been wronged, but am the one who gets the blame. So in all these narratives, does anyone out there think I’m overly sensitive?


Chxta said...

Extremely interesting perspectives...

April said...

I don't think you're being overly sensitive.

Atala Wala Wala said...


I don't think that there is a universal standard of sensitivity. The black person who has suffered racial abuse all his life will have a different sensitivity from the black person who has never experienced this. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult navigating the murky waters of what is and isn't acceptable. So I'm not going to make a judgment on whether you're being too sensitive or not.

Having said all that, do you make a distinction between someone making a racist comment and someone being racist?

Regarding the inability of Westerners to pronounce African names, I don't think it's necessarily down to racism. Perhaps Germans are more used to Polish names because Poland borders Germany? In the UK, I observe a general inability to pronounce many non-English names.

This doesn't make it any less irritating to have your name misspelt or pronounced. I've got to the stage where I don't even pronounce my name - I just spell it out using the phonetic alphabet, because I don't want to risk having a wrong entry in a form or on a cheque. But it doesn't bother me as much because these people are strangers - it would mean much more if someone close to me refused to make an effort to pronounce my name correctly.

Akin said...

In the not too distant future, I should write about my experiences of racism, but I have been in many situations where people have questioned my partner about going out with a black guy.

As for being sensitive, the most important thing is to feel right in your own skin then if anyone has a problem, it is their problem, hardly ever yours or mine.

Marin said...

Thank you all for your comments.

@ atala wala wala,
I make a distinction between someone making a racist comment and someone being racist. That is because like you rightly said, people's life experiences have a great effect on their world view and determines what they percieve to be racist or not. Thats the reason why it is sometimes difficult to agree as to whether a comment is racist or not. For instance, if one says half-caste in Nigeria, its not meant badly, infact it can be a compliment to say someone looks like a half-caste, meanwhile here in the west, its practically a racial insult.
So, many times racist comments are not meant to hurt and are just a result of ignorance. Racist behaviour on the other hand, whether or not it is due to ignorance, is meant to hurt or to look down on people. Now, sometimes, racist behaviours are exibited in racist comments.... this is getting way too complicated... why can't we all just live in peace and with mutual respect????


I agree that its most important to feel right in your skin, but, sometimes,one can lose that as well. Which is why it is of great importance to have friends and family who truly deeply love you and know you and who are always there for you no matter what, so you can retreat into their bosom to refuel for life's battles.

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