Still Black, Still in Russia

Well, as any reader of the blog knows, I'm still white, but I wanted to upload a guest post from my friend. A shocking three, almost four years ago, he wrote a post for me about being black in Moscow.
All these years on, he's still rocking it in Moscow and on his way to temporary residence. So, her are some of his insights.

Yeah, maybe you shouldn't judge a book by it’s cover but it happens. What are the facts about blacks in Russia?  If your black and your in Russia, you’re called “Nigger”.  I personally rather not roll my “R” for that word, so that  It’s pronounced –Niggah- .

Now I know what you’re thinking, “oh that’s racist”. Is it?
In the past Russia may have been a country known to be “more closed”
 towards foreigners, but it has always had international folks like students. I’m no history major but I do know Africans that studied here in the late seventies so… let’s be real here, limited as it may have been, exposure was there.

 I have been here a few years now and I've only heard people use the word to describe. Of course I'm not suggesting that in Russian language class, the adjective chart read: Pretty, small, Nigger, short, long, tall or something like that, I'm just saying it’s used to describe people that look of African decent. If your wondering why not the word “black”? It’s because it is used for others like Armenians, Georgians (that’s the country, not  the state in America) Azerbaijan and so on. I could tell you plenty of stories about old ladies asking me if I was a N- word, I've reached my limit for the day, but yeah that, and the pleasant conversations that we had after some insightful exchange and a few laughs. Teens also, that talk to me like we’re in some rap video… “ Yo what’s up my NNNN Ninja”

Ok, so what is it like to be the raison in the pudding? I’ll touch on the subject of judging a book by it’s cover. I’ll keep it simple so that it’s not long read.

Remember, they’re not my views, just what I’ve gathered is societies views here:

Often, I feel that I can be categorized as one of the following based on how I’m dress but other things factor in as well. 

Jeans and a bright t-shirt= “Poor African, he must be studying so hard in school”.

Most people that do approach me, will ask what I am studying. Reasonable to assume I guess. I would be shocked if they asked me if I was running for a political position. So student, why not? There are many students from Africa here. 

 Gym clothes near a gym or park= “Must be an athlete here to play for one the Russian teams”.

Given my body type, people will ask me if I am a boxer or some sort of athlete. No, but It’s good I guess, just don’t ask me if I do ballet.
Again, why not?  There are some people that come to Russia to play sports here and compete representing local and even national teams.  Russia’s women’s 2008 Olympic team had an American competing in it, against the Americans!!  Say what you want but both countries are red, white and blue so… whatever, off topic.

Gym clothes in transit somewhere to a gym or park: “ I bet he sells drugs”
I have been approached a couple times and asked if I sold drugs. Just because I look like I'm dressed in my running clothes, doesn't mean that I am ready to run from police. Also, if I sold drugs, why would I be walking?   No one has ever asked me what is in the gym bag oddly enough? But I guess they can smell it. I know, that’s raw, sorry for the visual.

Sun glasses= He must be a rapper.
Thanks VH1 and MTV,  but no I'm not. Unless you are a pretty Russian girl who likes rappers. In that case I can do a decent impression. It may not rhyme, but it doesn't matter because you won’t understand 80% of what I am saying anyway.

Trust me, I can go on for hours but I’ll stop there. I know, you might think I'm just stereotyping, but keep in mind that the exposure that Russian have as it relates to this topic is similar to that, that countries may have on Russia and therefore likely limited to hear say, news reports and television. That said, no matter what your political opinion is, people here seem to really like a certain president that happens to be black. One whose last name rhymes with “ Yo mama”.
I might touch on other things a different day, for now I’d say it’s still 50-50. Love it or leave it, it’s Russia.  

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Anna on October 15, 2013 at 12:38 AM said...

Thanks for pointing out the importance of context and exposure. How very interesting that in a totally different [from Western] culture, 'nigger' is the benign descriptive while 'black' is the harsh racial slur.

Anonymous said...

What about Latin Americans with brown skin? is the same for them?!

Thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

Nevermind i just checked on youtube... gosh... Russia is a very scary country...

Lt. Columbo on August 5, 2014 at 2:40 PM said...

ha, yes, it can be!

Anonymous said...

Well, there you go, a classic case of a Westerner who doesn't speak Russian reacting the wrong way to a common word he has misunderstood. The Russian word "негр" does NOT mean "nigger." It simply means "negro" and is a neutral way of referring to the race of a black person.

It is no more either disrespectful or respectful than when Obama refers to a black American as "black." Because the Russian word "негр" sounds like English "nigger" to people who don't speak Russian it is very frequently misunderstood to mean "nigger" instead of being a perfectly neutral word, "negro."

Russians don't have an elaborate system of code words like Americans do for their racial typing. There is no such thing as "African American," "person of color," "black" or other idiotic code words, as if all blacks in America are "African" or all blacks in America are "Americans," as if they are black instead of a deep brown or other sorts of euphemisms which Americans and other Westerners lap up but which don't make any sense for Russians who are just using a classic, simple word that is a purely technical description of race, as neutral as a Westerner might find "caucasian" to refer to whites or "asian" to refer to, well, asians.

Well traveled Russians, by the way, are perfectly aware that Westerners who don't speak Russian at times will blow a fuse thinking they have been insulted when they hear a perfectly neutral word, so they advise each other on how to avoid such misunderstandings: use some euphemism that the Westerners will not understand.

My wife and I, for example, refer to blacks as "shokos," a contraction for the Russian word for "chocolate" - we use that word even here at home so that we are used to it and won't be accidentally tripped up and attacked in the West.

By the way, one side effect of Russia having virtually no blacks, so few that in my provincial city in the middle of Russia one can easily go an entire year without seeing a single black, is that we do not have the highly evolved racially-centric system of the US. Eskimos may be famously said to have a thousand words for "snow" because they are always around snow, but if you don't have any examples of someone or something where you life you don't evolve a lot of words, either for or against. So there really aren't any Russian words that are specific pejoratives against blacks they way American English has. There literally is no Russian equivalent to "nigger."

If Russians want to use a pejorative word to slam a black, they have to make do with some generic word, the most frequently used probably being "monkey."

Lt. Columbo on February 3, 2015 at 2:35 PM said...

i've heard Russians say афроамериканец to refer to black people (even if they're not American) and also, in films, i hear nigger translated as нигер.
Very relevant point with the eskimo example tho

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