Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Woman of Color in Russia

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Woman of Color in Russia

Article excerpt

My Black skin and African-style braids attracted the curious stares of several Russian workers and guests standing in the lobby of The President's hotel in Moscow. The staff member handling my check-out was no exception.

"I'm really curious to know how they make those braids," she wondered aloud in her native tongue. One of her colleagues knowingly replied, "Oh, someone does it for them when they're a child and then they keep it like that for the rest of their lives."

This exchange generated a mixture of emotions in me: amusement at her attempt to sound knowledgeable; outrage at the outright lie; and a desire to set her straight. I could act on only of these feelings. So, in Russian and with a slight smile I said, "Actually, I change this style every two to three months."

After the initial gasp of surprise, the two women eagerly entered into conversation with me. They laughed heartily at their previous statement and jumped at the opportunity to ask me some more questions. I responded factually and cordially, and at their request even let them get a closer look at my hair.

Colleagues, family and friends often ask me, "What's it like for a Black person in Russia? Is there racism there?"

In my six years as a student at a Russian university I never received lower grades because of the color of my skin. Then and during subsequent visits over the last three years, I don't recall having been refused a service, denied access, or in anyway segregated because of my skin color. I have not experienced institutional racism in Russia.

As the above experience shows, however, travel, work and life for a Black person in Russia is not without its challenges.

What little the average Russian knows about Blacks has been learned from limited and questionable sources. The Soviet press used to pass onto its citizenry selected images of the Western world intended to prove just how bad the rest of the world was and what a socialist mecca they lived in. Those images included the inferior status in which people of color have been held in the United States. So, many Russians have accepted the notion that Blacks are inferior. These people perpetuate racist attitudes.

A limited number of African-Americans migrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s at the invitation of the Soviet government. In the late 1950s, students from Africa and the Caribbean began to study in larger cities. While most Muscovites and residents of other large cities have seen Blacks, they often have had no direct contact or communication with them. Many Russians have never seen a Black person in their lives.

So, what should the person of color expect in Russia? How should one behave?

* You can expect to be stared at and sometimes groped at, as if you stepped off another planet. This is particularly true outside the larger cities. Children, even adults, will want to touch your hair. You will be asked questions which seem rude but really reflect their lack of exposure. Try not to take offense. It's best to either ignore the question or the attitude and to respond in a friendly manner.

* Don't take personally the rudeness of shop assistants and other people we typically think are there to serve us. In fact, it's best not to get too upset at rudeness in general. It will often have nothing to do with the color of your skin, as a quick look around will assure you. …

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