Tuesday, 26 May 2009

One (unintentionally) racist Azeri Rottweiler

A friend stopped by for a coffee. I was, as usual, moaning. This time, about my lower back that was suddenly in pain. I told her I bet it was caused by the latest Pilates class I had started attending locally. It was just way too advanced for me, I said.
Who is the teacher? – My friend asked since she knew the field pretty well.
Describing the guy, I said I thought he was black.

You think? - She laughed- How is that possible? Surely, you must know if he is black or not!?

Oh, wow, I thought, very pleased with myself. This is it: I have reached the ultimate non-racist state of mind! My husband can be proud of me: I am officially purified and cleared of any racist Soviet influences, whatsoever.

Because, I hate to say this, but ex-Soviets can be pretty racist. Without even realizing that they are, as it is often the case.

In my Baku days, I don't remember meeting many black people. In fact, I met three: One at university, one at work, and one from the US embassy.

And that is my excuse for my racist Rottweiler. ( It had to be a Rottweiler, didn’t it? Poor thing. Talk of the prejudice and bigotry!) He had not met any coloured humans in his short life- not until he was placed in a very large box and flown in to London. Having had emerged out of the 6-months jail (yet another excuse for his behaviour) my dog would go berserk at every black person he saw. Fortunately, dogs are not humans. And it only took him a few weeks to realize it is not the colour of somebody’s skin he should be guarding me against.

And this morning, as if exclusively for this posting, my Russian colleague came over offering me a cup of tea.

- You take it black, right?- she asked me in Russian.
- Yes please- I answered
- Cherniy kak negr? (Black like a negr? )?- She asked happily, laughing away.

There is no easy way to describe the stunned silence in the office, as everyone was wondering if they really heard what they thought they heard. And I don’t think she understood what the problem was.

In Russian language, the word “negr” has always been, and still is, the official term for a black person. If you try to use the word black in Russia, they will most probably think you are talking about Azeries, Armenians or Georgians.

I had this debate with my parents, who kept using the word loudly in central London, and then argue with me that it was not an offensive term in Russian. Yes, I know it is not meant to be, despite the fact that it sounds dangerously similar to the very racist idiom in English. Meant or not, you might not have time to explain as your teeth get knocked out on London underground. The world has moved on, leaving Russia and its ex-Soviet brothers way behind on this one. And of course, America has moved on even further, so I will probably insult a few people because I used the word black.

A British friend of mine, of Chinese origin, was told off at work in the States, for using the word Oriental.

-Shhhh! You can not use this word anymore!- they hissed at her
-Eh? What am I to use then? I am Oriental! - She exclaimed

They told her she had to use the word Asian instead.

-But hold on, -she laughed- When we say Asian in UK, we mean Indian, not Chinese? That surely, will be confusing?

But such is the crazy, silly world we live in.


  1. During the late 1990s in Baku, when I was less enlightened about the politically correct ways to describe various races (they did not teach us those things back at home where the society was fairly mono-racial), my American coworker told me I cannot say "negro" but should say "African American" instead. The term puzzled me, and did not really sink in until I came to the States a few years later. Black Americans are pretty much the only ones who can call themselves "nigga" (a slang for "negro") and mean
    it in a non-derogatory way.

    Now, I am officially confused as to which one is the correct term - Asian or Oriental? I had a woman of this race correct our American professor in class in the US, saying he should use the word "Oriental" and not "Asian." Go figure.

  2. My daughter had a misfortune of receiving a name which sounds beautiful in Azeri but can start a riot here in the US. Her given name is Nigar. Of course, she had her share of frustrations at school over the years. But now that she is a teenager, I am starting to realize that our kids are living in a post-racial world. My daughter has white, hispanic, asian, and black friends, who joke freely about their racial and ethnic origins. They don't seem to care in the least about political correctness.

    As to the asian/oriental confusion, I think we can write it off as a simple difference between American English and British English. "A rose by any other name", so to speak.

  3. I know, this is such a shame, my cousin's daughter is called Nigar too.
    I am pleased to hear all that stuff about the new generation being more relaxed, and able to joke about this stuff. I think in my circle in the UK we are able to do that too. That fills me with hope that there are still normal people left in this world.

  4. This is a sore subject for me. I’m disgusted and appalled at the level of racism among the ex-Soviet immigrants. Anyone, who ever made a mistake of saying “cherniye” or some other derogatory term in front of me, got a taste of my untamed Azeri temper (or as they call it in Baku “lachartvo”). I didn’t change anyone’s mind unfortunately, they are just afraid to bring it up in front of me. If anyone has any good ideas on how to deal with racism in a better way, please, share.

  5. Re Oriental/Asian, my advice is this: East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian. Oriental doesn't make it anymore, at least in the U.S.

    Let's not broach "West Asian" or "North Asian"...

  6. A friend of mine (Armenian) who was filling out a form in DMV (where you get your driver's license in the US) was told by an employee to mark "Other" for her race:-) The employee thought that Armenians are not "Caucasians," a term widely used in the US to describe the so called "white" race:-). So to sum up the ridiculousness of all the race categorization system, the Armenians, Azeris, Georgians are Caucasians in Russia who are being referred as Blacks. The whites in the US are being referred as Caucasians. The whole system is absurd and so outdated in this globalized world!:-)

  7. Here in Baku's Anadolu restaurants, every time I ask what they have for dessert, they say: apple cake, this cake, that cake and Negr cake! Having spent a few years abroad, I became sensitive to this issue, so every time they say Negr loudly, I look around to make sure we didn't offend anyone. But waiters see no problem with that. I guess it's because when we lived in the Soviet Union, there weren't too many dark-skinned people around, so they were something exotic to us and no one ever realized that calling a black-skinned person "negr" could hurt his feelings.

  8. It is really sad that while some blogs eg girlstolove describes azeris and their women in superlative terms in terms of their friendliness it is however painfull to find that theynare so dull to the extend that they think skin color is all there is to be Human. Please let the Media in Azerbaijan educate the masses or else they may loose the support and sympathy the have for being Russian slaves and whipping boys of (another Racist folks) Armenians.

  9. Racism is just stupid and a waste of time. I care more about the work or goal than someones race. These are gifts of uniqueness given to us by nature, its a stupid thing to make fun of each other for having a different gift. In the end of the day we still have skin whether it be pitch dark or pale white to feel the world around us and get on successfully with our goals. People who make fun of another person for their skin color obviously doesnt understand biology.