Tuesday, 26 May 2009
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.