How To Talk About Racism

When the protests started two weeks ago, and I was thinking about how I could help the cause, I resolved never to let the racist speech go around me. I resolved never to walk away in silent disgust, but to speak up, each time. I resolved to make it clear that the racist language is socially unacceptable.

I realized how difficult it was to follow through just a couple of hours later. One of the most frustrating parts is that a lot of racism comes from my home country and from the Americans, who came here from the same place. Over a year ago, I reduced my presence in the Russian blogosphere to about ten percent of my previous activity. But that time, I did not feel like anything I am saying could make a difference, so I reduced my presence there to a small group of close friends, many of whom are not fluent in English. 

For about a week I was torn between wanting to keep my promise, and not wanting to start any discussions in Russian, but then several people emailed me and asked me to say something, They were writing to me that they do not have enough information, that Russian media is keeping silent about the riots, that their immigrant friends are horrified, and that they want to know the truth. 

I wrote the post. Now, a week later and over a hundred comments later, I can conclude that those who thanked me, knew right from wrong before they read my post. And for those who didn’t, it was not about the lack of information. It was about the lack of kindness, about the lack of compassion. It was about racism. 

Yesterday, when we had our workday in the forest preserve, we talked a little bit about the current events and what each of us can do. And I mentioned my resolution not to be silent. And then, one of my fellow volunteers asked me a question. She felt uneasy asking it, but when she started: ” I live in Buffalo Grove,” I knew precisely what she wanted to ask me about. 

My children scold me when I say that Buffalo Grove is not the place of residence, but the state of mind. And I agree that this statement is very judgmental. I know that not all residents of Buffalo Grove think and feel the same. But still, there is a substantial group of aggressively racist people who happen to be Russian Jews – former Soviet citizens who emigrated from the USSR in the 70s presumably to Israel, but who ended up in the US. Most of the time, all the citizens of the former Soviet Union are considered “Russians, ” even Vlad said to me a week earlier: all Russians are racists! I tried to protest, but he said: one hundred percent. And they are actively racist. It’s not like you start to talk about race, and you find out. No, they insert racism in their speech without being prompt. We all generalize.

Yesterday in the forest preserve, my friend was asking me: why? Why of all people, Jews, who suffered the most thorough history, who’s been oppressed as a nation, why they do not display any compassion to the struggles of others? I scrambled for an answer. I said that people who emigrated from the Soviet Union believe that “socialism” and “social state” is what the Soviet Union was. That’s why they do not take the calls for social justice well. They erroneously think that they “achieved everything by themselves” and do not see the advantages they had coming to the US. Also, they do not know Black History; they think that there was slavery, and then emancipation, and then, everybody had equal opportunities. But I knew that this answer was not satisfactory. 

That could explain their negative attitude toward welfare, their firm belief that those on welfare “choose not to work and not to pay taxes.” But that does not explain why they think that the only people abusing welfare are black. 

In the past thirty hours, I talked about that issue with Boris, Vlad, Igor, and with Boris again. The “why” question bothered me. There are many “whys” in that matter, like in many others, but I think that I found at least one possible explanation. 

Those who did not believe the Soviet propaganda often didn’t believe in the whole thing, presuming that everything that was said was not true. However, Soviet propaganda was smarter than that. Quite often, it would present the things almost right, except for the voice on the background that would give the whole scene a different meaning. For example, in one documentary about the economic crisis in the 70s, the correspondent would interview the factory workers whose salaries spiraled down: So, what does your wife say when you bring money home? And the workers would reply with a lot of emotions of what their wives would say. Then, then correspondent would interview the wives in the grocery store, inquiring how much the price of eggs and milk went up in recent weeks and recorded their emotional replies… 

Everything was correct, the recording was not even edited, but the documentary gave the impression that the capitalist world goes down. At the same time, in the Soviet Union, the price of eggs and milk didn’t change for years. Forget that you might not be able to buy milk and eggs, and forget that these British wives could buy way more than milk and eggs! 

Recently, I posted that I found myself a victim of the same notion that all Soviet propaganda was a lie. When I watched a documentary about Chile and junta, I was shocked to find out that Allende was indeed a socialist, and was loved by people. And that the Italian Communist Party was a great political power in the 70s. 

Now back to the racism. In the Soviet Union, all African liberation movements were considered progressive, because the new countries, free from the colonial oppression, were potential allies against the world of capitalism. And as for the racism in the United States, it was an easy propaganda target, because it was true! Think about the famous movie “Circus,” where the opening scene Marion Dixon is running from the white mob with her black baby. 

I remember how the American black activists were praised in the USSR, how they were always regarded as “the fighters against capitalism” (that was not true, but who cares?). We were raised to believe that a black person from the United States is good by default, and a white person from the United States is at least suspicious. I think that those who were disillusioned with Soviet propaganda and wanted to emigrate, tend to think that “they lied about everything.” If they were told that everything in America is bad except for black people and poor white, then it must be the opposite: everything in America is good, except for… And when these people were arriving in the US, they wanted to blend with locals. And locals were white, wealthy people who were likely racists. 

Orlova, Patterson and Stolyarov.jpg
By Vladimir Nilsen – Circus (1936 film), Public Domain, Link

That’s the best explanation I could come up with, but I still do not know how to change the situation. I will think more about it 🙂

3 thoughts on “How To Talk About Racism

  1. I can only respect any of your personal decisions, of course, but I would humbly note that “to be silent” and “to walk away in silent disgust” are very different things, in my opinion (if you, of course, make it known whether it is just “silence” or very clear “silent disgust”). I have no idea if “silent disgust” or similar things can make a difference for people with already established prejudices, but (1) it’s a legitimate kind of protest, similar to peaceful boycott, and I believe that most people are VERY sensitive to this, sometimes even more than to direct dissent and arguments; (2) sometimes it’s the only reasonable thing we can do after initial attempt to discuss and justify your position because endless talking to racists somehow makes them feel more valid.

    You just send very different signals. You said in this post that you reduced your presence in the Russian blogosphere to a large extent because of frustrating racist talks/reactions and similar things there, and it would be a powerful signal to many of your followers there. However, the first thing your follower reads there is that “Меня никто не обижал, не оскорблял, ничего такого.” So most of your followers in the Russian blogosphere believe that you are just tired of the LJ platform or whatever. Maybe Russian people sometimes need to know that there are some limits of tolerance to “different opinions,” and someone can be really disgusted to talk to them.

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  2. I could be that I was not clear in that post, but I want to reiterate, that I left the Russian blogosphere for personal reasons, not because of racism, of course. One (but not the primary) reason was the fact that it became increasingly difficult to convey my messages and to make a positive impact. And the reason I decided to speak up was that the issue of racism is not Russian or American; it is international. Boycotts do not do any good. If I do not talk to people whose views I oppose, I am taking care of my state of mind, not of the issues. As I already said, the most device factor for me was a post from my niece in which she said: do not hang out only with people who share your views. Do not unfriend people of the opposite opinions. Talk to them. Because if you don’t, they will never change their minds. Zero tolerance to the racist speech means that you actively oppose it, not walk away. At least for America. I am not capable of improving the situation in Russia, and I am not trying to do so. However, the situation at home is something I feel responsible for, and there are enough Russian immigrants who still prefer reading in Russian.

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