I was already homeless – unknowingly a victim of housing discrimination – when my plane touched down in Kiev, Ukraine in the summer of 2009. I was traveling on a Fulbright grant to research the lives of biracial Ukrainians, and was eager to explore how the Slavic country could produce native people who looked like me, a young black man from Detroit. A local real estate agent had promised several months earlier to secure an apartment for me before my arrival. I took a taxi from the airport to meet him. Wearing a warm, wide smile, Sergei extended his hand and welcomed me. Then he explained why his apartment search had failed: “Your skin color has been causing us a lot of problems.”
Sergei explained that he had called numerous landlords saying that an American wanted to lease a flat. He thought emphasizing my American citizenship would expedite the leasing process. But when a landlord asked if I was black, Sergei was forced to reveal my race – and the conversation would quickly end. We spent hours that day visiting flats throughout Kiev. Each time, the flat owner refused to rent to me – until we finally met one agreeable landlord just as the sun was setting.
My introduction to racism in Eastern Europe had come swiftly and severely. Over my next 18 months in Ukraine, race would remain a constant obstacle to normal life and interactions with Ukrainians.
Certainly, black skin creates hurdles in the United States, as well. Here, racism systemically – but usually covertly – obstructs African-Americans from fully enjoying all the freedoms afforded to white people. But racism in Ukraine was much more blunt – always in my face, unabashed and in plain view. I never had to guess whether a person’s remarks carried racist undertones or if an officer’s stop was fueled by prejudice. Ukrainians always let me know where I stood with them, good or bad. And I appreciated it.
My acclimation to Eastern Europe’s brand of racism didn’t come immediately. I spent my first six weeks in Ukraine simply getting used to the most extreme forms of anti-black hatred. Occasionally, I’d encounter young men dressed in black shirts and Doc Martins who would throw up the Nazi salute in my direction. Other times, my skin color would attract open curiosity and such overwhelming kindness that I would wonder if I had been mistaken for a celebrity. (And sometimes I was. While visiting Georgia, some residents thought I was Allen Iverson, and I was asked to pose for 80 photos over two days.)
Of course, my arrival in Ukraine wasn’t the first time the country had welcomed a black person. The highest number of black people arrived there through the former Soviet Union during the 1960s, after the decolonization of Africa. Soviet leadership granted thousands of African students generous scholarships to attend university throughout the 15 republics. In some ways, the Soviet Union provided a much safer environment for black people than the United States or apartheid South Africa. But in just as many cases, black people were no better off than local, non-black Soviet citizens who were murdered during Stalin’s pogroms.
Racism was overt and ubiquitous. One of my most blatant encounters came when I was headed to Russian class. I was purchasing a token at the Central Train Stop, when I spotted a young cop glaring at me. As a black American, I’m all too familiar with the look police officers give just before stopping you, and immediately recognized the gaze even in this foreign country. The officer walked toward me, gave a Soviet-style military salute and demanded that I present my passport. He looked it over before telling me to follow him into a mini-police unit inside the station. Once there, I asked the cop why I was being held. In Russian, he responded, “You’re a nigger and I know you’re bringing drugs into our country,” he said. “Where are the drugs?”
Another cop soon joined him in interrogating me, demanding to know the real reason I was in Ukraine. They insisted I was posing as a student to mask my real intent: smuggling drugs. Even after showing them my Fulbright documents, they continued to harass me. Only after nearly 30 minutes of questioning did they realize I was clean and release me.
As bad as the experience sounds, I appreciated the young cops’ forwardness. He made it clear that his stop was motivated by race and nothing more. In New York City, where I now live, the NYPD immediately rejects any suggestion that racism can motivate officers’ behavior, even subconsciously. They categorically dismiss research that shows black people are habitually treated more severely than whites when suspected of the same crime. They swear that policing policies like “stop and frisk” and “broken windows” aren’t racially motivated, even though studies have repeatedly shown that they disproportionately target minorities. These knee-jerk denials breed distrust and allow tensions to fester. Conversations about race in the U.S. descend into vile name-calling and our fears of social and professional retribution hogtie desires to explore each other’s worlds in meaningful ways. Essentially, any cross-cultural breakthroughs we could have about race in America are, in large part, held captive by defensiveness and political correctness.
In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, I had many genuine conversations about race. One occurred while I was teaching English in Georgia during a Peace Corps tour in 2005. After one class, a student stayed behind and we began speaking, in English, about black-American culture. The conversation was innocent until the student began expressing how much she adored black people.
“Oh, I just love the Negro,” she said. “They’re so smart and can sing and dance so well. I just love niggers.”
I knew she used that word out of ignorance and meant no harm. So I calmly told her that she shouldn’t refer to black people that way.
“Why not?” she responded. “Don’t you all call each other that in your rap music?”
The familiar retort caused me to tense up instinctively. In the U.S., I had no interest in the combat that inevitably descended from debate over the “N-word.” But in this case, my student – who was 20 years old and previously had no exposure to black people – was staring at me with genuine bewilderment. Hers was an honest curiosity, a desire to better understand a group of people and a culture she had only witnessed through music. I tried to explain why some black people use “nigga” with each other and why the N-word was perceived pejoratively, especially if used by white people. The distinction, murky enough in the United States, was extremely difficult to explain to a person completely naïve to the historical and cultural nuances.
“So, you’re a nigga – right?” she questioned.
After 40 minutes, I simply said that she shouldn’t say either word because it would hurt black peoples’ feelings. “Oh, I don’t want to do that,” she said. Then we moved on to other topics.
The conversation was devoid of tension, defensiveness, and dismissive insults that often cripple discussions about race in the United States. As a result, our talk bred deeper understanding, and was resolved by a simple sentiment – empathy.
Given the crisis underway in eastern Ukraine, it is difficult for me to pen this piece right now. I fear that discussing my challenges with race will be seen as distracting from “more important issues,” or worse yet, fuel anti-Ukraine rhetoric that insists the country is full of fascists. Of course, that narrative is completely false. Most Ukrainians despise fascism. In fact, I was so drawn to the openness and honesty of Ukrainian culture that, if I had the means, I would buy a home and live there part time – even as Russia backs rebel forces there.
While many of my African-American friends cringe at my stories about being black in Eastern Europe, I reflect on my time there fondly. That’s not to say that race relations in Europe are better than in the United States. As far as I am concerned, they are just as bad, if not worse, on average. Indeed, when I experienced racism in Eastern Europe, it was frequently harsh, even though I had the distinct advantage of being an American. Africans were treated far worse. But what I did enjoy about Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, was that I was able to make many breakthroughs on race with locals that I have yet to experience in the United States. Instead of entrenching in their racial ignorance, Ukrainians were honest about their naiveté and open to learning about a different culture. In the midst of our own battles in the United States, we could afford to take a similar approach to achieve better racial understanding.