Staunton, October 11 – For many reasons historical, cultural and intellectual, Russians remain in denial about the existence of racism in their country, Buryat historian Radzhana Dugarova says; and this denial of what is a widespread reality precludes their being able to combat it when it appears.
Observing that she finds it difficult to avoid reading online posts about the absence of racism in Russia, Dugarova says she has identified four main arguments offered by those who deny it exists there: “In Russia, there is no racism because it isn’t characteristic of Russians” is the first (sibreal.org/a/29535740.html).
“There is no racism in Russia. I’ve lived my entire life in Russia and not once have I encountered it” is the second. “Racism is everywhere,” and so Russians aren’t to blame is the third. And “why aren’t you angry that they don’t respect our culture” or “commit genocide against Russians in Central Asia and the Caucasus” is the fourth.
None of these arguments hold water upon examination, the historian says.
She says that “she didn’t know” she was a Buryat until she was five years old and other children in the sandbox wouldn’t play with her because. In school in the center of Ulan-Ude, that was less of a problem because the numbers of Buryats and Russians were more or less equal; when one or the other was much more numerous, then it became one.
When she was ten, Dugarova says, she first visited Moscow and was shocked by comments of people waiting in line that she and her mother must have “just come from the aul.” When Dugarov came out of the store, she wanted to tell them that they were “mistaken: auls are in the Caucasus and we have come from Buryatia.
Later, she relates, she lived for three years in three parts of the United States. There undoubtedly is racism in the US, although Dugarova says she never encountered it directedly at her. “If much-ballyhooed political correctness is to blame for that, then I vote for it with both hands.”
But, she continues, she discovered “yet another important difference between Russians and Americans. Although it may be a form of hypocrisy, “if in America a murder occurs on a racial basis, thousands of people go into the streets and protest.” That doesn’t happen in Russia hypocrisy or not.
According to Dugarova, “the recognition of a problem is the first step toward its solution. In Russia, however, people suffer from denial just like alcoholics who are certain that with them everything is in order even as their lives fall into the abyss.” That makes it extremely difficult to talk about racism with them.
“It is possible that people in Russia find it so difficult to recognize the existence of racism in the country because of out-of-date ideas about it. In Soviet times, it was considered that we had not racism. That racism was about America while we had internationalism and friendship of the peoples.”
Moreover, as Viktor Shnirelman, “one of the few Russian researchers on racism,” points out, “the transition in the world from the conception of biological racism to the conception of cultural racism has not been noted or recognized in Russia.” In other countries, the study of racism is an entire academic discipline with its own terms and theories.
“One of the key conceptions of the critical theory of race is white privilege,” Dugarova says. “This social privilege gives advantages to people whom society identifies as whites compared to non-white people in the very same social, political or economic circumstances.” Russians enjoy the same when their Slavic appearance gives them advantages over non-Slavs.
But there is another concept in Western theory that Russians would do even better to become familiar with and apply in their own lives, she says. That is the idea of “white fragility, a comparatively new term introduced by Robin DiAngelo, an American researcher on racism and a corporate trainer in racial equality.”
“Whites in North America,” she says, “live in a social milieu which defends and isolates them from racial stress. This isolated milieu of racial defense provides racial comfort and at the same time reduces their resistance to racial stress which leads to a situation which I call ‘white fragility.’”
Such a condition means that “even a minimal quantity of racial stress becomes unbearable, eliciting a number of defensive actions, including showing emotions like anger, fear, and a feeling of guilt, and also kinds of behavior like arguments, silence and withdrawal from the situation which generates this stress,” the American scholar continues.
“Being a representative of the white community, DiAngelo appeals to whites with a call to find in themselves the strength to listen to the point of view of non-whites, to accept the discomfort which may arise and not to confuse this discomfort with literal danger … If white people really did what was required to escape from fragility,” she says, no only our interpersonal relations but our institutions would be changed as well.”
Dugarova says that she “considers this appeal important as never before in Russia today. For overcoming racist attitudes, there must be a perestroika of the worldviews of Russians, education in the area of racism and discrimination, lessons of anti-racism in schools and training in work places.”
“One would like to hope that with the new knowledge such things would spread, public discussions about racism in Russia would advance to a qualitatively new level.”