Say What Now?

That’s what most of you are going to say as you read a little further on.

Two weekends ago, the city celebrated the three hundred and eighty-fifth anniversary of its founding.  It’s an annual celebration and, although it lasts for about three days – from Friday to Sunday – it’s called Day of Yakutsk.

In the evening of that Sunday, the final day of the celebration, I was walking down the street with one of my work colleagues.  We had spent the previous seven hours or so walking all over the city with the aim of visiting various town squares in order to sample the celebrations.  A few minutes before, we had stopped at a small café and bought some to-go food that we intended to eat at yet another nearby town square while watching the traditional dance exhibition that was taking place there.

So there we were at around 5:45 pm, walking down the street with our dinner in hand, making our way past a busy bus stop and chatting away about something or other, when a drunk guy who was a few feet away from us suddenly turned in our direction and started walking towards us.  I happened to notice him at the same moment that he noticed me because he was on my side of the sidewalk as we ambled along.  So I was looking right at him when he saw me, at which point he looked startled for a second then he exclaimed, “Ah! негр!”  And continued stumbling along past us in the opposite direction.

He called me a nigger.  In Russian, this word “негр” is pronounced, “nye-gr.”

Based on the surprised look on his face when he said it and my catching the word spoken with a thick Russian accent, I wasn’t sure but I strongly suspected that was what he had said.  So I asked my companion and she translated it for me.  I just shrugged and said, “Oh, OK.”  I think she felt a little bad about it because she went on to apologetically explain that some people just don’t understand that it’s not right to say that.

About an hour before we had encountered this guy, a group of teenagers walked past us in a different part of town.  As they passed, they kept looking back at me and laughing.  They stopped when they noticed me looking back at them and smiling (it was a residual smile from what my companion and I were talking about, not because of them) so I knew that they were talking and laughing about me.  I didn’t let it affect me.  It wasn’t even a conscious choice that I had to make.  It just happens that I’ve come to a place where it’s now automatic that I don’t take offense.

The teenagers I easily brushed off as normal, but when the guy called me a nigger I was a little surprised to find myself not feeling at all offended.  Honestly, guys, I didn’t.  I checked in with myself as I usually do to see how I was feeling about the whole thing and, while it was a little jarring in the moment because it was so unexpected, I can honestly say that I wasn’t angry or upset or hurt or offended in any way.  However, I did see his unfortunate attitude as sad for him because, even though he was drunk, I believe that he expressed exactly what was in his heart and mind.  The alcohol just removed any filter that might ordinarily have been there.

Also, by that point in the day, so many random people on the street had been nice to me – allowing me to take pictures of them in their traditional costumes and even insisting that I join them in the pictures and hugging me to their sides when I did – that I would have been as big an idiot as the drunk guy if I had made his one idiotic comment ruin my perfectly wonderful day.  In fact, to my knowledge, in the three years that I’ve been travelling like this, this is the first time someone has ever called me a nigger.  (I say, “to my knowledge,” because people may have been calling me a nigger in other languages all this time and I didn’t know.)  Statistically, this tells me that, when it comes to this kind of thing, idiots are the exception out here in the wider world, not the rule.

Furthermore, when I thought about it I realised that this type of thing was what Indonesia was preparing me for.  Remember last year when I decided to stop making race an issue and decided to not take offence when people made ignorant and offensive remarks about my skin colour?  All of that was preparing me for the drunk guy.

When I landed this job, a few friends asked me if there were Black people where I was going.  I answered everyone who asked me this question with, “I doubt it but I don’t know and I don’t care because it doesn’t matter and has no bearing on whether I go or not.”  I mean, come on.  What am I gonna do?  Find the Black people wherever I go and form a club?

I was one of only two Black people on the flight from New York to Moscow, and the other Black girl on the flight was with a white guy who I assumed was Russian.  I was the only Black person on the flight from Moscow to Yakutsk.  And I’ve seen no other Black people in the month and few days that I’ve been here.  I notice these things; I’d be blind and stupid if I didn’t.  I’m aware of my colour in so far as I know that encountering me is perhaps one of the very few opportunities that many people will have to see, meet or interact with a Black person, and I always want to represent my race well.  I don’t want anyone to see anything that I do, even across an airplane aisle, and think, “Typical Black person,” in a negative way.  But that’s as far as my deliberateness with respect to my colour goes.

In Moscow, I was barely spared a glance as I walked about the city, but here in Yakutsk people notice me and they aren’t shy about looking because I’m very obviously different from them; I’m unignoreable (that’s not a word, i just made it up).  That’s the same as it was in Indonesia and that type of behaviour no longer bothers me.  In fact, when I think about it rationally I can’t blame people for staring at me because in an environment like this, I’m unusual.  If I see something unusual, I also want to stare at it.  If it happens to be a person, I like to think that I have enough impulse control and decorum to not stare but not everyone has good impulse control and not every culture has the same norms of behaviour for what is considered polite.

The fact is, I want to go to places and do things that aren’t considered usual for people of my skin colour and if I had my choice, I wouldn’t stand out in those places.  But I do stand out.  And I’m not going to stop going to these places and doing these things because people stare at me or call me a nigger.  That would make me as big an idiot as any racist out there.  So I accept that I will stand out and that every now and then I may experience an unexpectedly ugly encounter like I did with the drunk guy.

I don’t care.  I’ll keep going and doing and seeing and loving it all anyway.

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