Ever since the callous murder a few months ago of George Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis, the U.S. has been wracked with continued protests and violence. That event galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement, and graphically exposed the pervasive systemic racism that continues to plague the American body politic. Despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation which abolished slavery was issued by the U.S. government more than 150 years ago, “people of colour” (POC) are still subject to persistent and insidious discrimination, surreptitiously deprived of their constitutional rights, and through a rigged and inequitable socio-economic system are disproportionately forced into the lowest and poorest ranks of American society. Despite the best efforts of Trump and his thinly veiled racist supporters, America is waking up to the fact that this kind of reactionary and bigoted state of affairs will no longer be tolerated, either by POC or by the presumed majority of righteous Americans regardless of their colour or ethnicity.
As Ukrainians, whether in Canada or the U.S., we cannot choose to remain on the sidelines of this social movement. While it is true that we have often been on the receiving end of discrimination and persecution during our own troubled history, we also need to recognize that we too have deeply imbedded prejudices and are not immune to the siren call of racism.
I am reminded of one particular event not that many years ago that brought that point home to me quite forcefully. I was attending a Ukrainian New Year’s dance called a Malanka at our local Ukrainian Hall. As part of the festivities, there was a staging of a traditional “Vertep”, in which in ancient times a group of young people would go from house to house in the village singing carols and staging a little yuletide morality play. They would be dressed up in exotic costumes as animals and various characters from Ukrainian folklore. Included in this cast was a rather unflattering and frankly insulting depiction of a Jew. I was taken aback that in our day and age, this type of demeaning portrayal was still being included in a cultural performance. What disturbed me even more, is that most of the Ukrainians in attendance at this Malanka thought nothing of it and accepted it without reservation. It would not be a stretch to say that this is the equivalent of white people doing “blackface” caricature in theatrical performances.
Of course, anti-Semitism is no stranger either in Ukrainian history or in contemporary society. Although most second and third generation Ukrainians born in North America have managed to shed any anti-Semitic tendencies, I can still recall hearing, when I was growing up, people of my parent’s generation voicing anti-Semitic or derogatory remarks about Jews. The common term they used for them, “Zhyd”, had pejorative overtones, and I seldom heard the more contemporary and acceptable term “Yevrei” (Hebrew), now commonly in use in Ukraine. Regrettably, I still hear the occasional anti-Semitic remark from Ukrainians my age, which goes to show how deeply imbedded such prejudices can be, passed down from generation to generation.
Of course, it’s not only Jews that have been stereotyped and demeaned in Ukrainian history and culture.
There are many euphemisms, expressions and sayings among Ukrainians that reflects long-standing biases and hatreds for other races. When Ukrainians speak about the “Chorny” (Blacks) it is usually not in a positive light. Others commonly included among those viewed through a biased prism are the Turks, the Poles, the Russians, the Gypsies, the Mongols, and almost all Asiatic people in general. There are those that would claim historical context and justification, but in our supposedly enlightened age, these can only be viewed as lame excuses that may explain bad behaviour, but cannot in good conscience justify it. We should all know better. In demeaning others, we only demean ourselves.
For too long perhaps, we Ukrainians have refrained from any serious dialogue about our own predilections towards racist behaviours, perhaps because of our own painful historical experiences as victims, or maybe just because it is difficult to own up to our own shortcomings. It seems that the gauntlet has been cast down to our generation to stop ignoring long established problems caused by racism, and start dealing constructively towards building more inclusive, tolerant and just societies.
I was pleased to see that recently, a new Facebook group called the Ukrainian Antiracist Community was established to initiate dialogue on this issue, and to broaden awareness of it within our Ukrainian communities. It is time for us to take a serious look at our attitudes and beliefs and become a constructive force within the effort towards building a world where race is an irrelevant factor.