Race and racism–forbidden words?

Racism? In a small southeastern European, homogenous country? A country with so much religious harmony? Surely this cannot be. Racism? In a country that once shielded and protected Jewish populations during World War II? Absolutely not. Perhaps in surrounding Balkan countries that have struggled with ethnic conflict in the post-Yugoslavic period, but not racism in Albania.

These are some of the reactions and comments that I receive when I discuss my research in Albania. While my goal is not to definitively determine whether Albanians are racist, this is what many people hear, regardless of what I may actually say. Race, and more so racism, is a term that can elicit anxiety and tension. The topic makes people nervous. And Europe has a particular history with racism, which is particularly marked by Nazi race science and genocide. Furthermore, many people think of the Balkan region as saturated with ethnic conflict, a region steeped in ancient ethnic hatreds, barely contained below their boiling point. Albania, however, is often viewed as a more stable nation of the region, as the country that was not as directly involved in the conflicts of the 1990s (I say directly because Albania did play a huge role in the Kosova/Serbia conflict of 1998-99. You can read more about that here.) People tell me that Albania is racially homogenous, that there is not much difference here. That Albanians warmly welcome all guests, and foreigners especially. So why am I bringing my racial lens of analysis here?

As much as my friends, neighbors, and interlocutors try to correct my “misinterpretations” about race and racism, processes of racialization do exist in Albania. Individuals speak openly and freely about racism—conversations and observations with individuals reveal this. People discuss racism against Roma and Egyptian communities, the ways in which northerners, mountaineers, and villagers feel racialized, as well as racism that Albanians experience in Greece and Italy. People discuss color, differentiate between those with white hands (white people) and black hands (darker skinned people like the Roma and Egyptian communities). Even still, many people become uncomfortable, defensive, and even angry when I discuss my project. Never mind such racist occurrences as: overt racist slurs used towards African football players at games (including fans hurling bananas and yelling “monkey” at Black players), the use of blackface and derogatory language to portray Black people on national comedy shows, segregated neighborhoods and camps with few if any resources, offensive language and actions against dark-skinned people (primarily Roma and Egyptians), the everyday usage of racial slurs like bythë zi (dark ass) or gabelë (derogatory word for Roma, though people say it to me at times as well), thoughts about classification of people and rankings based on skin color, the thoughts that people hold about marriage between races–these are just some examples among many. 

But it can be difficult to talk about these things in terms of race. For one thing, people must first understand that while many things have changed since the end of communist rule, Albania is still a poor country, with many people living in extreme poverty. So for some folks, they do not see a connection between racism and poverty (against Roma groups for example), but rather view the situation as a group of people that does not work and therefore does not have many resources; and since many people are struggling here, whether Roma or not, what makes this group different than others? Or, folks will talk about slurs and offensive language as annoying, bothersome even, but not rooted in racism, even if based on such physical and biological factors like skin color. Still if you can get folks to begin talking about differences and socioeconomic gaps, then they are usually okay staying in the realm of stereotypes, discrimination, marginalization, and even prejudice to some extent. Things change at the mention of race and racism. Europe does have a particular history with the word, a different history than does the United States, for example. Yet, one look at some of the recent European reports, texts, and analyses highlights attempts to discursively erase racism. It has become something people want to get rid of, if only verbally so. Perhaps if it is not mentioned, it is not there; so we will keep words like “discrimination” or “ethnic conflict” because people feel safer there for some reason. 

This reminds me quite a bit of the United States. Many folks have created this neat little box for what racism is (or was to some): the days of slavery and Jim Crow, these are examples of racism. Separate water fountains, separate restaurants, also racism. And all of that was changed, eradicated. For many folks if so-called racism does not fit this mold, then it is not so. Which is why it can be so difficult to discuss institutional racism, structural racism, to discuss forms that manifest differently than those aforementioned. A similar phenomenon occurs here in Albania, and this is one reason I think people have a hard time engaging the subject. Or they would rather just use a different word because that is easier. I am reminded of anthropologist’s Alaina Lemon’s article “Without a ‘concept’: Race as discursive practice,” in which she argues that while people in post-Soviet spaces may not have used the same language as the United States to discuss or index race, this does not mean that people did and do not have ways of making racial inference based on biological and/or physical features (2002). So in other words, just because racial practices in Albania do not look like other forms in Europe, presently or historically, or the US, does not mean that they do not exist.

I once attended a university talk about migrants, religion, and transnational racism, and during the Q&A a woman shared her experiences in France. As a white French national, she said that in her country, people no longer use the term “race” to talk about differences among people, and that they preferred ethnicity. At some point she began crying as she talked, saying that the idea of racism really bothered her, and that ethnicity was much better. And therein lies the exact problem–people need to be bothered! One of the biggest differences between race and ethnicity lies in the fact that while a person can choose her ethnicity, and even identify ethnically or nationally in multiple ways, race is an ascribed identity. Yes race is a social concept (as opposed to biological) but individuals and groups are racialized, and these processes oftentimes shape socioeconomic inequality and disparities. In the case of Albania, there are serious structural problems, serious issues with race and human classification. Racial logics structure even the most mundane facets of everyday life, and these logics are at the root of policymaking, social interaction, segregation and injustice. Racism has created social, political, and economic exclusion, and can take on many forms; recognizing this is one of the first steps to addressing it. 


References Cited

Lemon, Alaina. 2002. “Without a ‘Concept’? Race as discursive practice. Slavic Review. 61 (1), 54-61.