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. 

Please don’t silence my story: getting real about race in Albania

I often talk about race and racial formations and this sometimes bothers people.  Whether I speak in Albanian or English, the mention of words like ‘race’ and ‘racism’ elicits a particular type of anxiety.  This anxiety is not unique to Albania or Albanians, as similar feelings emerge in the US as well around these topics.  Not only do I talk about race in regular conversations, but it is also a subject that I have studied for several years.  Race, and furthermore racism, are not just subjects.  They play a role in structuring aspects of our everyday lives.  The thing is, many people like to think of race as just as that, as a subject that we can choose to bring up or not.  Oftentimes those individuals that do not want to bring it up have a strong desire to keep a lid on the whole matter, so as not to contaminate what might otherwise me harmonious conversation.  I often hear white people say that they do not see color and this sentence always bothers me because I think to myself, “Well wouldn’t it be nice if I did not have to see it, if I did not have to see myself.” When people make statements like this, they are demonstrating to me that they do not understand the ways in which race and racial divisions have shaped and continue to shape life in much of the world, especially in the United States.  They don’t realize the ways that certain bodies like mine are marked in ways that their bodies are not, which allows them to choose what they will and will not see.

Yesterday evening I went to a dinner in Tirana.  The group was made up a of mix of foreigners and locals. At some point we began a conversation about experiences here which led to a discussion on the use of the N-word.  Now normally I try to avoid having these types of conversations with people that I do not know that well, which was the case last night as most of the people I had just met for the first time.  I am not even exactly sure how we got on it, but at some point, one of the gentlemen there referenced an Albanian student of his who came up to him and said, in English, “Hey, what’s up my nigga?” And the gentleman, a middle-aged white American, quickly reprimanded the student and instructed him not to say that.  This then led to other folks chiming in about hearing the word here and its uses.  The teacher from the above-mentioned story said that he blamed rap music and hip-hop for the spread of the word, and that Albanians don’t know what it means when they use it.  Another American guy further added that, “Yeah if Albanians are learning that word today it’s not from white people.” The two of them then concluded that the term, when used here, does not have meaning. I thought this was pretty funny as three Black women set at the table, myself, my friend from California, and a third woman from Kenya, and were lectured to about the meaning of the word.  Those of you who know me well know that I could not sit there without responding.  So after giving them a little side-eye, I asked them to explain to me if the term was devoid of meaning, then how did so many Albanians, young and old, know to associate the word with Black people?  How do they know to call me that everyday?  The man who was telling the story had only heard a student do this to him once in his years here, but for me it’s almost a daily occurrence.  Sure there are those who say, “What’s up my nigga,” no doubt a sentence that has connections to globalization, to YouTube, and ever-increasing media and music exposure.  These two guys put the sole “blame” on rap music, but the 60-year old woman who passes me in the street and calls me a nigger is probably not listening to rap music.  The car that drove by me last week and yelled out “F*** you nigger!”, did rap music make them do that too?  What about the guy who came up in my face on last Friday night and said to me, “Where do you think you’re going you Nigger?” in English.  Or what about some of the terms that I hear in Albanian: monkey (mamun) or dark-ass (bythezinj)?  As I shared my experiences, one of the guys interrupted me and said, “Yeah well these aren’t regular experiences.” I turned to him and asked, “Well how do you know this? How about you become Black and then walk around for a couple of weeks and then come back and report your findings to me.”

You see certain people get really invested in trying to explain away all of my problems or trying to convince me that what I experience is not what or how I think it is.  But the thing is, these people don’t know my story.  For one thing, they didn’t speak the Albanian language.  So to try to explain to me what it is like here for foreigners, without knowing the language, means that you are missing a huge part of the story.  And of course if someone were to say really bad and offensive things to you, few people would actually translate the meaning.  Furthermore, neither of these individuals could speak to experiences of being called names like animal or villager (used in a pejorative meaning) because of their skin tone. They don’t know what it’s like to have people refuse to sit next to them on the bus because they are Black.  Or to have people throw rocks at them in the street.  They don’t have to constantly try to convince people that they are really from the US.  They don’t have to worry about people being hesitant to let them in their houses for fear that they may steal something because they heard that “people like me” do those types of things.  The use of the word “nigger” does have meaning here, as it does everywhere.  Meaning is everywhere! At one point one of the guys said that even if it does have meaning it’s the not the same as in the United States.  I was so grateful that he explained this to me because as a social anthropologist I was ignorant of such things as sociocultural and historical processes.  I just got to Albania, I have not been studying here for 7 years, so I was unaware that when something happens here, it can possibly have different meanings or registers than when it happens in my hometown.  I was so glad that he was able to spell this out for me.

I was hesitant to write about this because of worry that people may start to think, “Well if it’s so bad in Albania, then why are you there?” To begin with, I want folks to know that I ask myself this question often and it does not worry me that I do so.  I think it’s extremely helpful to always question our motives, thoughts, and goals for why we conduct research and write.  Trust me, anyone who has committed long-term projects can attest to this questioning process.  I do not share my experiences to gripe about Albania.  Yes I experience frustrations, but I also experience enlightenment and joy.  I try very hard to articulate complexities, to point out nuances.  Conducting any type of research on sociocultural practices necessitates this type of approach.  This is why I thought that my tv interview began to open doors for dialogue about race, prejudice, and ignorance, because we began asking questions about experience and frustrations, and how to make sense of them.  From my very first time in Albania, people from all over the country have asked me about race and racism, and some have tried to convince me that racism does not exist here.  Albania does not have a history of that.  Or Albanians are harmonious because they have three religions.  Or Albanians are respectful and honor guests.  Yes, it is true that Albania’s history differs from the US, as well as from any other country.  It’s extremely unique. Also, yes, there are three large religious groups (Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox) and relations between them are good for the most part (this too is complex, will have to address in another post).  And yes, Albanians are ridiculously hospitable.  I am ever grateful for hospitality and the friendships I have made.  But racism and prejudice does exist here, whether people want to talk about it or not.  While such phenomena may exist in different forms, they do manifest in everyday life: in relationships between northerners and southerners, city-folk, mountain-folk and villagers, between Albanians, Roma, and Egyptians, between Albanians and African football players, between Albanians and Greeks, and I’m sure in other ways as well.  People have ideas about certain groups that shape the regular use of blackface to make fun of Africans on the tv show Portokalli.  Racism manifests in the fights that breakout between some of my African friends and Albanians in clubs.  People harbor racist and prejudice thoughts about certain people, forbidding their children for example from marrying into particular groups.  Certain residential areas, like Roma neighborhoods, are segregated from others, and even if folks feel more comfortable using words like “marginalization” vs. “race”, fine, just know that race is still connected.  One of my friends who is a historian here often says that many people associate racism with pride, and that there are those who do not consider it bad. The term “race” itself provokes numerous meanings and has different connotations, particularly when considering the history of Europe and WWII.  I am well aware of this, and as I have said before, I would not try to make blanket comparisons.  This is why I am trying to research how it is that people perceive what things like race, prejudice, difference, and belonging even mean.

Even though I am not calling all Albanians racist, someone will inevitably read this post and think that I am.  Someone will feel disrespected and in turn, say or write something disrespectful about me.  I have had previous blogs and have played this game before.  In fact, the response to a post several years ago made me reconsider whether I even wanted to write anything at all.  The thing is, these types of dialogues are helpful, and after all, that’s the name of this blog, dialogue (bashkëbisedim).  Returning to last night’s conversation, some might think that the two guys were getting anxious because they did not want me to give people the “wrong impression” about Albania.  Please let it be known that I am not trying to tarnish Albania’s reputation.  I’m trying to fight along with my friends to convince the world that not all Albanians are like Marco from Tropoja from the film Taken.  I am, however, trying to have honest and engaging conversations about human interaction.  At times, that type of engagement requires that we get into conversations that might be messy, deep, and complicated.  At this present moment I am sitting next to a 15-year-old Albanian student who just discussed stereotypes and prejudice with me.  He just said to me that these things are never simple.  I do not think these kinds of social phenomena are ever simple; they are complex, packed, and densely layered.  This though, does not mean that we should not address them.  And when we do so, we should never simplify.  But to silence, to silence these matters is just wrong.  That would be simple.

Stereotypes and Mapping

By now I’m sure that most of you have come across various mental maps that have been appearing all over the internet; whether they are maps such as “The US according to the Brits” or “Europe according to France”, these maps have become really popular.  For those that have no idea what I’m talking about check out a few here.  Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about various stereotypes, as I had begun asking why certain places in Albania are known for certain things.  She then began giving me long explanations for why people from Gjirokaster are known as stingy, or why people from Çameria are known as untrustworthy.  As we talked I began to take notes, including writing down idioms and expressions that my friend has heard over the years about various Albanian cities.  Later I began to think more about the maps I’ve seen recently and what they reveal about stereotypes and how people perceive space and place.  So, I have now begun a new project that I hope to continue for the remainder of my time here.  I printed out geopolitical maps of Albania with major cities and regions, and I’m going to have individuals mark the maps and tell me about various stereotypes and stories they know about places.  This will be a snowball project, targeting those individuals who want to participate.  This is the only requirement.  Tomorrow I’m actually headed to Southern Albania for a couple of days so I can gather some samples there before heading back to Tirana.

Now I’m not doing this project just to create a map that I can then post to Buzzfeed or a similar website though I’m sure that would be funny.  As I expressed with my friend that day, I believe that the ideas, stereotypes, and prejudices that people hold about others are rooted in various historical and social processes.  I think an exercise such as this can shed light on the ways in which certain ideas have manifested and continually manifest in our everyday lives.  For example, I believe that the stereotype of Çameria as being untrustworthy is very much linked to the history of the Çams, who were once in Greece, and are now a part of Albania but always seen as in-between.  I am not trying to begin a debate here about Çamerian Identity, but rather draw attention to the ways in which these types of ideas about people are formed.  Furthermore, as I am trying to understand the ways in which people construct others, as this has relevancy for questions about prejudice, racism, and xenophobia among other things.

Anyone have any ideas/thoughts/resources to contribute?

Wake Up Tirana! The Anthropologist on TV

A few weeks ago I was chatting with two of my friends here in Tirana about yet another racial encounter, an event that happened to me that dealt with race (in this case people using pejoratives and calling me names), and I was trying to understand how to make sense of it.  I use the phrase, “make sense” because oftentimes, people here will acknowledge that folks might behave a certain way but that it does not have racial implications, even if someone is making fun of me or offending me because I’m Black. After listening to my story, one of my friends said, “You should go on TV and talk about it.” I was a bit perplexed and confused, as the idea had never crossed my mind, particularly since I did not even know how to access television shows in Albania.  My friend went on to explain that her good friend and colleague was friends with people from one of the local television networks, and that they are always looking for new conversation topics about social phenomena.  My friend made a few phone calls a couple of days later and BAM, we set up a preliminary discussion with the host, producer, and network folks, and scheduled a live interview for that following Thursday.  

I have been traveling back and forth to Albania now for seven years, and from my very first moment in the country, I have thought about the manifestations of race and racism. When my professor first told me in 2006 that people in the village that we were going to (big shout out to Thethi, Albania) had probably never encountered a Black woman before, I heard him but I was not sure how my interactions with locals would play out.  Since that first fieldwork experience, I have written about and reflected on the subjects of race, racism, prejudice, belonging, difference, etc., and even presented my experiences of conducting anthropology here as a Black American woman.  These subjects, however, have not been my main research focus as much as I have looked at things like Albanian identity, nationalism, everyday life, postsocialism, and so on.  My current dissertation topic deals with urban postsocialist transformation, temporality, and space in Tirana.  However, these interactions, both between me and Albanians, as well as between Albanians and Roma, Albanians and Egyptians, Albanians and Greeks, and Albanians amongst themselves, reveal quite a bit about the social fabric that underlies everyday life and every exchanges here.  It is important to understand these encounters as they are indicative of the ways in which people are living out the present moment in this particular space, and point to the ways that people understand difference and belonging.  

All this being said, I did go on the show and I shared my personal experiences, as well as my thoughts on the subject of racism, as it is extremely complex.  As a Mississippian as well, I also have a particular history with and relationship to the word, and as I noted during the interview, one crucial element of racial analysis, and any social analysis for that matter, is context.  Furthermore, and this will emerge in later conversations I hope, it is important to underscore intersectionality, and by that, I mean the ways in which my encounters with people are not just shaped by race, but by gender dynamics, class, nationality, etc.  

I am in the process of obtaining the transcript from the show, which we’ll then translate to English.  So I apologize for the non-Albanian speakers, please hold out for that.  I will say though that overall I think this discussion, plus the excerpts from street individuals here in Tirana, opens the door for many future conversations, particularly how people define and understand what it means to be racist, prejudice, ignorant, xenophobic, joking, etc.  I think this will make for fruitful research topics and I welcome your thoughts on the subjects.  As a result of this interview, I am now working on a paper about the ways in which people understand race and difference here in Albania, specifically in Tirana for now.  We’ll see where it leads me. 


Link to interview: http://top-channel.tv/video.php?id=32923