In the days running up to the Euro 2012 European football championships, Ukraine has seen an onslaught of media reports and heated debates regarding racism in the country. As an American expatriate who has been researching racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine for the past 10 years, I must admit I am delighted that these societal handicaps are finally getting the international, not to mention domestic attention they have long deserved.
Reports of swastikas and Celtic crosses, hooligans training new recruits in forests, and fans beating up all sorts of people of color do not surprise me. They are nothing new.
In fact, according to my contacts in African communities, the situation may have actually improved somewhat in the past year or two. What is new, and refreshing, is the spotlight.
As the Union of European Football Associations intended when they designated Poland and Ukraine as co-hosts of the 2012 competition, this is an opportunity to showcase the relatively newly democratic and independent countries in Eastern Europe, and to bring attention to and increase awareness about their societies. Finally the spotlight has rested on the warts of racism and intolerance as well as price-gauging and folky skepticism regarding Ukrainian “road readiness.”
The dominant voices of the recent flames wars can be summarized in a simple dialogue between Europe and Ukraine.
Europe: Oh my God! Ukraine is racist and anti-Semitic! It is dangerous for anyone non-white to go! You may end up coming home in a coffin!
Ukraine: There is no racism in Ukraine! There has not been a single incident ever anywhere of anything smacking of racism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism. We love all foreigners! Everyone is welcome! We 100% guarantee everyone's safety!
Clearly this not-too-exaggerated call and response is lacking moderate voices, so indulge me while I fill in the gaps.
1. Of course there is racism in Ukraine. Black students have been getting beat up for years. Swastikas have been painted on city walls and ignored by most passersby for decades. But thank you, Euro 2012, for bringing it to the attention of the mainstream European press of late.
2. Media reports are often dramatized and inflammatory. Is this really news? Like it or not, this reporting strategy certainly serves to stir the pot and stimulate discussion. And though the tenor of racist reports in Ukraine may sound hysterical and overblown, it may just accurately convey the shock that many foreigners feel when first encountering the extent and openness of intolerance in the country.
3. Ukrainian officials and citizens who deny claims of racism, or attempt to redirect the accusation at “English xenophobes who are targeting and patronizing Ukrainians” do nothing but:
1. Make themselves and thus Ukraine look even more foolish, and more importantly; and2. Further marginalize and disempower people of color who reside in Ukraine or plan to visit.
Please, Ukraine, the sooner you accept your blights, own up to them, listen to the stories of those who have been attacked, harassed or threatened, and (not holding my breath) attempt to educate your populace and actually address these deplorable trends in your society, the faster you will actually prove to be respected and taken seriously in the European sphere. Of course, that is not necessarily your primary aim …:)
Pluralism and diversity are your assets, not liabilities and it's time to come to terms with your history, and your present, and to stop allowing hate crimes and discrimination to be culturally accepted. And I'm not only talking about beating up black students, using the word “Jew” as an insult and threatening to physically remove Asians from your country, but also about gay-bashing and anti-Russian or anti-Fascist rhetoric (pick your poison).
Does this mean that all Ukrainians are anti-Semitic, homophobic and white supremacist? Absolutely not!
These trends are present in society. But so are advocates for human rights, a growing willingness to face a difficult history, and a strengthening of civil society. This in spite of a political climate that is less than favorable for democratic advances.
So should fans of color, gays and Jews avoid Ukraine during the games? Stay home and watch it on TV instead? Well, it depends.
Can Ukrainian or UEFA officials guarantee safety and security for all fans? Nah. Will Jewish, gay, Asian, Black, Arab, etc. fans face intolerance? Probably.
Will it be violent? Probably not.
Will they also meet Ukrainians who are allies and happy to help and welcome them? Almost definitely.
See, unfortunately, it is not only minorities or foreigners who suffer from racism in Ukraine. It is mainstream Ukrainians as well.
While of course there are deeply embedded prejudices among most people in the country (show me a country where there are not), and a general cultural acceptance of xenophobia, and even a willingness to often turn the other cheek, there are also a plethora of individuals who, sometimes even despite their own instincts, go way out of their way to help people, try to dissect their own assumptions and first impressions, and go even further to advocate for minority rights among their fellow mainstream Ukrainians.
Extreme and therefore visible racism also discredits well-meaning Ukrainians who are ashamed of such intolerance and are also fighting against it. Avoiding the country is one way to "stay safe".
But perhaps it is not a bad idea to go ahead and risk a visit. Be cautioned, be aware, regulate your expectations and do not take unnecessary risks (sadly, this means not having as much freedom of mobility as those who can "pass"). Have an emergency plan, and have contacts ready to help.
Chances are you will be physically fine, and hopefully you will meet at least one person who will prevent you from concluding that all Ukrainians are intolerant racists. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised by Ukrainian hospitality, no matter your skin color or religion.
If you are Ukrainian, I hope you will look for opportunities not only to be helpful to foreigners during the Euro 2012, but that you will take a deep and honest look at the legitimate concerns being raised, and either continue your efforts to advocate for human rights and safety for all people regardless of the international spotlight, or that you will consider becoming one who refuses to placidly accept anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia as allowable trends in your society.
Michelle Goldhaber is an American expatriate residing part time in Lviv for the past seven years. For the last 10 years she has been researching and advocating on behalf of African students in Ukraine, as well as working in Jewish-Ukrainian relations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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