Unlike the United States, Ukraine does not have many dark-skinned people, or Asians, for that matter. It's a fairly homogenous white society, which means that anyone of non-European descent stands out and might be exposed to ridicule, or worse. However, although I'm half Japanese, I've been fortunate.
I have not experienced any racism here. Until recently.
I was walking past the playground beside our apartment building and heard two of our neighbors' kids jabbering nonsense syllables at me and calling me a Chinese woman. (I guess the nonsense syllables were their attempt to mimic the Chinese language.) Since I understood them, I decided to shake them up a bit by telling them, in perfect Ukrainian, "I'm not Chinese, I'm an American."
It was a minor event, but a sobering one. The only other time I've personally witnessed such xenophobic behavior was during my first visit to the American Midwest.
My husband and I were in a diner, and I noticed that the two older men in the booth next to us were starting to behave oddly. They had been carrying on a normal conversation, but suddenly the sounds coming out of their mouths were completely unintelligible. I looked at my husband, an Indiana native, for an explanation. Maybe it was a Hoosier thing?
"It's because that Mexican guy just walked in," he said.
I was astounded. Having grown up in the two cultural melting pots of Southern California and Hawaii, I had been largely blind to race until forced to take university "tolerance" classes. For me, those classes did more harm than good, suddenly sensitizing me to skin tone, where before I had only seen people, all of us alike, because we all shared common hopes and dreams and fears. Seeing the behavior of those men in the diner was a shock. Rednecks, I immediately labeled them in my mind, simultaneously angry at their arrogance and relieved that we wouldn't be living in such a backwards place.
Instead, we're living in Ukraine.
There are many similarities between Ukraine and the Midwest. There are things I appreciate, like the climate, the fertile soil, the agrarian culture, and the extravagant hospitality of both places. But unfortunately, there's also the racial intolerance. I think that much of the problem is because neither region saw many foreigners until relatively recently, whereas the places where I grew up have a long history of immigration.*
I had always assumed that my own children would inherit my racial colorblindness, but after moving to Ukraine, I sometimes puzzled over how I would make that happen while living in a predominantly white, often racist society. And then God moved us to Ternopil.
Ternopil is a university town. During the summer months, it's a sleepy little place, and very, very white. But in the days leading up to September 1, an amazing transformation occurs. There is a huge influx of international students from all over the Middle East and Africa, returning from their summers at home or just arriving for their first semester. Almost overnight, the city's ethnic makeup becomes something that you'd only expect in a much larger metropolis.
This ethnic diversity is reflected in our church, where we switched to bilingual services to better serve the international segment of the congregation and where several African ladies routinely help out in our children's ministry. Our church potlucks are a wonderful smorgasboard of Ukrainian, American, and African cuisine, and we've managed to bring other cultures right into our home: an Arab woman from Morocco lives with us, and black students from several other African countries are frequently our guests.
For the time being, my children are growing up in the midst of surprising diversity, given our location.
And I'm so thankful.
But they're not quite colorblind yet. I was amused to hear one of my kids talking to one of our African visitors. My child was coloring with crayons when my friend arrived. He paused, turned to my friend, held up his crayon, giggled, and exclaimed, "The same brown like you!"
*You could argue that all Americans besides Native Americans are foreigners, but in this context, I'm referring only to those immigrants who arrived since the founding of the United States of America.
Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.