Sunday, February 7, 2010

And you are lynching negroes

As I drifted in and out of consciousness during a recent meeting, a colleague got my attention by apologizing to me before he started telling a joke. I’m still not quite sure why he told the joke other than to highlight some hypocrisy, but the version he told went something like this (translated to English): “An American and a Russian were having an argument related to the Cuban missile crisis. After listening to the American for some time, the Russian simply said, ‘And you are lynching negroes.’” This was a popular Soviet joke during the Cold War, and, all other arguments aside, it was a fair point. At that time, our preaching about freedom - when Black Americans were still being denied basic civil rights - reeked of hypocrisy.

Yesterday, after returning home from a quick trip to the store, my thoughts returned to the civil rights movement. More specifically, I thought about Jackie Robinson and the strength of character he must have had.

On the way back from the store, I had walked past a dozen or so men of various ages playing soccer. The youngest of the group is a senior at our school and a “student” of mine. I use the term student loosely because, like an inordinate number of the kids here, he generally refuses to study and only comes to school to hang out with friends and belittle others. In addition to grossly underachieving academically, he frequently teases me and intentionally mispronounces my name, which he did upon seeing me and sarcastically shouting, “Hello, my friend!”

After I responded by saying, “Здрасти (Hi),” he asked, “Как си? (How are you?)”

I said, “Добре, а ти? (Good, and you?)”

He responded as he usually does by saying, “Very good. Very, very good.”

He then turned to his friends, nodded his head in my direction, and said something to them which made them all laugh.

As I was walking away, first one and then another of his friends said, “Homosexual bitch,” which drew even more laughter.

I pretended not to hear them and continued on my way. Initially stung by their words and laughter, the sting quickly turned to anger and it took everything in my power not to turn around and go back and hurl insults right back at them. I was still contemplating going back and confronting them when I started thinking about Jackie Robinson. How many times had he endured painful insults? And how many times had he refused to stoop down to the level of those insulting him? That was enough to convince me to stay home, but what I couldn’t reconcile was why I was so upset.

Being called a “homosexual bitch” doesn’t particularly bother me. The words in and of themselves aren't that offensive. And, being straight, the expression doesn't fit and just sounds foolish. Moreover, I generally don’t care about and can easily disregard the excited utterances of ignoramuses. Thinking it through, what bothered me was the intent more so than the content. What bothered me is that a kid I’m trying to help had such little respect for me that he would attempt to humiliate me in front of his friends, none of whom had ever met me, and that they all bought into it. The question is “Why?” Why are those people who need help the most the most unwilling to accept it? Why is it that those people who would benefit the most from change cling the tightest to the status quo?

This is a kid who has “studied” English for at least eight years, yet he still doesn’t know the alphabet and only knows a few words and common expressions. And he hasn’t learned a whole lot more in any of the other subjects he’s studied. In this regard, he is not unusual. Teachers gave up on him (and others) long ago, allowing him (and them) to skip class altogether or to play cards or ping pong instead of continuing trying to teach. It’s a classic case of the inmates running the asylum: the kids refuse to learn, are disruptive in class, break the powerless teacher, and are thereafter permitted to do whatever they please.

Enter the naïve and optimistic American who sees a group of drowning students. In an attempt to save them, he throws out life preservers. But instead of grabbing onto the life preservers and swimming for the safety of the boat, the drowning students pull other drowning students away from their own life preservers and pull yet others off the boat and into the water to drown with them. But are they really drowning, or has the American simply misread the situation? And, even if they are drowning, who is he to try and save them?

We are here, in part, in the hopes of forging new friendships, but the reality is not everyone wants us here. We are also here trying to make a difference and improve people’s lives, but, again, not everyone sees it like that. Whereas most people are welcoming, curious, and friendly, some are inhospitable, disinterested, and hostile. These people like the way things are, and they view us as a threat to their way of life. To them, we are outsiders who have no business being in Bulgaria. They view us not as potential new friends but as enemies. And no matter what we do or say, they won’t acknowledge let alone appreciate any of it. As far as they’re concerned, we’re still lynching negroes.


  1. I lived in Barcelona for a year and taught English.

    I had lunch with a guy who used the n word, but had no clue that it was bad. He spoke English well. I explained to him that he would get beat up if he ever said that and I explained why it was wrong. He did not really know and did not understand. I asked him why he used those expressions and he said it was because it was on the media and he picked it up there. So maybe you should pay attention to what is being put out there in the Bulgarian media.

    While that language is unacceptable, I would be a little easier on them. There probably are not a lot of blacks living in Bulgaria, and because of that, they probably can't relate to what you are saying.

    I was never in the Peace Corps. One of the reasons I have hesitated is for what you mentioned above. But if I had the change, I would join to meet people and get experience, not to change lives.

    I think if you go in with those expectations, you can get sorely disappointed. Sometimes people don't realize they need help, or they simply don't want it.

    Just because an organization in Bulgaria told the US government to come over does not mean the people who live there are happy about it.

    I hope things get better for you. I understand your frustration a little, as I taught English in Spain and the way my clients treated me sometimes was frustrating.

    Good luck out there.

  2. Thanks for the comment, but I would encourage you to reread my post. Despite the title and ending, it wasn't a commentary about about race and racial issues. It was about what you hit on at the end - that some folks don't really want us here. Fortunately, most folks do and positive change is not only a possibility but a reality. Sorry I didn't better express myself.

  3. Brian,
    You expressed yourself clearly. What you are facing is not uncommon in the Peace Corps, though that doesn't make it any less frustrating. Keep up the hard work. The honesty of your blog demonstrates that you are approaching your service in a responsible manner.

  4. I served in Samokov Bulgaria for two years.'99-'01. I use to have similar experiences kids, little ones whom I didn't teach would yell profanities in terrible English (many of them didn't even get the expression right-"kiss my d___" for example.) I actually stopped one of them and told him what he said in Bulgarian and that no one would ever understand him unless he learned to speak proper English. Then called him an ass_____. I guess I could've read your blog first...but then that was a long time ago, before you even had your first Bansitsa or Zagorka.

  5. You just can't fix stupid. Plain and simple. Thanks for your service and mad props for being the bigger man. I know I would have probably failed had I been in that same situation.


  6. Actually, the "And you are lynching negroes" rejoinder isn't a fair point -- it's a logical fallacy (the tu quoque fallacy).

    Boss: You're late today.
    Me: Oh, yeah? Well, YOU cheat on your wife...

    As you can see, the second proposition doesn't make the first any less true.