#blackonblack is a feature in which black people discuss black culture/black experiences/black everything.
As part of my degree I chose to spend my third year living in St Petersburg, Russia. I had originally dreamed of a glamorous year strolling through the streets of Paris, looking effortlessly chic, but decided relatively late in the day instead to spend my year abroad in Russia’s Cultural Capital.
Having informed my nearest and dearest of my snap decision, their biggest concern was how Russian people would receive me because of my ethnicity. My mother is English and my father is from the Seychelles. In my mother’s words, “I came out paler in the wash” and as a result have a caramel to coffee shade of skin colour, depending on the time of year of course. My mother was having kittens about my move, so naturally I sought some facts from The Foreign Office to calm her nerves. Their official advice on the matter reads as follows:
Although most visitors experience no difficulties, racially motivated attacks do occur in Russia. If you are of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent you should take extra care. Attacks tend to increase around the 20th of April, the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
This information naturally failed to do the job so I instead decided to try to dispel the hysteria by assuming a cool as a cucumber exterior. Maintaining this façade for half a year before I left meant that I had practically no idea what to expect of my time in St Petersburg as a person of colour. However, I did of course begin to feel a few pangs of anxiety as my departure date approached, particularly because I’d chosen the homestay accommodation option. This meant that I could spend the year living with an extremely friendly Russian family or a not so friendly babushka who happened to have a strong aversion towards people of my colour.
Fortunately, it was clear from the offset that my host family were extremely welcoming people, and my relationship with my landlady in particular is one of the highlights of my life in St Petersburg. On the other hand, as expected based on the Foreign Office’s edict, whilst out and about in the city there have been a few instances that undoubtedly would not have happened to my white classmates.
The most common happening tends to occur on nights out.
After an injection of Dutch courage in the form of one too many vodka shots, I always seem to find myself making Russian friends. Normal drunken small talk ensues: we exchange names (I probably have to repeat mine because loud music, broken Russian and an African name make this unexpectedly difficult) and then my new best friend asks me where I am from. This is when the real confusion arises. A handful of times, said BFF has stared blankly back at me, pointed vaguely at my face and eventually asked “But how can you be English?” Impaired by alcohol and linguistic difficulties I’ve simply explained my ethnicity to them and if anything, my otherness made them like me more because I wasn’t just another westerner.
On other occasions market vendors trying to grab my attention have yelled Jennifer Lopez and Muhammad Ali at me, before asking for my number. The most unpleasant example was probably when some schoolboys shouted Ebola at me and then burst into fits of laughter. One time a man did scream something unintelligible about Ukraine and African Americans at me over and over again in my favourite donut shop, but I still haven’t worked out what he was trying to get at.
Of course, these incidents were upsetting, as I am not used to being seen as a novelty, but – for the most part at least – the people involved had no malicious intentions whatsoever and were genuinely unaware that there are British people that look like me. These people were completely ignorant to the concepts of diversity and multiculturalism on which we so pride ourselves.
What really gets to me more than anything I have experienced so far in Russia is when perfect strangers in my home country think it appropriate to question my ethnicity before they even know my name. Just this week I had a customer in the pub where I work in London ask me “Why are you so dark? What makes you so dark?” On multiple occasions, people have asked me “You can’t be English can you?” Customers even take bets on where it is they think I am from.
Having been raised exclusively in the English part of my heritage, I am shocked to the core every single time someone insinuates that I am not English in the same way that they are, or that I am less entitled to call myself English. Of course, I am Seychelloise as well but to me that doesn’t take away from my “Englishness” – it adds to it, something for which I am very grateful.
People cannot be divided into fractions, something I thought most people appreciated. I just wish more of us would question how we consider our fellow countrymen before rushing to point the finger of bigotry at those further afield.
Jacana Bresson is a die hard fan girl of Free The Nipple and Femen and also likes playing women’s rugby. In her passion for these things, she thoroughly enjoys naked photo shoots (with charitable causes, of course). She also used to spend her Friday nights volunteering in the UK’s 5th best cheese shop, in exchange for the free cheese and wine.
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