Sunday, April 6, 2014

Language and privilege in Ukraine

When I was in high school I would occasionally use the n-word with my friends in the lunchroom. We reasoned that, since we weren't racist, we could use that word. Our intentions weren't to hurt anybody with that word, so we thought it was OK to use it. 

Later on, when I was in college, I felt assaulted by non-white students. We were in a "Race in the Urban Classroom" course, and my classmates and instructor talked about things like systemic discrimination and white privilege. I didn't know what I had to do with it because I had never discriminated against anyone.

I did field work in inner city elementary school classrooms. I genuinely cared about helping students of all races. I couldn't understand why someone would attack me for white privilege while I was helping non-whites.

After thinking hard about it, I made one big realization. I am not neutral. I am a race. That alone has meaning to people. Race exists in a context. You have a different relationship with it depending on when and where you are. Everybody's skin color (including my own) means something.

I realized that I had to be quiet, listen to other people, understand they weren't always attacking me when referring to white people, and then contribute to the conversation as a person of race. Realizing that I was a person of race was the first step to relinquishing my white privilege and power. 

And just like my skin color, words--including the n-word--are not neutral. Language may not carry inherent meaning, but it develops meaning over time. Because the history of the n-word is so violent and negative, I now find it best not to use it at all.

I felt like I became more well adjusted after this. I stopped being so defensive. I started to see myself not only as part of a race, but as part of a class, gender, and culture, all with meanings to people as well.

In terms of language I realize that my knowing English fluently is a big advantage. I'm pleased that I know it so well, but in certain situations I need to show that I am not (and English is not) superior to others. English is the "international language"  right now, but it has other meanings as well. It is the language of the Queen and ugly Americans. Two dominant world superpowers in the last several hundred years were English speaking countries--Great Britain and the United States. They are both extremely wealthy countries. I am from one of those countries. Their empires have exported the English language around the world. When immigrants come to the United States, they can speak their native language among themselves, but the reality is that they must speak English to people outside of their group. This was a disadvantage to Yulia and my grandparents when they immigrated, but as a native English speaker in America I could expect outsiders to speak to me in English. I didn't create that system, but I benefited from it while Yulia and my grandparents had more difficult experiences.

Obviously, white privilege and linguistic privilege are not the same things. Race is visual and labels a person before they have an opportunity to say or do anything. One cannot change races, but one can always learn a language. However, that does not change the fact that a person who speaks a dominant language enjoys certain benefits. They don't face the same "headwind" that non-speakers of that language face.

I often address this issue point blank. I teach English language learners and often talk about foreign accents. I tell them not to try and "fix" their accents. There are many different English accents around the word, and none of them is the "right" one. To me, it does not matter if they say "this" or "thees" just like it doesn't matter to me if someone says "water" or "watah." If their accent changes the meaning of a word, then it is important to change it, but otherwise it is not necessary. Of course, I also mention that I am quite liberal when it comes to language and that there may be people who disagree with me. It is important to be ready to deal with such opinions when they arise because they may feel unfair and demeaning to English language learners.

Yulia and I are grateful that we speak English fluently, but when traveling we do our best to remember that not everyone speaks English. Those who do are often going out of their way to accommodate us because we don't speak the local language. For example, when we were in Warsaw for a few days last summer we would say that we didn't understand Polish in Polish and then asked if the person we were talking to understood English. At restaurants we insisted on the Polish menu and used our knowledge of Ukrainian to figure out what the menu said (Polish and Ukrainian are very similar). Admittedly, these are token gestures, but this is what we feel is appropriate.

Because I think this way I did not expect the hostility to the Ukrainian language when I first came to Ukraine. Social and historical circumstances have created a country with many Russian and Ukrainian speakers. Most Ukrainians speak both languages. 

There are 150 million Russian speakers in the world, and it is the fifth most spoken language in the world. Russian speakers can travel to or live in many places outside of Russia, speak Russian, and expect others to understand what they are saying. Like English speakers, they enjoy a certain privilege.

In Ukraine, Russian has been promoted at the cost of the Ukrainian language. In Tsarist Russia, the publication of books in Ukrainian was illegal. In Soviet times the language of professionals and political elites was Russian. There was also discrimination against Ukrainian speakers. Yulia's grandmother once told me of a time when she was in a small store in Zaporizhya. While standing in line she was excited to see someone she knew there because she was far away from home. She and her friend talked to each other in Ukrainian. The line of people all stared at the two women, and , without saying a word, the store clerk escorted them outside. More recently, this is what is being said by some people. Olga Rudenko of the Kyiv Post writes how one man in Luhansk refuses to speak Ukrainian just because, as he puts it, it is the "pig's language."

But perhaps the most significant trauma to the Ukrainian people is the Holodomor. The Holodomor was a genocide. In the 1930s the Soviet government orchestrated an artificial famine in eastern and central Ukraine. The famine was targeted at ethnic Ukrainians. The government then used ethnic Russians to fill the vacuum that millions of starved Ukrainians left behind. The result is a large population of Russians and Russian speakers in this part of the country. The terror that many surviving Ukrainians felt (and feel) from this genocide has made them less willing to speak the Ukrainian language. 

From petty discrimination to outright genocide, these are the experiences that many Ukrainians have of the incursion of the Russian language in Ukraine. Of course, one could say that many people have negative experiences with Ukrainian speakers as well, just like white people can cite bad experiences with black people. But my point is not that one group has done bad things to another group and that they should be sorry for that. My point is that the Russian language enjoys a certain privilege in Ukraine because of these assaults.

Russian speakers can travel widely and speak Russian. In my opinion, that is not a bad thing. It is great to know Russian and to be able to communicate with many different people, have access to more literature, etc. But Ukrainian speakers can't do that with the Ukrainian language, and they are even limited in their own country. In Ukraine, only 28% of TV programs are in Ukrainian, and 60% of newspapers, 83% of magazines, and 87% of books are in Russian.

Since most Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian, one might logically ask, "Why not just speak Russian? In that way everyone could enjoy the benefits of speaking an international language." The major problem with this is that it reinforces the fact that Ukrainians were and arguably still are a colonized people. This evokes the ugly history of the Russian language and no matter how much some people may want to ignore or deny it, it will never go away.

But we don't think anger against Russian speakers is the best response. Some people know Russian better or just don't speak Ukrainian. We know how hard it is to learn another language, especially as an adult. In fact, people shouldn't be forced to speak any language. We don't think the goal for Ukrainian language proponents should be to get everyone to speak Ukrainian against their will. We think the collective conversation should focus on language itself and what it means to people.

While the history of the Russian language in Ukraine may be ugly, there are things Russian speakers can do. Being from the United States I can understand what it is like to speak a language that has gained prominence at the cost of native peoples and their languages. There is an increasing sense, for example, that Americans should not celebrate Christopher Columbus or Columbus Day. His entrance into the Americas spelled slavery and genocide for scores of Native Americans. Also, in the university, many English departments offer Native American literature courses. Although the literature is in English, these courses help Americans hear and remember the story of Native Americans. And Americans even incorporate the story of the injustice done to Indians in popular culture. The television show Parks and Recreation, for instance, takes place in a city hall. The murals of the city hall depict a shameful but true history of the fictional town. As Parks and Recreation shows, it is possible to call attention to and remember a dark collective history even in a comedy TV show. Although the racial discourse in America is far from perfect, Russian speakers in Ukraine could do similar things. Even though they cannot undo historical injustices, they can make history in the present by showing that speaking Russian in Ukraine does not always spell a threat.

In this way people will develop a deeper understanding of why there are different languages in the world. It will disrupt the myth that "this is just the language that people speak around here" as if language is naturally occurring and not a product of social and historical forces. When people understand this, they can understand why protecting any language is important. This will not only benefit Ukrainian and Russian, but all languages spoken in Ukraine. The whole conversation can then shift from people simply protecting the language they speak to actively protecting less privileged languages.


  1. In Lowes over here there are signs in the isles in English russian and Spanish, but not Ukrainian or Polish or such....

  2. Excellent post! So very true on so many levels.

  3. I am just reading this now. Brilliantly and compassionately outlines a thorny issue.
    Thank you for this.