Eliot Borenstein is Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU and editor of the All the Russias blog at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.
This undated file image released by the FBI shows Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (AFP/FBI/Getty Images)
What do Americans see when they look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? And do Russians see the same thing?
What do Americans see when they look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? And do Russians see the same thing?
This week, the court is selecting a jury for Tsarnaev’s trial on charges stemming from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. As any viewer of “Law and Order”knows, Tsarnaev is to be tried by a “jury of his peers.” But, as Masha Gessen points out in a recent New Yorker post, “very few of the twelve hundred prospective jurors resemble Tsarnaev.”
This question of “resemblance” could have real-world consequences. In a recent study, Northwestern University professor Nour Kteily found that participants were significantly more likely to demand harsher penalties for the Tsarnaevs if they believed the brothers were “not white.” (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with police after the bombing.)
The bombers’ racial identity has been a thorny issue for some time now. It was a problem even before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev himself had been named in the case. One of the many instructive ironies surrounding the intense speculation about the Boston bombings involves the racial identity of the suspects: from the elusive “dark-skinned male” and columnist David Sirota’s hopes that the bomber would prove to be a “white American” to the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers as the alleged bombers, the American media and blogosphere have puzzled over the extent of the men’s whiteness.
As Peter Beinart asked in The Daily Beast, “Are the Tsarnaevs White?” Beinart does a fine job reminding us that whiteness has long been a historically constructed and contested category in America, one that cannot be reduced merely to skin tone.
The history of immigration and assimilation in the United States is the history of the evolution of whiteness. As recently as 1988, I remember a limo driver in southern New Jersey explaining to me that Princeton was so ritzy “you had to be white or Italian to live there.” The Italians, Irish and Jews eventually overcame enough stigma to be considered white, but they were not “white” from the beginning. The color line is still decisive: Visible shades of brown or gold are an insurmountable impediment.
Beinart’s conclusion is that the obstacle to the Tsarnaevs’ whiteness is Islam, which in contemporary America has the effect of adding invisible layers of brown to otherwise pale skin. This makes sense as far as it goes, but it leaves out a crucial component for understanding the Tsarnaevs’ position on the color wheel: their racial identity before their arrival in the United States. Back in the Russian Federation, were the Tsarnaevs “white”? If they weren’t, what were they?
Billngual [sic-- the Post incresingly neglects copyediting] speakers of Russian and English all recognize the disconnect between the terms “Caucasian” (i.e., “white”) and “Caucasian” (person from the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union); for Russian speakers, the two terms are functionally opposite. What, then, are “people of Caucasian nationality” (as the Russian bureaucratic phrase would have it)? Can their difference be mapped onto a grid of whiteness and non-whiteness?
Part of the problem in mediating between American and Russian understandings of difference is that Americans are accustomed to seeing race as the default category for otherness. The American preoccupation with race as a primal category makes complete sense, given that the country is haunted by not one, but two racial original sins (native American genocide and the enslavement and mass murder of Africans and their descendants). The power of American racial discourse threatens to suck the life out of other analytic categories; in the public sphere, the only way we can even broach issues of social class is to conceive of them as issues of race.
Russia is another matter entirety. Social class is not a taboo topic, and the notion of “race” has played itself out quite differently. Scholars of the (post-) Soviet Union traditionally ignored the very category as irrelevant (though that has started to change in the past decade). Russian discourses of race overlap with their American counterparts, but only in part. Rather, race in Russia functions within the much more common category of “ethnicity” or “nationality.”(Please note that according to the U.S. Census "hispanic" -- unlike "black" or "white" -- is not considered a "racial," but "ethnic" category.)
On the one hand, ethnic Russianness is certainly ascribed a default whiteness, but this does not necessarily translate to Russians thinking of themselves primarily as “white.” Instead, the equivalent to the American understanding of “Caucasian” is “European.” Whiteness is invoked conversationally as a function of status and comfort, with a casualness that would cause their American interlocutors to, well, blanch. Georgia State University professor Jennifer Patico provides an example of a common Russian expression when she tells of a woman who is proud of her improved housing accommodations: “We are now living like white people.” Here whiteness points to the speaker (who is, of course, white) in an unselfconscious fashion that would be impossible in the United States: whiteness without guilt.
In the absence of a significant population of descendants from Africa [JB -- but let's not forget Pushkin], race and color cannot play themselves out in Russia along American lines. The former empire’s vast Asian population can be and is understood in racial terms, but is spoken of more often in terms of ethnicity and even civilization. Here Russia’s own preoccupation with geography trumps America’s preoccupation with race: Russia has historically been far more concerned with its status as Eastern or Western, Asian or European, than it has with skin color or “scientific” understandings of race.
This does not mean that no one in Russia is “black.” The Russian word for “black” has recently started to be applied to people of African descent (as part of a compound term, “black-skinned”), but only as a reluctant adoption of American terminology and in the face of English speakers’ discomfort with “negr”, [again, sloppy copyediting; comma should be before the quotation mark, according to standard American usage] the traditional Russian term. The reluctance stems from the fact that “black” as a categorical descriptor of human beings is, in Russian, negative by definition. And it is applied not according to skin color, but to hair color: In Russia, the “blacks” are the people from the Caucasus. That is, the “Caucasians,” and anyone who might look like them.
When I’m in Moscow, I expect to be stopped by police and asked for my documents on a fairly regular basis. With the protection of my magical American passport, I usually treat it as something of a sport, baiting younger, Chechen-hunting police officers who have lost the Soviet-era knack for spotting a Jew. But the time that I did not have my passport with me, I was almost taken to the local precinct for processing, while the officer who detained me kept asking me pointed questions about my “ethnicity.” By the end, he excused himself by saying, “I’m sure this kind of thing happens in your country all the time.” I wanted to tell him, “No, it doesn’t,” because I didn’t want to let him off the hook so easily. But I realized that a more truthful answer would be, “It doesn’t happen to white people.”
And that was the point: I was experiencing contradictory definitions of whiteness while sitting in a Russian police van. To be clear: The amount of sympathy a privileged white American should be able to get from this incident is exactly zero. But I do find it enlightening.
Just as Soviet Jews, who were not Russian by definition, became “Russians” in America, it is only by coming to the United States that the Tsarnaevs became fully white. And in the process, reminded us once again of just how tenuous the category actually is.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."