Thursday, June 21, 2012

Georgia: Teaching While Black

"You are being rude to a guest in your country!"


As in the U.S. and every other country on the globe, racism exists in Georgia.

I wish Georgia would simply acknowledge this fact, and own it, but just as we do in America, Georgia discounts and dismisses the existence of racism.

In Georgia, the discounting sounds like this:
  • Georgians are curious
  • Because of long-time Soviet rule, Georgians have 'extreme interest' in people different from themselves
  • Georgian is a difficult language, and one might think a Georgian is being offensive when he really isn't

I accept all of the above.

But black teachers in Georgia sometimes experience things that fall squarely in the racism category, and I believe prospective teachers who are black need to know what to expect so they can make an informed decision about coming here.

The universal experience

If you come to Georgia to teach, and you're black, you'll experience what all teachers experience :
  • Great and beautiful times;
  • Kindness, generosity, and hospitality from Georgians; 
  • Home-stay challenges that all teachers encounter in various shapes and sizes; 
  • Freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer; and
  • Teaching pleasures and frustrations.   

In fact, one black colleague told me, "I have never felt like I was anything other than a beautiful princess." 

The black experience

You will frequently be the subject of: 
  • Staring and heads turning as you go by
  • Laughter - sometimes friendly, sometimes mocking
  • Strangers asking for a photo with them and their friends or family (including babies being placed in your arms)
  • Photos being taken of you without your permission

Generally speaking, my colleagues take the above in stride, depending on the perceived tone and friendliness of the folks doing the staring, etc. But there's a cumulative effect, and it does wear over time.

I'm white, and the closest experience I have of this is when I went to Ethiopia - I sometimes felt that I had to put on the armor before I went out, because I was always the person who looked and sounded different, always prompting attention - and some days I just didn't want to have to do that. It didn't matter that the attention was benign.

Black teachers in Georgia have also experienced the following: 
  • Referred to as 'monkey' or 'gorilla;'
  • Referred to as 'nigger' and 'zangi' (more on these words below)
  • Sexual harassment in public venues and circumstances, e.g. from a pharmacist, in front of other customers, while buying medication. Sexual harassment is not exclusive to black teachers by any means, but it seems to be more public or more aggressive with my black colleagues.
  • Physical intimidation

One white colleague who looked Georgian, but is not, received derisive comments from Georgian men when she walked with a black colleague. The Georgian men presume she is a Georgian woman in a romantic relationship with the black teacher.

Some of my white colleagues have heard their English-speaking, Georgian acquaintances share their prejudices about people who are black.

Some host families specify they don't want black teachers.

The darker a teacher's complexion, the more frequent and intense is the attention from Georgians.

Surprisingly, black teachers tend to experience more intense behaviors in the large cities than the towns and villages. 

'Zangi' and 'nigger'

When I first heard a Georgian (a woman in her 20s) use the word 'nigger' (within 3 weeks of my arrival in Georgia), I was shocked. When I asked her about it, she said it was simply how Georgians pronounce the word for the country of Nigeria, and that they tended to refer to all black people as from Nigeria ... 'nee-gare." Then a week later, when I heard a man in his 20s say the same word when a black university student walked by us on the street, I asked him about it. He said, oh, it's from the Russian word for black. Another person told me it was the Georgian pronunciation/twist on 'negro.' Later, it was explained to me that Georgians use it because of the rap songs they listen to. Note that I didn't initiate any of these conversations - I heard Georgians use this word when referring to black students or tourists.

The word 'zangi' is a puzzle. On one hand, English speakers are told it doesn't mean anything derogatory. On the other hand, we're sometimes told it means 'nigger,' which, if any of the above explanations are true, it isn't a derogatory word.  

Despite the protestations, though, there is something - difficult to put one's finger on, that has to do with the tone of voice, who says it (such as adolescent, smart-ass boys), the circumstances - that smacks of malignancy in 'zangi.'

The common denominator of all of the above is the universal claim there is nothing malicious meant by either of the words.  In a culture where it's OK to refer to students as 'stupid' and 'lazy,' maybe this is true in an inside-out, Daliesque way. 

Not all black teachers will hear both words. For example, one of my colleagues of color never heard the word 'nigger' during her entire year in Georgia, while for a period, it seemed I heard it used every few days. 


Should I come to Georgia if I'm black?

Georgia, at times, is an intense and surprising place for everyone, and stuff related to complexion is just one variable among many.

Only you know if you should come to Georgia.

I recommend that you seek out past and current teachers of color in Georgia and ask them about their experiences.

I think you'll find there's a continuum of negative experiences (from severe to mild) and the way teachers responded to those experiences. Some teachers experience only occasional annoyances while others are the subject of quite troubling incidents.

If you come: Strategies

If you do come - with your eyes open - then I suggest these strategies:

Don't suffer in silence! Let jerks know, in the moment, that you will not tolerate their rude behavior. One of my colleagues asked her hostess to write the note pictured at the top of this post.  Her experience was that when she called people on their behavior (in her case, it was mostly adolescent boys in a group), nearby Georgians supported her, either by chastising the offenders themselves - after she did so - or by letting her know they agreed with her response. Georgians respect strong people.

Report all incidents to TLG even if you don't expect/want TLG to do anything about them. The point is for TLG to get a realistic picture of how often black teachers experience negative, race-related attention. Currently, TLG's official position seems to be that racism does not exist in Georgia. 

If you do expect TLG to do something, be clear about what you want. For the most part, TLG is helpful. But if you think, for example, your regional representative is ineffective, go over her head and talk to "corporate" in Tbilisi. And if that person doesn't take you seriously, go up the line. Be persistent.

Don't isolate yourself - grab on to a buddy to share your experiences with. That person can help you keep things in perspective, to laugh, and also to tell you when to take things seriously and do something about it.

If you decide to come, I hope you have a grand adventure! Georgia has a lot to offer - and most Georgians feel embarrassed when they hear about the bad behaviors of some of their fellow citizens.


Dr. t. lee said...

This is an interesting post. Thank you for your insight.

Mzuri said...

Thanks; I appreciate your comment.

Anonymous said...


I am an ethnic Georgian living in the North America and I can definitely tell you that zangi is not derogatory term and simply means "negro" in the way it was used in the 50s in the US - neutral way. Do not forget that even if it sounds not terribly flattering it also figured in the the official documents of that era. Zangi is not a derogatory word but not flattering either - just neutral. It has a arabic etimology

Negro was translated and used into Russian Language as "Negr" and it in this form was often used in soviet news stories and newspaper articles of until probably 70s when it gradually became substituted by more respectful "chernokojiy" or black skinned. This is why when Georgians got to use the 2nd word "Negri" for referring to blacks they gave it more derogatory meaning to distinguish from old neutral term.

No normal Georgian person will be referring to blacks as blackskinned as it is not colloquial. Why do that when you can use Zangi if you wish to be neutral and use Negri if you want to convey a less than neutral attitude.

I want to stress that there is no word in Georgian that has the same feel as a dreaded N-word. Rap songs are being enjoyed for explicit masculinity - beats, rhythm and explosive verbal "music" not ever comprehending a culture enriching ebonics narrative of partying with loose women while enjoying exotic liquors and boasting about conquering business rivals of illicit pharmaceuticals trade.


Mzuri said...

Hi MS! Thanks for adding your thoughtful perspective on this.

Sleepless in Tblisi said...

Hello, I have a few pointer. I am a black American that have recently worked at the Embassy and daily I was looked at, whispered about and even called zangi. I inform my spouse every time we would go out to get ready to be in the spotlight or get ready to have all eyes on us. It was very frustrating that we couldn’t go anywhere in peace or not be the attraction of attention. Until you walk in any black person shoes, you will never feel the anguish, frustration and sorrow we feel.

To have the stigma that all blacks are bad is absurd. All races, ethnic groups, etc. have bad people in it. I continue to remind myself and family that ignorance is a bliss. People need to learn to get alone, love one another and to treat people like what they are Human. The only way o do that is we need to learn people culture and get to know people for who they are and not the color of their skin and learn they are not bad people. I have to live with prejudice in the USA and then to come here and live it I did not sign up for that but one thing, I do know I am a very strong individual.

Anyone that sit back and let prejudice happen on their watch is just as guilty as the individuals are.

My experience in Georgia was not damaged or dampened by uneducated people that were afraid of me because of my skin color. We continued to get out, explore the country Georgia, and faced hatred/racism head on.

Sleepless in Tbilisi

Mzuri said...

Thank you, Sleepless in Tblisi, for adding your personal experiences to this post. It reminded me of a moment when I'd only been in Georgia for a few weeks. My hostess and I were at a bus stop in Tblisi. A group of young men, who, based on their English accents, I believe may have been from Nigeria, were there also. A handful of Georgians approached me and asked if I would take a photo of them with the Nigerian group. I didn't think twice about it, and I asked the Nigerians if I could do so, and much to my surprise, they said, "No, no! This happens all the time to us and we can't do it anymore!"